The History of Hills Brothers Coffee – And The Vacuum Seal Mystery


In the “SoBe” section of San Francisco (“South Beach” – no there’s no beach here),  there sits not only a small slice of American coffee history – the Hills Brothers Coffee Building – but also a source of mystery as to a certain packing process for coffee.

[As an aside, another famous competitor, Folgers Coffee, was 2 blocks from the Hills Building but that is a different story for a different time.] The Hills Brothers were actually real brothers – R.W. (Reuben) and Austin who came to San Francisco in 1873 with their father (Hills Bros website says they came from England – a book I mention below says Maine – perhaps they meant “New England?” – Yet another mystery).

They bought a food distributor business in 1878 (Arabian Coffee Co. ) selling milk, coffee, tea etc. on Harrison Street – including selling butter to American troops during the Spanish-American War (1898):

Austin & Reuben in front of Arabian Coffee

Soon, the brothers outgrew their original space (pictured above) and expanded to another part of San Francisco not far away. Around 1900 according to the official Hills Bros. history website, “Reuben, an incessant tinkerer, stumbled upon” the idea for vacuum-packed coffee to help maintain freshness:

vacuum Press Process

The Infamous Vacuum Packing Process – Who’s Idea Was It?

Describing the Vacuum Process

Hills Brothers Stumbled Upon It?

The words “stumbled upon” used by the Hills Bros. website almost made me believe that R.W. came up with the idea through his “tinkering.” However, I am guessing this book – Uncommon Grounds, the History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World – has the correct history on vacuum sealing. My take is that any author, and in this case Mark Pendergrast, who takes the time to write about the history of coffee in the US, likely did the full research before writing his book (see sample on Google Books Here). he states that R.W. met up with Norton Brothers in Chicago who “perfected” the idea of vacuum packing coffee.  Pendergrast also goes on to state that Hills negotiated a one year Pacific Coast license to the process but no West Coast competitor copied it until 13 years later (MJB Coffee).

Uncommon Grounds…by Mark Pendergrast

Interestingly, further tinkering on my own through the website of the current owner of Hills says it was Chase and Sanborn, now a sister company of Hills, that was the “first to pack and ship” coffee using this idea. I’m not sure whom to believe now – maybe Chase was “first” but Norton Brothers “perfected” it. Ahhhhhhhhhhh I don’t even drink coffee! How exasperating! (not really)

Nonetheless, the year was 1900 when Hills marketed their first vacuum-packed coffee for sale (source: Pendergrast). And after this, they were able to ship their coffee all over the Western US – there’s even a picture at the Hills Building of a Hills Sales exec bringing coffee to Alaska by plane!

Hills Brothers Goes Big Time

Continuing our Hills timeline… the fire/earthquake of 1906 caused significant damage to their business – but they bounced back and rebuilt. In 1924 they started construction of a new factory and headquarters on the corner of Harrison Street and Embarcadero (they were really growing!). The  construction site needed to be filled in due to the quality of the land. This was common then as it was in my hometown of Boston.

The building was completed in 1925 and along with the 10 foot tall letters proclaiming Hills Bros Coffee on the roof, it made quite a statement.

Hills Brothers HQ

Hills Brothers HQ

Hills Brothers testing coffee

Bean Testing With a View of the Bay (tester is Richard Bennetts according to commenter – see comments below)

The Hills Brothers died in 1933 & 1934 leaving the business to their children.

Hills Brothers Reuben and Austin

Portraits of Reuben and Austin Hills

The Iconic Hills Brothers Building in San Francisco

Many years later, after the children and grandchildren got involved, Hills Brothers was purchased by Nestle – in 1985; and subsequently Sara Lee in 1999. Finally Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA purchased the company from Sara Lee in 2005 – they interestingly own MJB, Chock Full of Nuts and Chase and Sanborn among other brands (I didn’t know that!). Hills Brother Plaza is still in San Francisco at 2 Harrison Street, housing many companies and a daycare and Gordon Biersch on the first floor.

Hills Brothers Building from Harrison looking toward Embarcadero

The building has been refurbished and is actually a very classy building. You can find a photo history of the building on the first floor or go to this site for a timeline of events in the life of Hills Brothers or this page for Wikipedia.

San Francisco has many interesting historical stories. If I can dig up information on the Folgers family I will. and I recently solved a minor mystery involving the name of an alley street in SF’s financial district (aka: “FiDi”): Liedesdorff – which I will try to investigate further for your entertainment. As for who was the original inventor of the vacuum-sealed process? Read Pendergrast’s book and do your own investigating. Perhaps you will come up with a different answer. In the meantime, check out the history of the Hills Brothers – it’s a great American success story!

P.S. sorry for the slight rambling – this post became a lot longer than I originally planned due to that little mystery about who invented vacuum packing!

By the way, this has become one of my more popular posts, typically visited by first time visitors to my site. If you have thoughts or memories of the Hills Bros Building, please share/comment as I think this is something people are really curious about!

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