The Face of Taste

Peter Coe leaves a legacy on Hampton Roads as on of the great tastemakers

Last June, after a brief battle with cancer, Peter Coe passed away at age 70, leaving a legacy of being one of Hampton Roads’ great tastemakers. Coe embraced the region almost four decades ago, having moved here from the Northeast. He found the area dappled with more fry basket eateries than fine dining restaurants and more places to buy pro­cessed cheddar than premium camembert. Unfazed, he decided to do something about it and shed his financial career for one of a gourmet grocer.
He founded Taste Unlimited with a single store in the Hilltop area of Virginia Beach in 1973.

Today there are six locations across the region; in 2006 Coe sold his interest to father/son Peter and Jon Pruden but remained involved as the face of Taste. For five years, and right up to his death, Coe’s tall frame; wide, contagious smile; and booming, almost sing-songy voice was still a fixture in the stores. He poured wine for customers and passed on tips in his cooking classes. He offered advice on everything from soup to nuts. He loved Hampton Roads, and Hampton Roads loved him.

And Hampton Roads owes him gratitude for not eliminating our taste for beer, but showing us it’s ok to have a taste for champagne, too. He imported fine goods but was an endless champion of local purveyors as well; Coe was an early advocate of Virginia wine, selling it since 1978 when he first brought Meredyth’s Marechal Foch into the stores.

Coe’s was a big table—one of both simple pleasures and refined taste. He touched many in his life, and we spoke with a handful of folks who shared personal stories.

“Peter Coe was a kind person and a loyal friend. A gentle giant. One of a kind. At the same time, he was a free spirit and a wonderfully creative entrepreneur in the Virginia specialty food business and beyond.

I first met Peter when he burst through the front door of my store, Rowena’s Jam and Jelly Factory, shortly after my opening in 1983. He surveyed the retail store, tasted a few things, toured the kitchen, bakery and warehouse and abruptly announced triumphantly with his broad grin, “I’ll take a case of every one of your products.”

How like him throughout his life—impulsive, intui­tively knowing what he liked and what would enchant his customers ... I could have kissed him. This was my first big order, and it was going to the ever-popular Peter Coe creation Taste Unlimited and its chain of avant garde gourmet stores. Enthusiasm radiated from Peter Coe, energizing everyone within earshot, and his inquisi­tiveness helped everyone in the industry to create and thereby excel.

We became fast friends through the years shar­ing our visions of the Virginia small specialty foods industry as it became a national leader, preeminent in the National Association of Specialty Foods Trade. He was truly a leader. Peter was special and I will miss him. He will be and is sorely missed. It is an honor to call Peter Coe friend.”

—Rowena Fullinwider, founder of Rowena’s,

“Our family purchased Taste from Peter and his fam­ily in October 2006. Little did we know then, that was just the beginning of both a great working partnership and friendship.

As Peter often remarked, Taste was to be his legacy, and he continued to work with us each day for those five years to ensure the business continued to thrive. The sale of the company also allowed Peter to focus on the “fun” parts of the business that he enjoyed so much—wine and cheese buying, his cooking school and wine tastings. Because of this and the fact that he continued to nurture strong relationships with friends and family, I suspect Peter’s last few years may have been the best of his life.

He was also a great mentor to me. I fondly remember one evening in New York City; a group from Taste was in town to attend the Fancy Food Show, and we were din­ing (and sweating) alfresco at a trattoria in the Village on a hotter than hell July evening. The red wine was served at room temperature, which seemed close to a slow boil.

Peter immediately seized a spoon, plunged it into each of our water glasses and dropped ice into everyone’s wine glass. The look of shock on my face must have been obvious as Peter responded simply, with that famous wide grin and booming voice, “it’s okkkaaaay, Jon!” It was a seminal moment where Peter imparted the lesson that great food and wine does not have to be pretentious.”

Peter invited me to cook with himself and (his daughter) Sabra (Coe-Young) at the Tasted Unlimited on Pacific Avenue in Virginia Beach for one of his many cooking classes.

We were taking the class on a Tour de France. As I can recall we started with a very nice frisee salade au lardon with sunnyside farm egg and truffle vinaigrette. As always we chose a decadent Sancerre.

Up next, as Peter loved to stay on a classic course, of course, we decided to prepare a quintessential boeuf Bourguignon. We consulted Julia Child’s famous recipe going back and forth putting our own touches on it. We finally decided on an Oregon Pinot noir obtained from one of Peter’s winemaker’s friends on one of his trips with his friend Tree (William “Tree” Rountree, a founder of Monarch Bank, who died in June also.)

As we ate with the group, I looked at Peter and said, “Are we having fun yet?” A big Peter Coe charismat­ic smile came across his face and he said, “I’m having the time of my life,” and clink-clink went the glasses. At the end of the class one student asked if he liked to cook with wine. Peter again smiled and said, ‘I love to cook with wine, and sometimes I even put it in the food!’”

—Todd Jurich, chef/owner Todd Jurich’s Bistro and Todd Jurich’s Burger Bar,,

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