No, craft coffee is not an essential good or service

Illustration of barista handing coffee to customer with virus in air
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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On March 16, six Bay Area counties took unprecedented action to slow the spread of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus. On March 17, citizens in San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda counties fell under a shelter-in-place order that restricts all nonessential movement and activity in an attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve. Despite the clear sense of urgency exhibited by California’s leaders, however, some corporations across the state have sidestepped the ordinance. For Bay Area residents and coffee lovers abound, one corporation’s negligence is particularly disheartening: Peet’s Coffee.

Peet’s Coffee is a Bay Area staple. Quickly after its 1966 opening, Alfred Peet’s humble Berkeley coffee shop became a hot spot for coffee lovers across the region. From the beginning, Peet’s stood out for its signature dark roast coffee and, although it’s been somewhat overshadowed by Starbucks and its colorful variety of beverages, Peet’s remains a favorite for “serious” coffee-drinkers across the Bay Area. Unlike other chain coffee shops, Peet’s is dedicated to responsibly sourcing its beans from trained coffee farmers, who grow their crops in accordance with climate guidelines and adhere to strict ethical standards. In many ways, its commitment to “social responsibility” is remarkable. Now, however, the COVID-19 crisis is testing the limits of that commitment — and so far, it’s clear that Peet’s employees do not benefit from the moral principles that the corporation applies to its product.

In a March 18 Instagram post, Peet’s announced an unthinkable decision: It would remain open, despite the growing menace of COVID-19 that forced other nonessential corporations to temporarily shut their doors. The post enumerated several procedural changes aimed at reducing the risk of spread inside its coffee bars. For example, in a feeble attempt to uphold social distancing tactics, Peet’s will now require its stores to serve only to-go beverages and will close all seating areas for the time being. 

While well-intentioned, this is a woefully insufficient response to a disease as transmittable as coronavirus, which can remain viable in the air for three hours after an infected person coughs or sneezes; on cardboard, like the sleeves that hug every to-go cup, the virus can dwell for 24 hours. Worse still, on plastic and stainless steel, coronavirus thrives for three days. Peet’s Coffee baristas have been diligently sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, but one harrowing fact remains: miss a spot and you may still be susceptible to the virus.

In its statement of values, Peet’s promises that “the only thing (it) loves more than coffee is (its) people.” And, in the Instagram post announcing its decision to remain open, Peet’s echoes that sentiment by articulating a simple “priority” during this tumultuous time: “support(ing) our employees and communities.” This proclamation is immediately followed by an ambiguous promise to temporarily close coffee bars that don’t have “community interest in staying open” — in this innocuous phrase, Peet’s seems to reveal its true priority.

Recall that just a sentence before this proposal, Peet’s had distinguished its employees from its communities. Now, it promises to close in accordance with fluctuating “community interest,” which seems to be corporate code for consumer interest. Peet’s will close, only once turning a profit becomes impossible; employees and their interests do not seem to be a true variable in this equation.

Although Peet’s has rightfully and responsibly allowed employees at its corporate headquarters to work from home, these employees do not interface with the general public in the way that baristas do. Baristas, of course, can’t work from home; neither can retail workers at any of the other stores that have closed in an effort to flatten the curve. Moreover, major corporations — such as Disney, T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, Claire’s, Hallmark and IKEA — are providing their workers with some measure of wages and benefits, while they make the difficult decision to momentarily cease operation. Even Starbucks has displayed more compassion than Peet’s by moving service to drive-thru or delivery only and paying employees for 30 days, whether or not they show up for work.

Where Starbucks has drive-thrus, Peet’s has values. Yet, Peet’s baristas have not seen the company’s upstanding principles actualized in this time of crisis. Storefront employees have been presented with a choice as clear as it is unjust: They must either abstain from work and sacrifice limited sick hours (if they’re lucky enough to have any), or they must risk their health and the health of others in order to earn a paycheck.

As the virus accelerated, I knew my days as a barista were numbered. I suffer from asthma, which I treat with an inhaler and sometimes steroids. When I was 14, I was at sleep-away camp when my lung capacity inexplicably dropped to 50%. My parents couldn’t get to me and were forced to wait as I recovered in the infirmary. COVID-19’s respiratory symptoms reasonably concerned my parents. I knew I couldn’t keep my job and my health, so I made the difficult choice to resign.

The freedom to make that choice, though, is a privilege. I had a second job to fall back on, and I was able to move back to my parents’ house. Most of my coworkers don’t have that luxury. I communicate regularly with them, and even from afar, their fear is palpable. It’s a range of fear, of course. They fear everything from the virus itself to infecting others to losing their jobs. But they soldier on because, above all else, they fear what might happen to their income if they choose to make the health-conscious decision. Unfortunately, Peet’s Coffee’s response to this crisis fans the flames of fear in every direction.

The simple fact is that craft coffee is not an essential good or service. A triple-shot oat milk latte will not protect you from the spread of a mysterious respiratory illness. A chicken chorizo flatbread will not feed you and your family for weeks of quarantine. To claim to provide an indispensable product is to operate under grossly false pretenses. Businesses that remain open seem to do so more for greed than for the common good. Doing so is the most socially irresponsible thing a corporation can do.

Teddy Lake is a senior at UC Berkeley studying political science. She is a former ASUC senator.