The U.S. [Coffee] Industry Survives the War

Publication Year: 
1999

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In the meantime the U.S. Coffee industry adjusted to war conditions. With most of its male employees at the front, Jewel turned to women wagon route drivers for the first time, discovering that they could sell just as well as men. Myrtle Gutwein, for instance, won sales awards during the war. In addition to her sales savvy she was humanitarian, occasionally paying for the coffee and rice of a single mother and her crippled son. Jewel even published Women at Work, a booklet with advice such as: “Certain ladies' fronts and backs are simply just not made for slacks.” Women also proved their worth in coffee factories throughout the country, not only in routine, menial jobs but as roastmasters and supervisors.
In 1942 Maurice Karker joined the War Department (though remaining Chairman of the Board), leaving the Jewel presidency to Franklin Lunding. Due to Karker's influence and Jewel's contract to make 10-in-1 ration packs, the company received priority on restricted machinery parts and labor to keep their delivery trucks running. By the war period 65 percent of Jewel's sales volume came from its retail stores, but over 60 percent of its profits still derived from the lucrative wagon routes.
Maxwell House made patriotic appeals for its coffee. “Coffee's in the fight to! With the paratroopers...in the bombers...on board our navy ships...the crews turn to a steaming cup of hot coffee for a welcome lift.” General Foods urged housewives to put up fruits and vegetables in empty Maxwell House jars, doing “your bit for Uncle Sam.”
The other coffee companies made similar albeit less strident patriotic appeals. The third-generation Folgers both went to war in their own ways. James Folger III was appointed to the War Production Board, while his brother, Peter, joined the marines. Meanwhile the Folger's plant manager found himself, according to a company history, “in a nightmare of coffee without containers, bottles with out tops, mountains of ration stamps to be accounted for, and the whole normal chain of production and delivery broken down.” Yet the war swelled California's coffee-drinking population, as many who had migrated to work in the war plants stayed. Veterans who had embarked from San Francisco for the Pacific theater of war returned to settle down. The state's population nearly doubled in a decade.
In 1940 Hills Brothers had opened an eight-roaster factory in Edgewater, New Jersey, from which it planned to supply the Midwest, and it hoped, eventually the entire East. Unfortunately for the company the war interrupted its expansion plans. Owing to shortage of manpower Hills Brothers let females into the cupping room, formerly a sacred male inner sanctum. Elizabeth Zullo and Lois Woodward, two Hills employees, learned to slurp, swirl, and spit with the best of them.
Chase & Sanborn had been struggling to maintain profits even before the war. Its parent company, Standard Brands, had traditionally been able to rely on Fleishmanns's Yeast as its core moneymaker. But the American housewife had stopped baking bread by this time, the repeal of Prohibition ended the yeast market among illicit home brewers, and the patent medicine claims for yeast cures fizzled. The intensely competitive coffee market didn't offer the same profit margins. As a result, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were cut to a half-hour while Dorothy Lamour vanished from the show altogether. The Chase & Sanborn freshness claim, formerly based on twice-weekly deliveries along with yeast, were rendered moot by other brands' vacuum packs.
With profits margins dropping below 10 percent, and Chase & Sanborn's market share falling several percentage points behind that of Maxwell House, the company finally opted for vacuum cans in November 1941. The next month the company brought in James S. Adams from Colgate-Palmolive-Peet as president, just in time for Pearl Harbor. Adams completely reorganized the company, replacing key executives and suspending dividends. He tried to increase coffee sales by adopting a glass jar vacuum pack, but the war environment did not favor shifts in brand preference.
The war essentially put the U.S. Coffee industry on hold, with roasters simply maintaining their positions, biding their time until the conflict and price controls ended. The major roasters such as Maxwell House dominated an industry that had seen considerable consolidation. In 1915 over thirty-five hundred roasters provided coffee to the U.S. Consumer. By 1945 there were only fifteen hundred roasters. Of those, only fifty-seven-less than 4 percent of the total-roasted more than fifty thousand bags a year.

pp. 225-227 of Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast (1999)

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