With construction underway at College and Alcatraz Avenues for a ninth Peet's store in Berkeley, the locally grown coffee company is facing criticism for losing its roots and becoming just another corporate coffee chain.
An article in the East Bay Express titled, How Peet's Starbucked Itself, claims that the company is "nearly unrecognizable" from what it was when the first store opened up in the Gourmet Ghetto in 1966. Peet's is now nearing 200 stores nationwide, and the price of growth may have been a reduction in the quality of the product, the knowledgeability and contentment of the staff, and the satisfaction of the customer.
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Berkeley Patch spoke to a Peet's barista about the changing culture at Peet's. While wishing to remain anonymous to protect her job, she agreed that Peet's is becoming a more difficult place to work.
[Updated 6 p.m. Sept. 22] In response to the following claims, a Peet's spokesperson said: “We feel very comfortable that all our employees are treated fairly and with respect. Beyond that we have no further comment.”
The most "obnoxious" change has been the pay raise policy, the Peet's barista said. "They no longer give us raises twice a year," she said. "Now they only give us raises once a year."
The Peet's barista said has worked for the company for more than five years and makes less than $10 an hour. Raises range from around 10 to 25 cents per hour, which means that most employees only see an hourly wage increase of a dime or two per year. "It's really demoralizing," she said.
Disciplinary procedures have also become more rigid, and there is no longer any differentiation between new employees and those with years of seniority, she said. Previously, staff who had been with the company for six months or less were given less leeway than those who had been with Peet's for years. Managers had the ability to decide on a case-by-case basis whether disciplinary action was necessary — and it usually wasn't, where there was a legitimate reason.
Now, everyone works from the same points system. Employees who reach six points in a year can be terminated. Being five to twenty minutes late means one point. Being more than twenty minutes late counts for two. Calling less than two hours ahead to cancel your shift, for any reason including sickness, equals two disciplinary points. With only six allowances per year for being late or getting sick at the last minute, the result is more staff being fired, and new staff being brought in.
"They make it really easy to fire people for minor offenses," said the Peet's barista. "They want to have a higher turnover rate so they don't have to pay us as much."
She added that there are also new demands to work faster and sell more. In addition to having to make drinks in under three minutes, staff must ask every customer if "you'd like a pastry with that" and can be disciplined if they don't.
There is additional pressure from secret shoppers, who test staff on a variety of measures. Anyone scoring under 90 percent can face disciplinary action or, at the very least, a verbal warning. Sometimes meeting all the standards is impossible in an under-staffed, busy store during peak times, said the Peet's employee. Even in the midst of a mad rush with only a couple of staff members on the floor, employees can be "written up" for not cleaning the bathrooms or, even, failing to make sure their customers are greeted and thanked the specified number of times.
The problem seems to stem from the fact that Peet's isn't equipped to deal with its own success. The company is driving for profit, and so employees are being pushed harder while managers are cutting back on staff hours. They're also cutting back on training. Fewer staff on the floor, with less experience and higher productivity goals is a recipe for major problems, according to the Peet's employee.
"They're trying to be corporate but they don't have enough experience so they make all these blunders," she said. For example, Peet's switched out its cleaning products for cheaper versions and then didn't train the staff how to use them, which resulted in injuries, according to the Peet's staff member.
The company also seems to regularly underestimate the number of staff members needed to work during the busiest days of the year, such as holidays. The result is that a lot of customers end up walking out, according to the Peet's staff member, who said that she has worked shifts up to 12 hours long without a break due to the store being understaffed.
"Peet's wants to be Starbucks but it doesn't have all the kinks worked out," she said. "It doesn't know how to look after its employees. Starbucks has it worked out down to a science. Peet's is trying all these random things. "
The Peet's barista said that recently she was pressured into signing an agreement that waived her right to a lunch break during six-hour shifts. "I signed it because my manager made it seem like I wouldn't get as many hours if I didn't," she said.
Other money-saving measures have included switching the old cups and lids for cheaper, thinner versions. Even the merchandise is cheaply made, according to the Peet's employee. "Starbucks has better quality stuff, like their travel mugs," she said. "Ours all leak."
And the customers are noticing the difference.
"We've had customers express concern about our quality," she said. "We get a lot of complaints about it being too busy and the lines being too long."
The cultural struggle between the local coffee shop and its alter-ego, the corporate chain, is perhaps also defined by the company's dress-code policy. Peet's can't decide whether its tattooed and pierced employees should be made to cover up or not, and keeps switching back and forth on the rules.
Despite the changes to the company in the past few years, the barista added that the flexibility of the job and the comprehensive medical plan has kept her in the Peet's apron.
"I see what they're trying to do but they're just not doing it right," she said. "They're trying too hard."