By Robert Fulmer
Ron Garrigues just might have been the first hippie in the coffee business. When I first got to San Francisco in 1976, still dazed by the tall buildings and trying to figure out how to tie my new Macy’s work-required tie, Ron presented an appealing alternative. He was himself, and that was different in a way that I did not think was allowed.
Marcel S. Garrigues Company weighed, sampled and reconditioned coffee for Hills Bros., Folgers, General Foods, MJB, and all the brokers and importers on California Street, the epicenter of the West Coast coffee business at that time. A long haired artist, Himalayan hiker, and committed non-conformist among a suit and tie, conservative, three martini lunch crowd. Trusted and liked by them all, I think. And a good example for an inexperienced hick just off the bus from Olympia, Washington, like me. Maybe your best move is just be who you are?
Looking back, I might have been channeling a little of Ron the day I rolled down my window, threw my ridiculous shoes off the Bay Bridge, and headed to Emeryville. Thanks Ron. R.I.P …The Dude Abides!
By Helen Nicholas
Back in the day (the nineteen-sixties) when Bob was growing up in San Carlos, CA, his father Bert Fulmer drove to work at B.C. Ireland Coffee Importers every day with his good friend Ron Garrigues, scion of Marcel Garrigues Co., Certified Public Weighmasters. The two were part of the business before, really, the advent of specialty coffee. They were young family men driving to the City to make their way in an industry that hadn’t changed much in hundreds of years.
Bert went on to eventually become a significant player in the Indonesian coffee market, working with Sumatran and Javanese exporters in Singapore to introduce the American coffee drinker to a broader range of coffees than the Central Americans they were accustomed to. Ron inherited his father’s company and took part for years in the sampling and weighing of coffees in the Bay Area for customers like MJB, Hills Bros., and others.
Years passed and Bob started a small specialty company known as Royal Coffee with his partner, Pete McLaughlin. On a trip to Ethiopia to source a coffee that would become one of my favorites, Pete and Bob made a stopover in Cairo, Egypt to see the sights. Enjoying a day in the souk, they were accosted by pretty much every street vendor in the city, and if you’ve ever been there you know I’m not much exaggerating. Everyone in the city wants to sell you perfumes and no matter where you ask to go, your cab driver will take you to his brother-in-law’s perfume store. Pretty quickly, it becomes clear that the perfume bottles are cheap, mass-produced tourist tchotchkes, of no interest to the men of Royal.
But Bob found himself intrigued at the sight of one perfume shop. The doors were old wooden ones, painted green, whose glass panels had been painted with French tulips to make them opaque, a charming and inviting entryway. On each side of the doors were glass windows that held numerous glass perfume bottles, immediately recognizable as antiques. Thinking to find a present for me, Bob ventured into the shop of Mohamed Khattab.
Once inside, the space proved to be the business of a master parfumeur. We’ve learned much more about him and his craft since that first discovery years ago, but upon visiting for the first time Bob and Pete were struck by the kind demeanor of the gentleman who greeted them and invited them to sit upon his pink silk settee and sip some tea or soft drinks with him while he told them about his business. He asked Bob what perfume his wife wore and whipped up a credible version of Chanel #5 on the spot. Although they were both burned out by street vendors endlessly accosting them, it was clear that the tenor of the day had changed dramatically.
At some point in their conversation, Mr. Khattab seemed to remember something that might be of interest. He had a customer in the U.S. who often sent him envelopes full of cash and trusted him to send back some quantities of ambergris and scent. He would get one of his customer’s letters and show it to them; perhaps they knew him? Bob remembers clearly thinking “right, sure, 350 million people in the U.S., I’m bound to know him.”
As you may have guessed, the letter was from Ron Garrigues, who by now had become interested in the art of perfume making and always smelled wonderful when you approached him for a hug. Bob’s shock at the sight of the name of his dad’s friend was beyond my ability to convey but perhaps you can imagine a bygone world where there are no cell phones, no email, just vast oceans and continents and interesting men and women joined by love of the world’s finer things, like art, perfume, and coffee.