Martin Diedrich on Surviving Starbucks And Thriving With Kéan

When I visited Kéan Coffee's new Tustin location last Sunday, it had only been open six days and already the lines were out the door. While that may have been due in part to staff still getting up to speed, it was definitely pulling in the punters.

For good reason, it seems.

The drinks menu is lengthy, with everything from the usual suspects (lattes, iced drinks, juices) to more unusual varieties, including Turkish caffè latte with cardamom, café au lait and açai fruit smoothies.

I enjoyed the best latte I've had in years. It was served in a ceramic cup, it had the perfect layer of crema, and, more importantly, it actually tasted of coffee--from beans freshly roasted on the site.

I also sampled the Mayan spiced hot chocolate (sweet, thin in texture, with a subtle dash of cayenne), plus a chocolate cupcake (gorgeous, gooey frosting, but slightly dry underneath) and a slice of frittata (too cheesy for me, perhaps, but still toothsome).

The décor includes wooden tables and chairs, a long wooden bench, a sofa and an armchair or two. The Fortuny silk light fixture is striking--handmade in Venice, it would be.

Jazz music plays in the background, and there's a low-key buzz from the mix of couples, families (with and without kids) and lone customers.

Personally, I'd prefer a second sofa, and there was no Sweet'n Low, my sweetener of choice, but these are tiny sacrifices with coffee this good.

And technophiles may recoil in horror at the lack of wifi, but it's all part of a deliberate attempt to make Kéan an urban refuge. Put it this way: no one seemed to be complaining when I was there.

I caught up with owner Martin Diedrich during a quieter moment.

Martin's story is generally well known around these parts, but for those unfamiliar with it, here it is in a nutshell:

Martin grew up on his parents' coffee plantation in Guatemala, and moved to Orange County to help them with their coffee-roasting business in 1983. He went on to found Diedrich Coffee, but resigned from the company in 2004. Starbucks later bought Diedrich, while just this week Diedrich announced it was selling Gloria Jean's, its last coffee retail chain.

As for Martin, he and his wife, Karen, set up the first Kéan coffee house, in Newport Beach, in 2005. It quickly became a local favorite, winning awards and praise for both its fair-trade, organic coffee and its environmentally friendly policies. Last week saw the launch of the Tustin branch, which, as destiny would have it, is the very same premises of the first Diedrich café, which opened in 1986.

Quite a nutshell.

But while the general story is familiar, Martin is eager to set the record straight on a few key points.

"I created Diedrich coffee and I fully expected to spend the rest of my life there. But fate had another plan for me, I suppose. The public still thinks that I sold Diedrich and made a fortune. I didn't. I never sold a cent of anything, and I certainly didn't have anything to do with the sale of Diedrich coffee to Starbucks. It's a big local myth that should be dispelled."

So it must feel sweet to have gotten back the premises of Diedrich's original flagship store after all this time?

"The beautiful irony is that I've come full circle. Starbucks was in the Tustin location barely a year but they couldn't make it happen. When they decided they were going to fold that store, I had the opportunity to get it back."

Does Martin sound bitter? More like reflective and excited. True, the clichés bubble over ("It's wonderfully fulfilling, satisfying", "it's poetic justice", "I've come full circle"), but he comes across as genuine--and truly proud to be serving the community in both spots.

"What gets me out of bed every day is the pursuit of excellence, the aesthetic of excellence, the thrill of excellence. But if you can't share it with somebody, then what's the point?

"We have a vested interest in our community--we're part of it--we're not some out-of-town corporate company, we live right here, in the same neighborhoods our guests do.

"Also, we use local suppliers as much as possible, including Pacific Whey (for the baked goods and frittatas) and Shirley's bagels.

If Martin cringes when I ask about the possibility of a third Kéan, he doesn't show it:
"That's a long way down the road... We're deliberately keeping it a very small company.

"What we're doing is taking the coffee to the level of culinary art. We're providing something of genuine substance to our community, and we're part of the paradigm of change.

"And in a practical and symbolic way, by naming Kéan after our son, we're making sure it's about the future."

Kéan Coffee, 13681 Newport Avenue, Suite 14, Tustin, (714)-838 5326.


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