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No Re-Peet's in Ohio: Some Thoughts from a Former Bay Area Regular

Peet's Clintonville during more hopeful times
First off: a little Cliff's Notes version about my coffee history. For almost four decades of my life, I was not a regular coffee drinker. My household was a world of Taster's Choice and Maxwell House, and the only use for coffee for me was a dipping liquid for glazed donuts (mmmm, glazed donuts dipped in coffee.)

I honestly did not get all the hubbub about the more expensive coffees such as those sold by Starbucks. When I was convinced to go with family or friends out for coffee, I would grab a coffee drink of some sort, but it generally didn't do a thing for me. My preferred caffeine fix sources then were either gobs of pop or, for a brief time, energy drinks.

Then came a time where I decided it was time to get off the energy drinks. Going back to gallons of pop was not a choice, so coffee was the logical replacement option. Getting in as early as I did to work meant my options were very limited, but luckily I found Peet's, whose stores were one of the few open during those creaky early morning hours I stumbled into town. It was Peet's who provided me my gateway java into the world of better coffee.

When I first heard they were branching out to the Midwest, my immediate reaction was one of excitement: a part of my personal history would now be a proverbial stone's throw away from me. But as time progressed, based on what I was saw from them (two waves of store closures before the final death knell) and some of my own personal experiences, I grew much more skeptical about their move. Their sudden closing earlier this week came as no surprise to me, and provided the exclamation point for a post I had been thinking of writing for awhile regarding their lack of success.

So why did Peet's fail in the Midwest? I think much of it comes down to one word: loyalty

Caribou Coffee Loyalty: A foray into coffee by JABenckiser, the German conglomerate more known for their fashion-related brands, seemed a bit odd in 2012, but they must have known that they had acquired two coffee chains with strong loyalties in both the Midwest-based Caribou and the West Coast-based Peet's. I wonder if they expected anything else other than a negative reaction when they essentially told one side of that loyalty quotient that it was time to be loyal to the other side without any good reason put forward to earn that loyalty.

I personally experienced the strength of that loyalty with several Caribou Coffee fans/colleagues of mine who were none too happy with the news. Their first tastings of their product pretty much sealed the deal, as they remarked how "Starbucks-like" it was and how they missed the more subtler-coffee shadings of their now departed Caribou drinks. Many others must have felt similarly and never transferred their loyalty to the newly branded stores: the downtown Peet's location, the closest to my workplace and in a prime foot-traffic spot in the Huntington Building, didn't last a year and was a victim of the second wave of store closings.

Local Coffee Loyalty: Peet's was essentially a local brand in the Bay Area (their first store opened up in 1966 in Berkeley) but was essentially an outsider in the Midwest. As much as I appreciated them in the Bay Area, there are a multitude of local Columbus-area coffee shops that I would frequent over Peet's were they next to each other on the block. Not that I didn't drop by Peet's while they were here, but new local loyalties kept my visits to a minimum. And it was for certain that anyone with a strong association to any of this area's fine local coffee shops would NOT suddenly find Peet's as a "must-visit" on their coffee rounds.

Starbucks Loyalty: In terms of chain coffee, Peet's coffee is very similar in style to Starbucks (essentially, Starbucks based their coffee model from Peet's original store.) There are people who would say there is a difference, but the number of people here who would say that are probably awfully small here in the Midwest. Another aspect is the loyalty programs: Peet's does have its own "Peetniks" program that provides certain perks for loyal customers. However, that program has nowhere near the marketing clout and instant gratification factor of Starbucks' Rewards program. This factor, combined with Starbucks' sheer presence (50 locations popped up in the Starbucks website-based locator when I typed in Columbus, OH) and other ancillary aspects (e.g. much more in the way of food options) meant you'd have few defectors from this populace.

The "Why You Should Show Loyalty To Us" Factor: I attended some of Peet's soft-opening events where they offered free coffee to curious folks, I received updates on the construction, but got no good feedback from those hosting those events as to what made Peet's coffee special. I seemed to know more about history of Peet's and the role that founder Alfred Peet played in fashioning the blueprint for the modern coffee business than the people manning these events.

For me, it seemed that anything that would make Peet's special, whether it be the history, the way it roasts it coffee, etc., did not get communicated very well to their potential customers as well as their surrounding communities. I came across a very well-written Linked In post by Cara Posey, a Marketing, Communications, & Public Affairs Professional, that explained this aspect quite well.

As it stands, Peet's is gone and a number of workers received a fairly rude holiday surprise in the form of a pink slip (in a nice gesture, the company did say that employees were receiving at six weeks of pay and benefits, with additional severance pay given based on previous tenure.) In the Columbus-area coffee scene as a whole, their departure is not a huge loss. I am sure on travels back to the Bay Area, I will drop by a Peet's and have a cup for old times sake.

In its stead, I would love to see a local coffee provider move into one the last two locations now left empty with the departure. I am sure the old Peet's Clintonville location, or any of the two former Caribou locations in Upper Arlington can be a viable coffeehouse again with the right vendor.

And there are plenty of other places in the metro ripe for a good neighborhood coffeehouse. Starbucks alone dot much of the Northwest area around Henderson and Bethel out to Riverside, as well as the Sawmill Road Corridor - why not somewhere here? Or perhaps about Franklinton close to the burgeoning 400 West Rich complex? I cross my fingers that there will be more locally-based java goodness to explore in the near future. 

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