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It's A Gray Area: Dietrich found success in his second act

October 01, 2011|By James P. Gray

Last month the Heritage Museum of Orange County inaugurated its speakers' series with a presentation by Martin Dietrich, the founder of Dietrich's Coffee. The theme of the series is how various businesses here in Orange County were created, and how they became successful, and that is exactly the information that Dietrich gave us.

Dietrich was raised in Antigua, Guatemala, where he worked at his family's small coffee plantation. But when he became older, he bought a 1962 Volkswagen bus and drove it north to "make his fortune." When he got as far as Corona del Mar, he happened to meet a man in a gasoline station who convinced him that this was the place to live and work, so that's where he stayed. (Dietrich later found out that he had been speaking to the mayor.)

Dietrich began by selling the coffee beans he brought up from Guatemala in a small shop near the 7-Eleven at Irvine Avenue near Westcliff Drive. But soon his customers suggested that he provide them with some coffee while they were buying his beans, which he did. Later he put in a coffee bar next to Hi-Time Wine Cellars near 17th Street in Costa Mesa, and then about 18 months thereafter he opened his first full-fledged coffee house in Tustin.

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Both of his coffee houses were successful. According to Dietrich, the secrets of his success included, of course, quality products and good service. But what really made the business successful was engendering the overall "Spirit of Hospitality."

In effect, Dietrich was selling a feeling of home, comradeship and an "urban refuge" more than a particular product. In fact, when his customers asked him what separated his stores from his competitors, he responded by asking his questioners to close their eyes and tell him what they heard.

They heard people talking and laughing, and dishes clanking. And what they were surrounded by was quality, not only in the coffee itself, but also in the tabletops, counters, floors, cups and saucers and everything else.

In other words, Dietrich created a quality environment where his customers could discover "community" and would want happily to hang out with other people.

Over time this formula worked so well that Dietrich's Coffee accumulated quite a few stores, and all had loyal clients. So even when the "dreaded" Starbucks came to town, his clients stayed with him.

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