Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Cup Tasting" at #2 Harrison, San Francisco c1930, now Google's San Francisco workspace

Google and Mozilla expand their San Francisco footprint into 350,000 square feet of landmark Hills Plaza, originally headquarters of Hills Brothers original coffee processing plant on the Embarcadero


The tradition of quality analysis, innovation and experimentation continues today at the site of
Austin and Reubin Hills original "cup tasting room". This property, built by the Hills Bros. at #2 Harrison, is where vacuum packing and other innovations in the coffee processing industry spurred the explosive growth of their company.  The aroma of roasting coffee from Hills Bros. plant dominated the waterfront experience for generations. The plant and company's executive operations continued through the properties redevelopment in the 1990s while they were owned by the Nestle Beverage Company.  They later relocated to Los Angeles and are now owned by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA.  Google, Gensler, and Mozilla are now primary tenants.

This photograph shows the company team at the table conducting cup-testing (c.1930), #2 Harrison, led by Reuben Hills, Reuben Hills, Jr., Elliot Cofer, Dick Bennetts, Gene Hoelter and younger members of the Commodities Department.  This testing procedure continues today with highly qualified personnel using the most advanced equipment to augment their expertise in judging coffee quality by taste and smell, although no longer at this location.


Hills Bros. was founded February 14, 1878, in San Francisco when two brothers, Austin H. Hills (1851-1933), and Reuben W. Hills (1856-1934), formed a partnership to sell retail dairy products in a stall in Bay City Market located at 1146 Market Street.  Three years later they became owners of Arabian Coffee & Spice Mills. This marked the beginning of their growth to become one of the nation's largest and most notable coffee companies.  Burned out by the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, these courageous brothers went on to achieve their destined mark in coffee history.  This building was the home office and plant for Hills Bros. from January 1926 until April 1990, when remodeling began to make this structure a vital part of the new block-square Hills Plaza.

Current on exhibit at #2 Harrison is a permanent exhibit that I designed  and produced in the 90s for the re-developer Betawest, under the design guidance of Whistler Patri Architects and project lead architect David Colleen.

Hills Bros. Company History

Future Site of Hills Brothers Coffee Company 1851

In 1851, the shoreline of San Francisco Bay came close to the foot of Rincon Point.  This resulted in extensive land-filling before this building could be constructed on the first block of Harrison Street in 1924.hand-tinted by Bennett Hall for exhibit in lobby of #2 Harrison Street

Hills Bros. Arabian Coffee & Spice Mills, located at the corner of Sansome and Sacramento Streets was factory and home office for the growing company from 1884 to 1894.  This site later became the site of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Construction progress of 2 Harrison, November 8, 1924

Overlooking Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Exposition, and
the Hills Bros. Coffee Plant 1939

--from James Holden mural showing a woman viewing the World's Fair on Treasure Island in 1939, from the top of Rincon Hill.  The Hills Bros. Coffee illuminated sign on the roof of the Hills Bros. building at 2 Harrison Street is easily readable from the Bay day or night.  We published this image and 5 others by Holden depicting the history of coffee and Hills Bros as a set of notecards for Nestle in 1996. (available through our studios in limited supply)

hills warehouse-s

Thomas Hodge (in derby hat) in Hills Brothers Warehouse, 1905

Hills Bros. disposed of its Retail Diary Business in the late 1880's.  The company continued its operations as Commission Merchants wholesaling butter, eggs, cheese, walnuts and honey in addition to the Arabian Coffee & Spice Mills (photo 1905).  This commission business, located at 23-25 California Street in the Hansford Block, involved a third partner, Thomas Hodge (in black derby and morning coat), who died shortly after helping to revive the Earthquake-stricken business.  Two years later in 1908, that part of the business was turned over to three former employees and operated successfully for several years. 

Thomas Hodge's son, Carroll (Hodge) Wilson, was employed by Hills Bros. in 1924, starting in the warehouse and eventually retiring in 1966 as a vice president and member of the board of directors.  Mr. Wilson has continued in his retirement years to work with Nestle Beverage Company preserving the memories and archives of Hills Bros

hills 2 Harrison cross section

Cross-section Elevation of No. 2 Harrison Street Facilities

This cross-section illustration of the Hills Bros. plant at 2 Harrison Street shows the path coffee beans traveled after arrival in the warehouse until they were blended, roasted and vacuum-packed for shipment.  The orange bins in the center of the Green Coffee Mixing Tower were used in combining various lots of coffee to prepare the final Hills Bros. blend.  The cup testing rooms are at the top right side of the building.

Storefront Display, Merchant Corp, led by Carol T. Wilson, later Archivist of Hills Bros. Company

Storefront Display, Merchant Corp, led by Carol T. Wilson 
Archivist of Hills Bros. Company

Hills Brothers Coffee, Merchant corp program who set up store displays for local area stores - crew of 26 at the peak of the program. A three-quarter ton panel truck was designed to accommodate all the display materials used by the Advertising Service Representatives.

Similar displays were installed throughout Hills Bros. marketing area by a crew of Advertising Service Representatives.  Beginning with two men in 1924, this team grew to twenty-four in 1936, when changing styles in grocery store architecture outmoded this type of advertising.


We believe legacy is a valuable asset, one earned not purchased.
If you've got it, by all means, tell your story well.


note: all photographs are from original source images;  hand-tinting © Bennett Hall

Additional Reference on Hills Brothers Coffee Company:

Behind the Cup - vintage film on Hills Bros from 1930

Our Portfolio of Projects involving History

Our Exhibit Program Methodology

History of Hills Brothers - Blog post on San Francisco Images

Hills Bros Flickr Gallery

Chronological gallery of San Francisco history:


Leasing and building office at Hills Plaza

Hills Bros from Wikipedia 

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