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Of Human Beings & Coffee Beans

Orange County's Diedrich Family Caught On to the Java Craze Three Generations Back. How Will It Fare in the Age of Starbucks?

July 26, 1998|MARTIN J. SMITH | Martin J. Smith's second suspense-thriller, "Shadow Image" (Jove), was published in June

The Irvine office of Diedrich Coffee's "chief coffee officer" looks like the dorm room of an overenthusiastic World Cultures major. The couch has the rump-feel of a garage-sale bargain. A travel poster of a Mayan ruin hangs on one wall. A miniature hand-painted Costa Rican oxcart sits beside his desk. At the moment, in fact, Martin Diedrich, the 39-year-old scion of a $23-million-a-year Southern California coffeehouse family, is talking like a college student--the sort of elliptical, deep-thought conversation that often takes place in a dorm, usually after something more potent than the dark Antigua brew in Diedrich's cup.

"The coffee bean is the seed of the coffee tree, that tree's hope for new life," says Diedrich, his blue eyes intent beneath remarkably lush brows. "And that seed struggles to integrate itself into the cycle of life. In that sense, it's a very living and organic thing. And no matter whether it takes root in Sumatra or Guatemala, it's a product of its environment. The environment pumps life-giving energy into that bean."

Diedrich holds up his cup. It is emblazoned with a Diedrich Coffee logo, the center of which is the Diedrich family crest. "You know, a cup of coffee has no nutritional value at all, yet it's one of the most traded products on earth. And 98.5% of it is local water. The remaining 1.5% of it is really that energy and effort that the parent plant put into that bean. What gives it flavor is the living life force."

The Diedrich company is known for hyping its "passion" for coffee. But today Diedrich seems particularly worked up. A moment later he blurts out what's really on his mind: "My wife and I are expecting our first child in five weeks." Make no mistake: This baby, a boy, is serious stuff for the contemplative Diedrich. And if this newest bean on the Diedrich family tree is a product of its environment, there's a good chance he'll continue a legacy that has survived upheaval and migration, rebellion and reconciliation, not to mention two World Wars. Oddly enough, the Diedrichs, while unique, are only one of several California coffee clans that have survived the Starbucksification of America.

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Not so long ago, most Americans viewed coffee as a quick caffeine jolt or as something to wash down eggs and bacon. It came in two varieties, regular and decaf, and most people bought it in grocery stores in vacuum-sealed cans that opened with a pleasant pfffft. In some cases, that familiar sigh may have been the most satisfying part of the experience. Those granular, bulk-roasted coffees often are made from spongy, lower-grade beans, and the resulting beverage sometimes tastes as if you'd poured boiling water over a brown crayon, then let it steep. That was fine for a coffee-swilling public that didn't know Kona from cappuccino. But in the mid-1970s, true connoisseurs began following their noses into small retail coffee storefronts where beans were roasted on the spot and sold by the pound, fresh out of the roaster. This was not your father's Folgers, customers realized. Fresh-roasted beans offered a heady whiff of heaven mixed with the peaty aroma of earth, and there was no denying the pull of places such as Peet's in the Bay Area, Nicholas Coffee in Pittsburgh or a little shop called Starbucks that opened in 1971 in Seattle's Pike Place Market.

By the mid-1990s, Starbucks had become the 600-pound gorilla of modern coffee retailing. Its stunning corporate advance left a trail of more than 1,400 retail locations in North America and the Pacific Rim, and the company planned to open another 350 North American stores in fiscal 1998. Starbucks may not have a store on every corner, but it seems that way. During a recent episode of "The Simpsons," the animated characters strolled through a shopping mall consisting of nothing but Starbucks coffee bars and vacant stores fronted by "Coming Soon!" signs for more Starbucks.

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