Lobdell: Kéan Coffee offers another shot

At 5 p.m. June 30, 2004 — the last day of his employment contract — Martin Diedrich was told he no longer had a job at Diedrich Coffee, the company he had founded more than two decades earlier and taken public in 1996.

Driving home that evening to his Eastside Costa Mesa house, Diedrich vowed to start over and open a single coffeehouse, just as he did in Tustin in 1986 (his second location opened a year later on East 17th Street in Costa Mesa).

With the Fourth of July weekend approaching, he didn't tell his wife about his job loss or his idea of opening another coffeehouse. He didn't want to spoil the Independence Day celebration.

Instead, he spent the holiday in a seemingly carefree mood, attending the Mariners Fourth of July parade with his young son Kéan, enjoying his neighborhood's annual block party and lighting off fireworks.

But in his mind, he was plotting.

"I knew my wife, Karen, would have a lot of questions [about a new venture], and I knew I better have an answer to each one," Martin Diedrich said.

When they finally sat down and talked, he answered each concern his wife had, and she gave her blessing.

"This is in my blood; it's what I was born to do," said Martin Diedrich, who was one of the pioneers of the coffeehouse craze in America and especially Orange County.

He represents the third Diedrich generation tied to the coffee business, having grown up on his parents' coffee plantation in Guatemala.

The couple, now married 14 years, found the blank canvas before them enthralling. They could create the coffeehouse of their dreams, far from the cookie-cutter and cost-cutting approach of the corporate coffee world.

"The idea was to take coffee to the next level, to make it a culinary art," Martin Diedrich said.

He approached angel investors and raised about $700,000 for his new venture.

Even today, the public perception is that Martin Diedrich, 52, got rich when he took his company public, but he said he barely broke even in the end.

Because the public company had kept Diedrich's family name, he decided to call his business Kéan Coffee after his now 12-year-old son, a move designed to symbolize that this was the next generation of coffeehouses.

Martin Diedrich leased a high-profile location at Irvine Avenue and Westcliff Drive in Newport Beach — a retail space rejected by several chain coffeehouses, interestingly enough — and he and Karen decorated the interior themselves.

Their many touches included used coffee sacks from their favorite plantations for wallpaper, custom-designed (by Martin Diedrich on a piece of butcher paper) wrought-iron fixtures for holding Italian lights, and sturdy tables and finishes made of solid wood.

"People appreciate it, even if they don't necessarily notice it [consciously]," Martin Diedrich said Thursday morning at Kéan.

As we talked, customers came up to shake his hand, pat him on the back or wave across the store.

"They sense it," he said. "This place has soul."

The backbone to Martin Diedrich's comeback is, of course, the coffee. Using his lifelong coffee contacts, he buys the most flavorable beans from around the world and roasts them himself in a roaster built by his brother.

He said his drinks measure up to the highest coffee standards in the world, though he prices them about the same as the coffeehouse chains. In fact, he points out that his espressos are a better value because they come with 2 ounces of espresso, not the 1 ounce served by most of his competitors.

His business formula has worked. In Kéan's first year, the coffeehouse generated more revenue than any Dietrich's location ever had.

In 2009, he opened a second Kéan in Tustin, poetically in the same space he launched Dietrich's so many years ago. He said his profit margin is thin, but enough to make a comfortable living and keep his investors happy.

As Martin Diedrich envisioned, Kéan in Newport Beach has become a prime gathering spot in town, where any morning you can find friends, business people, high school students, politicians and stay-at-home moms getting together for a cup of coffee.

"It's an urban refuge," said Martin Diedrich, who doesn't offer wi-fi because he wants Kéan to feel like a haven from the usual bustle.

Occasionally, a customer will ask Martin Diedrich — who received the Specialty Coffee Assn.'s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, an honor also bestowed on the founders of Peet's Coffee, Starbucks and Illy Coffee — to autograph cups of coffee or bags of beans for them.

"That's really meaningful," he said in his soft voice. "I never take it for granted. I expect to earn it every day. I don't mind working hard."

Kéan recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, and I doubt you can find a more satisfied man than Martin Diedrich.

"I've come full circle, back to my roots," he said. "What I have is my health, my happiness, my craft and my reputation.

"I plan to keep it small and really special. Quality can't be mass produced."

I knew the answer to my next question, but I had to ask it anyway: Would you ever go public or consider a partnership with a large corporation again?

"Never again," he said. "I'm grateful for everything I have. I don't have a lot, but I have enough."

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. His column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is bill@cat5communications.com.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World