A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pillar of the community

(l-r: George Jr., Kristina, George Sr., Sonja)

I was walking down Webster Street in downtown Oakland a few months ago with George Vukasin, the president of Peerless Coffee. He's a second-generation American; his parents came here from Yugoslavia.
He pointed to the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian restaurants on the street and said, "When I was a kid they all used to be Yugoslavian restaurants. Same people, different faces."
That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. He's never forgotten where he came from, and he doesn't think he's better than the people who came after him.
Vukasin, who is known to everyone at Peerless as "George Sr.," took over the business in 1975 from his father, John Vukasin (aka "Mr. V."), who founded the business in 1924.
Last week he announced that he and his wife, Sonja, are turning over the reins to their children, George Jr. and Kristina.
George Jr. will supervise the coffee end of the business, and Kristina, a former Alameda County deputy district attorney, will handle the finances and legal stuff.
It's an old family tradition: Mr. V did the coffee roasting and his wife, Natalie (aka "Mrs. V"), kept the books. Then George Sr. ran the coffee side and Sonja ran the business side.
"We didn't plan it," Kristina laughs. "It's just worked out that way."
Full disclosure: There are very few people in this world whom I admire as much as George Sr. If he had done nothing else but give good value to his customers and treat his employees like human beings, that would have been enough. But he did so much more.
As longtime president of the Pacific Coast Coffee Association and chairman of the National Coffee Association, he worked tirelessly with farmers in Colombia to make it economically profitable for them to grow coffee instead of coca, which is the basic ingredient of cocaine.
For this he received the prestigious Manuel Mejia Award - named after the father of the Colombian coffee industry - from the Colombian government and death threats from the drug lords.
He also convinced the growers to treat their own workers more decently, such as supplying free meals during working hours and free childcare for their children.
His method is as simple as it is effective: The better they treat their workers, the more he pays them for their coffee beans.
He also was president of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Commission back in the good old days, when the Coliseum was one of the most charming of the '60s "cookie cutter" stadiums instead of the dump it has become today.
It was only last week that I was quoting some longtime Raider fans who said the team's return in 1995 turned out to be an anti-climax. They complained that the Coliseum had been taken over by what they called "the thug element."
It was a different crowd in the Vukasin era, believe me. And we have that to thank him for, too.
He and Sonja are leaving some mighty big shoes for George Jr. and Kristina to fill, but I have no doubt they're more than up to it.
"What we learned most from our parents wasn't so much how to run a business," says Kristina. "It was about character and treating people the right way."
See what I mean?