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Of Human Beings & Coffee Beans

INSIDE STORY

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

Many industry experts assumed that smaller vendors would be crushed beneath the Starbucks steamroller, and Martin Diedrich says the dilettantes often are. But "serious" specialty coffee retailers are thriving, he says. "What Starbucks has done with its advertising and marketing is convert a lot of institutional coffee drinkers to specialty coffee, and that has helped a lot of the smaller players." In fact, despite increasingly slick marketing of specialty coffee, the coffee business in many ways still runs on ancient traditions and long-standing relationships. Ted Lingle, for instance, grew up in the family that still operates Lingle Brothers Coffee Inc. of Bell Gardens. He no longer is involved in the wholesale coffee business his grandfather began in 1920, but as executive director of the Long Beach-based Specialty Coffee Assn. of America, an industry trade group, he has contact with many Southern California coffee companies that have survived into the second and third generations under a family name. Third-generation family members still run Apffel Coffee Co. of Los Angeles, which Edward Apffel founded in Oakland in 1914. Four siblings run F. Gavina & Sons Inc. of Vernon, which traces its family's coffee history back 125 years to a Cuban plantation. And family members continue to play a role at publicly held Farmer Brothers Co. in Torrance, one of the country's largest coffee vendors to the food-service industry.

Lingle's organization puts the total value of the world coffee trade at $14 billion a year, with production of mild Arabica coffees--the basis of high-end specialty coffee sales--accounting for $6.7 billion of that. The number of retail coffee cafes, coffee bars, kiosks and espresso carts selling specialty coffee and coffee drinks is expected to reach 10,000 nationwide by next year, an increase of 7,000 outlets since 1994. One recent study estimated that nearly half of all Americans over the age of 10, or 109 million people, drank coffee on any given day last winter, and many of them drank it in one of the endless variations of Italian espresso or in American hybrids such as blended iced mochas. The numbers, however, don't really explain how extensively coffee has insinuated itself into the national consciousness. With Starbucks' 1997 revenues flirting with the $1-billion mark, the phrase "coffee culture" no longer seems adequate to describe the transformation of coffee from a beverage to a social phenomenon.

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In Orange County, the rich, warm aro-ma of high-quality beans first arose from a small Costa Mesa garage in 1972. That's where Carl Diedrich, Martin's father, plugged in a telephone and his hand-built roaster and started doing business. He never intended to sell his coffee retail, but neighbors who followed the scent soon persuaded him to sell a pound here, a pound there. "They'd never experienced anything like it," Martin recalls. "Dad loved to tell stories, and he had a little espresso machine there. He'd make them a cup and sit down on the bags of beans and tell them stories about his life's adventures. That was the beginning of Diedrich Coffee."

In truth, the Diedrich coffee legacy began in 1916, in the family's native Germany. That year, Charlotte Diedrich, Carl's mother, inherited a Costa Rican coffee plantation from a distant uncle. She kept the plantation through the 1930s and visited occasionally, but it slipped from her possession during the turmoil of World War II. Charlotte's passion for coffee survived, though, and she passed it on to her son. After serving as a conscripted infantry soldier in the German army, Carl followed his adventurer's instincts and his mechanical engineering career to all parts of the world--including some of the world's great coffee centers. He studied roasting in Naples, Italy, and visited the thriving coffeehouses of the Middle East to try to understand their appeal. According to family lore, he even followed the coffee trail back to its starting point, the Yeman Mountains on the southern tip of the Arabic peninsula, and lived for a time among people whose ancestors supposedly began growing coffee in the 6th century.

After returning to Germany in the early 1950s, Carl married Inga Zeitz, whose family operated a coffee, tea and cocoa business. Spurred by Carl, the growing Diedrich family became somewhat nomadic. They traveled throughout Central America, and in 1966, Carl and several partners bought a 45-acre coffee plantation in Antigua, Guatemala, where the rich soil and the 5,500-foot elevation created beans that were very dense--the mountain-grown Arabica beans.

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