Carl Diedrich's Memorial Van / A reality shrine
first time I saw the Carl
Diedrich Memorial Van was in 1978. It was
parked outside Diedrich’s 10-foot-by-25-foot coffee import shop
at the back end of a strip mall near the corner of Irvine Boulevard
and 17th Street in Costa Mesa, California. In fact, the VW van is
how I found Diedrich’s.
It was a landmark. If you spotted it, you had found the best coffee
beans in the world.
van and Carl Diedrich are a part of Orange County history. Before
the trendy chain coffeehouses of the early
1990s — with their venti
half-caff nonfat no-foam double-cupped lattes — Diedrich refined Orange
County’s java palate and primed our psychotropic engines. He
grew his own beans, designed and built his own roaster, and hauled
the beans in his van from his Guatemalan finca to his Costa Mesa shop,
where he roasted them and brewed espresso.
coffee was trimethyxanthine paradise, a cup of Elysium. Like Zeus
employing Pegasus to carry his
thunderbolts, Diedrich with his VW
lit up Orange County.
it’s time to commemorate the two of
German-born Diedrich and his van set out for their first roundtrip
coffee run to Guatemala in 1972. Crossing the border at
they fought the elements and the pre-National Highway Improvement
roads through Hermosillo, Mazatlán, Guadalajara, Mexico
City, Oaxaca and the highlands of Chiapas into Guatemala. There,
made the last
leg of their journey to Diedrich’s coffee plantation, situated
on the slopes of Lake Atitlán, "the most beautiful
lake in the world," according to Aldous
Huxley. Over the next
decade, eight times each year, Carl and his van hauled 2,000 pounds
coffee beans on the 1,500-mile return run to California.
was the beginning of Diedrich Coffee. But Carl had no master plan.
He didn’t aspire to a Diedrich Coffee chain with stores
in 37 states and 11 countries. Carl was not concerned with wealth
His goal was "excellence." In today’s world, that
sounds like junk English — there’s not a company on
the NASDAQ that hasn’t
overused the word. But trust me: Carl was one excellent dude.
Over a lifetime, he was an engineer who helped build a Ford auto
in Saudi Arabia and roads in Romania and Bulgaria. He was a marine
on Vancouver Island who became one of the world’s leading
authorities on whale behavior. He was a high-rise construction
engineer in Los
Angeles who knitted clothes for his children and built finely
crafted furniture and clocks.
1938, Diedrich was working in England as an automobile engineer
with Ford Motor Co. Seeking a warmer climate, he attempted to
transfer to a Ford plant in Romania. But at the consulate in
officials revoked his passport, presenting him instead with a
one-way train ticket to Berlin. The Wehrmacht was poised to invade
Diedrich had been conscripted to serve as an artillerist in the
German army. By war’s end, he was on Germany’s last
line of defense, his back against the walls of his hometown of
Berlin. In the ensuing
bombing raids, all of the Diedrich women except his mother were
killed, all of the family’s belongings destroyed. Carl,
only surviving male, headed south with his mother — betrayed
by his country and Hitler’s maniacal rule.
days before World War II’s armistice in 1945, tiny Costa
Rica deftly declared war on Germany and confiscated the land
holdings of all German nationals. As a result, the Diedrich
only remaining property — a Costa Rica coffee plantation Carl’s
mother had inherited after her uncle’s death in World
War I — was gone. Despite an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim
1965 visit to Costa Rica, Diedrich became a joint owner of another
just one year later.
then, Carl had cultivated an interest in coffee roasting and brewing.
Embracing the warm climate,
Carl, his wife and
sons found themselves
overlooking the shores of Lake Atitlán. In 1971, Diedrich
bought his VW van and was on the move again. A chance stop
at a Corona del
Mar gas station convinced him that Orange County was ripe for
the coffee business. His family relocated again and opened
a shop in a rented
Costa Mesa garage before moving to the nearby strip mall where
I first spotted his landmark VW.
was then that Diedrich’s
relationship with his van blossomed; the man and his car were
like a single mythical beast, a coffee-bearing
centaur. The rest is history on wheels. He reinforced its
drive train and transaxle to carry the heavy load of beans, stripped
out the interior
for maximum cargo space, and added a bench chest with parts
for repairs, air horns on the cab’s roof and, on the
tailgate, a fiberglass banner that read, "Via con Dios":
Go with God.
via con Dios he did. Before each journey, he asked his SoCal customers
to donate old clothing, canned
old TVs. He packed his customers’ largess into the
back of his van — gifts he gave to friends he met along his
route. The trip became
so frequent that every year, he had to scrape dozens of border-crossing
transit stickers off the van’s front and back windows
in order to see out. He loved his work. His family called
it "his Mexican
affair ended in 1982, when all political and economic hell broke
loose in Guatemala. Diedrich sold
Diedrich never lost his sense of adventure. He, his wife and the
van continued their trips together, to Mexico
California’s deserts. In 1983, his sons Steve and
Carl Jr. refined Diedrich’s coffee-roaster design
and established Diedrich Manufacturing, makers of coffee-roasting
equipment, in Sandpoint, Idaho — that’s
where the van is now. That same year, Diedrich’s
son Martin joined his coffee import business.
retired in 1985, and Martin took over. On July 31,
2001, Carl Diedrich succumbed to Parkinson’s disease
at the age of 86.
all the high-wired times he brought to Orange County,
we owe Diedrich a great deal. And part of that great deal
Van. It already comes fully equipped. The only thing Orange
County has to do to acquire a first-class mechanical shrine
out a way to maneuver it out of Idaho. My guess is we can
get it on
the cheap. And it’s a hell of lot more meaningful
than most of Orange County’s public art, those sad
metal blobs scattered among our ubiquitous steel-and-glass
corporate offices or those putrid framed
wildflowers pasted on our freeway’s sound walls.
The Carl Diedrich Memorial Van could tour Orange County
— the Bowers, Huntington Beach,
OCMA, the Muckenthaler, Fullerton, Laguna Beach. It would
look great in the foyer at South Coast Plaza next to Diedrich
Coffee. We could
leave it there on display until it takes up permanent residence
at the Museum of Science and Industry in the Great Park
at El Toro.
say you, Orange County? The Carl Diedrich Memorial
Let’s get wired and make it happen.
Callahan, December 27, 2001 (This article originally appeared in
2004, Martin Diedrich, left behind the corporate environs of Diedrich
Coffee to return to his origins as an independent coffeehouse operator.
Martin and his wife Karen named this next generation of coffeehouse
after their son, Kéan. Just a stones throw from the first location
where Martin had originally joined his parents Carl and Inga, Kéan
Coffee is the home of the best coffee beans in the world. In
2007, Carl's van returned to Orange County where it is now, once again,
navigating 17th Street and beyond — this time under the guidance of