The Thanksgiving Coffee Fire

by Doug Roycroft, July 28, 2010

Fire has been a “cleanser” in Mendocino County ever since Mendocino's Chinatown was torched in the bad old days. In the 1970s there were the old fishing shacks on Portugee Beach, burned as a training exercise by the Fire Department in order to clear out the beatniks camping in them. The good old boys at Dick's Place stood out front applauding as the Sheriff took 'em away.

Fast forward to September 20, 1987 when the Court House, the Library, and the Piedmont Hotel were torched. Fire investigators quickly named the perp — and the motive, which was to eliminate competition. No one was prosecuted, however, thanks to the inexplicable dithering of DA Susan Massini, who failed to act as the statute of limitations ran out. It was the most memorable torch job since the “cleansing” of Mendocino's China­town over a century ago,which destroyed the entire street fronting the Presbyterian church, a street that was never replaced.

Fast forward to this year. At 9pm on the night of July 5, the Fort Bragg Fire Department responded to a call at Thanksgiving Coffee Company on South Harbor Drive. They found the entire central section of the two-story building engulfed in flames. Fifty firefighters from the Fort Bragg and Mendocino Fire Departments and CalFire participated in the fight, which went on until 3am on Tuesday, July 6th. Firefighters found evidence of a break in and notified law enforcement — the fire was ruled “definitely an arson.”

This is the biggest arson fire to hit Fort Bragg since the court house/Piedmont/library fire 23 years ago.

Fire Chief Steve Orsi credits Fort Bragg Fire Depart­ment's aerial water cannon with enabling firefighters to suppress the fire in only six hours. Without it, the fight could have gone on much longer and been more danger­ous. The roof was in danger of collapsing even as the long fight started.

The building fronts a hill. They would have had to fight the fire only from the parking lot. By posting the water cannon on the hill behind Thanksgiving Coffee, the fire was fought on two fronts, with radio contact directing the water cannon. The cannon shoots 1500 gallons of water a minute at targets 150 feet away. The fire department says that almost a million gallons of water were dumped on the fire.

Hoses were laid across Highway 20, and traffic was routed through the parking lot of the Holiday Inn until a ramp could be laid so that vehicles could cross the hoses safely.

Paul Katzeff, Thanksgiving’s founder, arrived on the scene shortly after the Fire Department did. When Chief Orsi asked him what they should save if they could, he pointed to the warehouse. The firefighters were able to save that part of the building, which held the major assets of the company — the coffee roaster, and $500,000 worth of green coffee beans which had arrived from Nicaragua only weeks before.

The Company has set up a temporary headquarters in the unburned warehouse. Caito Fisheries hauled 7500 pounds of beans to Oakland, to be roasted to Thanks­giving’s specs. Another load went to San Rafael. This support from members of the coffee roasting community enabled them to meet current needs while electricians provided power to the warehouse. As of last week, Thanksgiving Coffee Company has started roasting cof­fee in-house again, and will survive the fire. Everyone working there still has a job. They will rebuild and con­tinue being a leader in the specialty coffee industry.

Paul and Joan Katzeff started Thanksgiving Coffee in 1972, in The Mendocino Hotel. They had a 25-pound capacity roaster. Their sole customer was the Hotel’s cafe. They sold about 50 pounds a week. Fifteen years later, they were operating out of their own building with a staff of 26.

The company has been buying Nicaraguan coffee since Paul Katzeff visited that country in 1985. When President Reagan declared an embargo on Nicaragua, Thanksgiving defied the embargo and brought Nicara­guan coffee in through Canada. Thanksgiving Coffee sued Reagan, Bush,Sr., and Attorney General Ed Meese to end the Embargo.

Specialty coffee was a new thing then. Thanksgiving Coffee was the first specialty roaster to sell to a major grocery chain — Safeway — in 1978.

In 1983, Thanksgiving Coffee became the founding charter member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

In 1988, Thanksgiving raised money to maintain a fleet of cargo bikes at a Cooperative farm in Rwanda.

By 1990, Thanksgiving was roasting 100% organic coffee.

In 2000, the Company became the second licensee to sign on with TransFair, the certifying agency for Fair Trade coffee in the US. Fair trade guarantees a minimum floor price for farmers.

In 2004 Thanksgiving hosted a delegation of farmers from Rwanda who, in a ten-day visit to Nicaraugua toured five coffee cooperatives. This was the beginning of international cooperation between the coffee farmers of these two countries on two continents. In the same year, Thanksgiving first brought the entire production of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative, a small Cooperative of Christian, Muslim and Jewish farmers in Uganda.

All the above only touches on what a difference this company has made, not only to its 35+ employees here on the Coast and the larger Mendocino community, but to the coffee industry in general. Thanksgiving Coffee has given generously to local charities, community orga­nizations and service organizations in Mendocino since the beginning.

Almost half of the company's employees have worked there for over 15 years. Employees get medical and dental benefits, sick and maternity leave, and paid holidays. Similar packages of benefits are becoming a thing of the past in America.

The details of the torch job and the identities of possi­ble suspects are not being released at this time. The investigators are playing this one close to the chest. Given their quick work identifying the perps of the Courthouse/Piedmont/library fire, there's a good chance that the person or persons playing with matches inside Thanksgiving Coffee Co. on the 6th of July is already known to law enforcement.

We take coffee for granted. We get up in the morning and brew a cup of coffee. We use an extractive apparatus to prepare an aqueous extract of a Latin American drug plant which we drink to get us moving. That sounds so sinister, doesn't it?

What about this remarkable drink we take so for granted?

According to legend, coffee was “discovered” by an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi, who noticed his goats dancing when they ate certain red berries. When he soaked the beans overnight and drank the water, he experienced euphoria that made him frolic with his goats. Kaldi took some of the beans to a holy man who found them distasteful and threw them in the fire. The aroma rising from the fire was so delicious that the beans were scraped out of the ashes and used to make the first cup of roasted coffee.

Another story says early merchants in Arabia tried to protect their monopoly by sterilizing the beans so that no one else could grow the trees. They sterilized the beans by roasting them, only to discover that roasting improved their flavor.

The Islamic world considered a fatwa against coffee. Alcohol had been banned by The Prophet Himself. What about this stimulating drink? Sufi monks, “whirling der­vishes,” drank coffee because it allowed them to stay at their prayers longer. Popularity overcame resistance to coffee's acceptance by the Islamic world.

The Eastern Orthodox Church banned coffee for over 800 years, until the 19th Century. Crusaders considered it evil, being as black as the Devil, and as bitter as sin. Pope Clement VIII was urged to ban it. He decided to try it first. He decided that it was too good a thing to be left to the infidels, and baptized coffee, thus putting the approval of The Church on it.

Although the Venetians brought coffee to Europe in the 1500s, it was so rare and expensive that only the wealthy could afford it. It was not until the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 that coffee started to became popular in Europe. A hero of the battle, Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, was given money, a house, and his pick of the booty left by the fleeing Turks. He rejected ordinary treasures and chose to have the bags of green beans left by the Turks. They were per­sonally presented to him by the Emperor. He used the beans to open the first coffee house in Vienna, named the Blue Bottle. He popularized drinking coffee with sugar, steamed milk and a dollop of whipped cream.

Coffee houses spread across Europe and fueled that intellectual Renaissance called the Enlightenment. J.S. Bach wrote a secular cantata about it — the Coffee Can­tata. This was the age of Voltaire in France and John Locke in England. In England, the coffee house was called the Penny University. A penny bought you a seat at the table and a cup of coffee. A mug on the counter had a sign beside it which read, “To Insure Prompt Service.” Today we abbreviate that to TIPS, but the meaning is the same.

The political philosophy of the Founding Fathers of the United States originated in large part in the English and French coffee houses. Jefferson, Franklin, Wash­ington and Paine were all influenced by Enlightenment thought.

Tradition says that Captain John Smith brought the first coffee to the English colonies. The first coffee house in what is now the United States opened in Boston in 1676. Coffee never gained much popularity as a bever­age in the Colonies. After the unpopular Tea Tax was instituted, untaxed coffee replaced taxed tea on patriotic American tables as the beverage of choice, a place it has now held for over 230 years.

More on the Thanksgiving Coffee Company fire as things develop.

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