Orange County’s Original Coffee Man, Martin Diedrich, Moves His Family’s Java Legacy Forward [OC People 2018]

Martin Diedrich: Don’t get between a man and his coffee. Photo by John Gilhooley

Tucked in a nook on the western side of Costa Mesa is Martin Diedrich’s wholesale coffee roastery, the place where all Kéan Coffee’s beans are roasted prior to being sold in grocery stores and other retailers. If you close your eyes and inhale through your nose, it smells as if you’re swimming in a cup of Joe. Lifetime-achievement awards, articles and photos of Diedrich’s family are mounted on the olive-green walls near the entrance. In the lounge area, a magnificent vintage coffee roaster sits in the left-side corner of the room, the name “Diedrich” written in its center. The roaster was handcrafted in 1969 by Diedrich’s father, a World War II German army veteran and engineer, while they lived on a coffee farm in Guatemala.

“Right here in this facility, we roast well more than a quarter of a million pounds of coffee a year,” says Diedrich, “and that’s just for our wholesale business. We also roast beans in all our coffeehouses, which is the coffee that goes to the customer. So what we do in those locations is separate from all of [the wholesale] roasting. Every day and every minute of every day, our focus is making sure that we deliver the goods in the cup. Nothing else matters.”

Diedrich comes from a long line of coffee connoisseurs. In 1916, his German grandmother inherited a coffee farm in Costa Rica, where she and her family worked. The land was seized during World War II, causing her to lose everything. In the ’60s, she went to live with her son and his wife in Simi Valley to help raise young Martin and his brothers; she soon convinced the family to go to Costa Rica to get back her farm. Though the Diedrich family caravanned from the valley to Costa Rica, they were unable to re-acquire the lost land. Resourceful and connected, however, grandma Diedrich linked with a German family in Guatemala who knew of farmland they could buy. So the Diedrich family traveled from Costa Rica to Guatemala, where they lived and worked on their new land.

“My father was the coffee grower on our tiny farm,” Diedrich recalls as he sips a cup of black coffee he sourced from Ethiopia. “It was a very hand-to-mouth existence. My brothers and I all had to work on the farm, and it was a ton of hard work. A farmer’s day begins before the sun comes up, and you’re in the fields working as soon as there’s enough daylight to see what you’re doing. You’re out there doing hard physical work all day until it’s too dark to see anything.”

In 1982, at the height of the country’s vicious civil war between the army and paramilitary death squads on the right and an array of leftist guerrilla groups, a band of what Diedrich describes as Guatemalan “thugs” took over the family coffee farm, threatening their lives if they didn’t leave. Diedrich explains the same thing happened to another German family in the area nine months prior, but they didn’t comply. “They thought, ‘We don’t get involved in their business; they won’t get involved in ours.’ That family disappeared. Nobody ever saw them again—not in Guatemala, not in Germany or anywhere else.”

Diedrich’s parents lost everything except their Volkswagen bus, the coffee roaster and their $500 nest egg. Leaving their three kids in Guatemala, they traveled back to California and found a 300-square-foot house in Costa Mesa for the family.

But it was in that small house that Diedrich would embark upon his first successful coffee venture.

Diedrich opened the first Diedrich Coffee prototype in the Hi-Time Wine Cellars center in 1984. Two years later, he established his first, full-blown Diedrich Coffee shop on in Tustin, on the corner of Main St. and Newport Avenue. Then, another opened on 17th Street in Costa Mesa (Nekter Juice currently occupies the spot). From there, he opened another Diedrich location on Bristol and Jamboree, which became a trendy spot people went to be seen.

Photos by John Gilhooley. Design by Richie Beckman

Because of his exposure to the world of java, Diedrich understood the power of the coffeehouse. They were places of human interaction and intellectual connection—something America hadn’t quite caught on to yet, particularly in Orange County. OC’s first real coffeehouse thrived—even after Starbucks arrived.

In 1992, Diedrich sold 45 percent of his company to a private-equity investor for $1 million, which was essentially the beginning of the end of his involvement in Diedrich Coffee. At 4:45 p.m. on June 30, 2004, the CEO of the company Diedrich founded fired him. “He told me that I could work as a coffeehouse manager,” recalls Diedrich. “But I said no. There was obviously no way I could do that.”

Diedrich never saw a penny from the success of Diedrich Coffee, which continues to operate today only as a wholesale coffee brand under a new owner. But on Dec. 26, 2005, he and his wife, Karen, opened Kéan Coffee (named after their son) in Newport Beach. Diedrich says this business will forever be a small, family-run operation. “They screwed me out of my own name,” he says. “But Kéan is about the future and doing what we know best: making coffee a culinary art and providing the best service to our community. What we’re doing now is far superior to what we were doing at Diedrich.”

Aside from serving coffee that tastes just as phenomenal cold as it does hot, Martin and Karen are involved in all kinds of environmental and socially sustainable endeavors. They minimize power usage, resources and water as much as possible, and they take responsibility for their waste. They even haul the cardboard used at Kéan over to the Orange Coast College Recycling Center after work every day. They’re adamant about educating people on the environmental dangers of single-use plastics, such as straws, K-cups, coffee lids and coffee-lid stoppers. They make coffee grounds available for people to use in their gardens. And they only use local products in Kéan Coffee locations, working with other family businesses as much as possible.

“We apply our life’s values to our business because this business is our life,” says Diedrich. “If we had one set of values for our life and another for business, there would never be harmony for us personally or our business. It would never align. But as a result, Kéan Coffee gives my life meaningful purpose because we are serving our community with our gifts, and you can’t replace that. We will thus have a place in our community forever.”

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