Starbucks co-founder talks about early days, launching Redhook and Seattle Weekly, too
Gordon Bowker tires of telling the story about how Starbucks — the coffee store and the name — was his idea. Besides not wanting to...
Seattle Times business reporter
Gordon Bowker tires of telling the story about how Starbucks — the coffee store and the name — was his idea. Besides not wanting to take all the credit, Bowker has moved on.
After co-founding Starbucks, he co-launched Redhook Ale Brewery and pushed David Brewster to start Seattle Weekly — investing in and freelancing for the tab. He served on the board of Childhaven, a nonprofit that cares for neglected and abused children, and renamed it. Bowker's best friend remains Jerry Baldwin, a college roommate and another Starbucks co-founder.
Both sit on the board of Peet's Coffee & Tea, a company they bought 24 years ago and which is now publicly traded. Bowker will retire from Peet's board on May 21.
When Bowker agreed to an interview last month, he chose the Peet's store in Fremont as the venue. In a balcony overlooking the noisy coffee bar, Bowker, 65, spoke slowly and in a soft, resonant voice about his life, his businesses and why he agreed to talk about himself.
He also laughed and occasionally broke into song. Here is an edited version of the interview:
Q: Why don't you give interviews more often?
A: Most interviews have to do with the founding of Starbucks, and I feel like it's been written about so many times that nothing is gained.
Q: What did you want to be growing up?
A: I thought I should go to the Naval Academy and become a naval officer and follow in my father's footsteps. I thought about being an architect when I was in grade school, and then later on I wanted to be a writer. It was generational, I think. All the people I hung out with at least professed to be interested in literature. So we would argue about books and the great American novel. It's something you don't see so much anymore, but it was a way of posing when you were in high school and college. I think it might have been a way of trying to impress girls.
Q: Your friends say you spend a lot of time walking and thinking. What do you think about?
A: Having been raised Catholic, I spent a lot of time thinking about philosophical and theological matters. I'm no longer a Catholic, and it's hard to know how to describe myself in those terms. I'm not an atheist; I'm not an agnostic. I'm certainly not interested in organized religion of any kind.
Then I used to think about business development a lot because, and this is where it gets pretty abstruse ... There's a contrarian aspect to my thinking.
I was talking to my daughter yesterday. We were lamenting the closure of Sunset Bowl and the disappearance of bowling alleys in the city, and she said, "Well, I suppose that's just the way it goes. Land's too valuable." And I said, "Yeah, but I bet somebody could figure out a way to make a bowling alley very successful now in Seattle." I'm not going to do it, but at one time I would've thought, "They're all closing down, so there must be a way for bowling alleys to work really well." Then my juices get flowing.
Q: Where does that reasoning come from?
A: It seems like an opportunity is created in that environment. When we were starting Redhook, the second person I told about Redhook was an investment banker. We wanted his advice on starting a small brewery. He said, "Start a brewery, ha ha ha. Breweries don't start up, they shut down." As soon as he said that, I thought, "It's a sure thing."
Q: You like to prove smart people wrong. Why?
A: There is a certain satisfaction to it, of course, but that's not really it. Something's been overlooked. They're not looking at it the same way that you need to look at it to make it work.
Q: You're also a big reader. What do you like to read?
A: I've been reading Roman history and historical novels from the period of the Roman Republic and Empire. I read a lot of British travel books from between the two World Wars — Robert Byron and Peter Fleming and authors like that. I read espionage novels, and Umberto Eco is one of my favorite authors.
Q: Do you read business books?
A: No. They're not very interesting.
Q: Why not write one?
A: Whatever insights I may have had are generationally based. They were based on what I saw people my own age or a little older or a little younger wanting but not realizing that they wanted. I don't have that same insight for business now, unless it's bowling alleys.
Q: You used to recite the complimentary prayer aloud on airline flights. Why?
A: I really resented them putting the prayer there in the first place. Everyone has a certain amount of fear of flying, so what's the idea of putting a prayer on there? Please don't crash? God help us, don't crash? I thought, you know, if they had the guts to put the prayer out there in the first place, what did they expect people to do with it? So I would read it out loud. I also was curious what kind of effect that would have. The flight attendants didn't like it at all.
Q: Why didn't you start Starbucks and Redhook on your own?
A: I had other things to do. It takes a lot of time to do a business like that. Management is not really one of my strengths or one of my interests. I'm more interested in the idea.
Q: Is that why you found friends to help you start Starbucks?
A: I think there's a certain aspect of collegiality and of surrogate-family creation that's involved in those early-stage small businesses where you're doing something together. I think that was important to me on an emotional level.
Q: To not go it alone?
A: Yeah, and maybe to compensate for childhood development.
Q: Your father dying?
A: Either my father or something that I wasn't getting when I was a child. But that's just idle speculation.
Q: How did you come up with the name "Starbucks"?
A: It's sort of like writing the Council of Nicaea, choosing which Gospels to include in the New Testament. Some are apocryphal and some are factual.
My recollection is this: We were thinking of all kinds of names and came desperately close to calling it Cargo House, which would have been a terrible, terrible mistake. Terry Heckler [with whom Bowker owned an advertising agency] mentioned in an offhand way that he thought words that begin with "st" were powerful words. I thought about that and I said, yeah, that's right, so I did a list of "st" words.
Somebody somehow came up with an old mining map of the Cascades and Mount Rainier, and there was an old mining town called Starbo. As soon as I saw Starbo, I, of course, jumped to Melville's first mate [named Starbuck] in Moby-Dick. But Moby-Dick didn't have anything to do with Starbucks directly; it was only coincidental that the sound seemed to make sense. A lot of times you'll see references to the coffee-loving first mate of the Pequod. And then somebody said to me, well no, it wasn't that he loved coffee in the book, it was that he loved coffee in the movie. I don't think even Scarecrow Video has a copy of that movie. Moby-Dick has nothing to do with coffee as far as I know.
Q: How about the name "Redhook"?
A: By that time, I'd been compiling lists of names, and the methodology I used was to take the list and indiscriminately choose the ones I thought were promising, maybe 100 or so. I finally got down to about six names. I was sitting at a cafe at First and Virginia Street, and I crossed off the others one by one, and there was Redhook staring me in the face. At the time, I didn't know it was the name of an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn. I have a propensity for using names that have "k"s in them. I like the plosive quality of the sound, the way it cuts through the air.
Q: Where did the idea of a brewery come from?
A: When I was staying at Emmanuel College in England [during a break from the University of San Francisco] on my way to the continent, certainly that was a big part of it. I went on to Germany, and beer is a big part of the culture there as well.
It was clear to us when we [the Heckler Bowker ad agency] started doing the Rainier [Brewery] work that American lager beers all tasted exactly alike. They all claimed to use the finest hops and grains and tried to make a quality differentiation that really wasn't there. I had this romantic image of a small brewery and a revival of the craft of brewing, even though I knew nothing about it.
I was introduced to a book called the "World Guide to Beer" by Michael Jackson with all the diverse beer styles that existed in the world. I later got to know Michael, and this is another reason that I accepted this interview: Michael Jackson, who was an enormous influence on me when we were starting Redhook, and Alfred Peet, who was the founder of the specialty-coffee movement in the U.S. — The New York Times carried both their obits on the same page last year. I hadn't known that Michael had died or even that he was ill, so it was an enormous shock to me to see both their photographs on the same page of The New York Times, and I thought, wow, things are really changing.
Q: Redhook has had trouble making a profit. What went wrong?
A: It grew too quickly, and we didn't understand that there were low barriers to entry into the field. So right away there were many, many, many new breweries that jumped on the bandwagon. That was why we did the distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch, because we wanted to guarantee distribution.
Q: How did Heckler Bowker come up with its advertising ideas?
A: We would think about ideas independently, and the staff would meet and hash out ideas. One example is the falling bottlecaps (a TV spot for Rainier beer with bottlecaps falling in the shape of an "R"). We didn't have a soundtrack, so this is an example of when I went on one of my walks, and I was walking down the waterfront and I started humming Cole Porter's "You Are The Tops."
(Sings:) You are the tops, you are Rainier Beer. You are the tops, Mountain fresh and clear, with the finest water, barley, malt and hops. So when you grab a bottle, grab the tops.
And I said, "OK, that's it. We got it."
Q: Do you feel that these businesses made you rich? Do you wish you'd stay in any of them for longer?
A: They did make me rich, rich enough. And no, I didn't want to stay in any of them any longer, and I have no regrets about selling when I did. The problems that businesses have at that size are not really interesting to me.
Q: Do you try to find people who might do it, say "Here's an idea, do what you want with it"?
A: Occasionally, but it really requires so much energy, dedication, effort and total commitment that it's unfair to do that now, because I'm not able to give that much of myself to it.
Q: How do you spend your time?
A: I'm on Peet's board, and it seems like my days are full, but it's hard to tell you. I'm going to the Great Barrier Reef [this month] snorkeling. I spend a lot of time in Italy. I spend a lot of time with my family.
Q: Do you meditate?
A: I look at the ceiling a lot.
Q: Where do you look at the ceiling?
A: I have an office at home and a couch.
Q: What is Hawaiian slack key guitar music?
A: The Hawaiians call it ki ho'alu, and it's really songs played in certain tunings. They developed tunings where strumming the guitar with your right hand produced a complete chord. You didn't have to use your left hand to do it, and then the thumb was used for the base line.
The joke is that there are more tunings than there are songs. And it's a wonderful sound, and I've been able to know some of the musicians in Hawaii and become involved with people who produce CDs.
Q: How did you become interested in it?
A: Somebody slipped me a CD that was done by the Gabby Pahinui [Hawaiian] Band, and I was hooked. The way I got introduced into the fraternity was about 10 years ago. We had a concert for friends at our house and Led Kapaana and Gabby's son, Cyril, performed.
Q: What have you done with the music?
A: Right now it's just CD production but on a kind of intermittent basis.
Q: What was the Autobistro that you invested in in the 1990s, and what happened to it?
A: It was intended to be a high-quality fast-food restaurant. We built a prototype in Southern California on the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a spectacular building with the entire structure above the drive-through portion. You just drove through, put your order in and you got bistro food instead of fast food. It came down a dumbwaiter.
Q: Was it your idea?
A: It was a collaborative idea.
Q: Why didn't it work out?
A: Undercapitalization was a problem. The specific location and real estate were a problem. A prototype was all we built. Some trade magazine gave it the "best new restaurant concept of the year" award.
Q: Is there one business you consider the most successful or somehow the superlative?
A: None of the businesses took the course I originally imagined for them, but in a way how could they? It's like having a child: You don't know what that child's going to be when he or she grows up.
For the Weekly, for example, there was no way — and all newspapers share this now — there was no way we could anticipate the development of classified ads on the Internet and how that would have affected the publishing business. The Weekly today is what it is, and hopefully it'll be around for long time. But it's much different than what we'd originally done.
Q: How has it changed?
A: It may be just changes in our culture, but we did more arts coverage, more politics. Lifestyle stuff was just emerging as a major subject area for publications.
The fact that Starbucks would become a multibillion-dollar company, I didn't have that in mind. The credit for that is for other people, it's not me. But the company was successful for about 12 years. We never lost money, we always made money.
Redhook, I thought that there would be more breweries, but I didn't see Redhook attempting to become the world's largest microbrewery, which was sort of a contradiction in terms for me.
Q: What do you like about Peet's?
A: For one thing, you can see baristas making the drinks by hand, not pushing buttons. All the coffee is roasted to order; there's no warehouse. It's shipped the day it's roasted.
You can also get your coffee in porcelain. Here comes a guy who's bringing his tea up and steeping his tea in the little pot.
Quality as a sustainable business philosophy is important to me, so the fact that Peet's has maintained those standards is very rewarding to me.
Q: What's your favorite beer?
A: I lost my taste for beer shortly after we started Redhook. It's not the beer that I don't like. It's the aftertaste of hops, that feeling that comes back about 20 minutes after you've had a beer. It seems really unpleasant to me. So I don't drink beer, except I'll have a Redhook at a Mariners game.
Q: What's your favorite coffee?
A: I prefer the Indonesian coffees, and, of course, they change from crop to crop, so I couldn't tell you one specific coffee.
Recently Peet's had one of our coffee buyers, a young woman, who went to Yemen and was able to buy village lots of wild Arabian mochas in very small quantities. It was custom-roasted, and they were spectacular.
Q: You and Jerry don't talk about Starbucks because you're on Peet's board, and it's competitive. But I'm wondering why you don't talk about Howard Schultz?
A: You remember the movie "Bambi"? And the little rabbit Thumper? And Thumper's mother said (animated voice), "Thumper, what did your father tell you?" And Thumper said, "If you can't say something nice about somebody, don't say anything at all."
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seattle Times researcher David Turim and photographer Dean Rutz contributed
to this article.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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