Coals to Newcastle? Peet's joins three other espresso outfits at same corner

It might strike some as caffeine overkill, but manager Angela Billington says it made perfect sense to open up a new Peet's Coffee & Tea outlet at a corner where a Starbucks and a Tully's already battle for supremacy and where the neighborhood-based Caffè Ladro is just two doors down.

Founded in Berkley, Calif., more than four decades ago, Peet's had been a fixture in the Larry's Markets on Mercer Street and in the rest of Puget Sound area before the grocery chain shut down last year, she said.

Factor in a healthy mail-order business in Queen Anne even before the company set up shop in Larry's, along with a space becoming available when Ravenna Gardens suddenly left, and company officials jumped at the chance, according to Billington. "We just really wanted a way to come back to Queen Anne.

"Clearly, this is a neighborhood that appreciates specialty coffee," she added. Furthermore, Billington said, there's enough room to provide a niche market for everyone's tastes in coffee. "It really seems to me there's room for everyone."

Peet's holds a distinctive niche in the coffee business, she stressed. "In many, many ways, we are still doing things ... exactly the way Mr. Peet did," Billington said. In fact, she noted, Starbucks went to Peet's for help when the Seattle-based company was first launched.

A hallmark of the Peet's brand of coffee is deep roasting done by hand and only in small batches to preserve freshness, Billington said. "Freshness is so critical to the flavor of a cup of coffee."

Roasted in California by a small team of eight people who have an average of 15 years of experience each, the beans are shipped the same day they are roasted, and they are delivered to each outlet a couple of times a week, she said.

The company also prides itself on social responsibility and ecological values at the both the growers' and store levels, she said. To be sure, the company here has a manager of social responsibility, Erica Hess.

"We try to get involved with the growers," said Billington, who added the approach includes building schools and clinics in the countries where the coffees are grown.

Peet's sells 35 different kinds of tea at the Queen Anne store, and more are available online, she said, conceding that the company sells more coffee than tea.

The coffee Peet's sells comes from three different regions: Central and South America, Africa and Pacific Rim countries, Billington said. She uses the same kind of terms wine connoisseurs use to describe the tastes of different coffees. For example, African coffee has a "flowery, fruity quality," while Pacific coffee has an "earthy, woodsy characteristic," Billington said.

Prices are reasonable, she said, but you get what you pay for. Peet's house blend sells for $9.95 a pound, but the top-of-the-line Kona Reserve Gift coffee will cost the shopper $26.95 for half a pound.

Thirteen people are working at the Queen Anne Peet's, Billington said, and the place was full of customers the afternoon she was interviewed last week.

Todd Holdridge was one of them. He said he works in the neighborhood and is familiar with Peet's from when he lived in California.

Holdridge doesn't see a problem with having four espresso outfits so close together. "I've been to all of them, and I'll probably continue to go to all of them," he said. Pressed on the issue, though, Holdridge said he thought Peet's was "a little bit better" than the others.

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