It started with many bad cups of coffee. During college Don Keen had tried just about every brand, but in distaste and dissatisfaction he was left convinced that there should be more to it.
It wasn’t until he traveled to Europe that he truly discovered coffee and what it was supposed to taste like. “I quickly found that it wasn’t coffee I didn’t like, it was how it was being brewed that didn’t appeal to me,” he explains.
That revelation was the catalyst for the chemical engineer and international sales rep for Celanese Corporation (since retired) to launch Dilworth Coffee.
From day one, Don and his wife Alyene made it their passion to be a quality provider of fresh roasted gourmet coffee in the Charlotte marketplace. Today, they are Charlotte’s oldest independent roaster and wholesaler of coffee and coffee products, operating two coffeehouses, and serving the area’s most discriminating coffee drinkers since 1989.
Brewing a business
Charlotte was a different city when Dilworth Coffee opened its doors 20 years ago.
“For starters, there wasn’t a single Starbucks,” Keen, now 71, remembers. “People weren’t familiar with coffeehouses; they weren’t part of our culture they way they are today.”
For some time, the Keens had toyed with the idea of opening a boutique coffeehouse that roasted its own beans. Then in 1988, a business opportunity presented itself when a local coffee shop, Coffee Exchange, began to struggle financially. Keen attributes it to a bad location uptown and business plan.
“I got some great advice from a banker who said ‘Wait until they go out of business and buy their assets,’” he recalls. The advice paid off.
“After we bought the company, the first thing we did was move the store to a better location,” remembers Keen. That location was East Boulevard in Dilworth. Although the neighborhood wasn’t nearly the community it is today, they saw it as a charming place with infinite potential.
In 1989 they roasted the first batch of Dilworth Coffee. “We were immediately embraced by the community,” Keen says. “So by the time Caribou Coffee opened a few years later, followed by Starbucks, we already had a strong customer base in place.”
“We quickly learned that people were willing to pay a premium for hand-crafted beverages,” says Keen. “But that being said, they wanted only the freshest coffee.”
A few years later the Keens seized an opportunity to open a second location uptown. Although the store was only in operation for five years, the experience showed Keen that there was indeed a market to expand the Dilworth Coffee brand.
Ideas of expansion were made easier in 1993, when Sandy May, a regular to the coffeehouse, joined the Dilworth Coffee team.
“I was fortunate to have an opportunity to learn all aspects of the business—from setting up a store—the retail and wholesale side of things—as well as the art of roasting,” May remembers.
As Keen describes it, May “emerged as a leader” and began taking on larger responsibility within the company. Today he serves as president and has an ownership stake as well.
In 2002, the Keens were approached by the Belks about opening a location in their store at SouthPark Mall; a year later the store opened to much success.
Over the years business has expanded, with demand calling for more products than they could produce with the roaster at the East Boulevard store. So they moved their roasting operations to a warehouse in South End, which also became the corporate headquarters and training center.
On a typical day, 1,000 pounds of coffee can be roasted, which is then distributed to stores and other customers. To maintain freshness, coffee is roasted every Monday through Thursday and distributed within hours.
With the roaster and two locations, it became apparent to Keen that they could expand the wholesale side of the business, whereas they were limited in manpower on the retail side of the business.
The answer: Keen, together with May, put together a licensing program for independent owners looking to become a Dilworth Coffee location. The program helps the business owners get operational and allows them to use the Dilworth Coffee brand as a launching pad for their business.
“People trust our name as a provider of quality products,” explains Keen. “Having a trusted name behind a new business can help tremendously when breaking into the market.”
Today, the company still owns the East Boulevard and SouthPark Mall locations, while the 12 other store locations are individually owned and licensed.
In addition to supplying coffee for their stores, Dilworth Coffee sells its products to many neighborhood restaurants and shops, such as Amelie’s French Bakery in NoDa, Pike’s Old Fashioned Soda Shoppe, Nova Bakery in Plaza-Midwood, and Alice Jule’s Coffeehouse in Monroe. In total, they have over 150 wholesale clients.
Taste is king
When asked what makes their coffee different from that of their competitors, Keen answers quickly and resolutely, “Taste and quality.”
“Our goal from the very beginning was to bring the quality of European coffee here to Charlotte,” he continues. “And I think we’ve succeeded in doing so.”
Keen explains that he founded the company on the principles that freshness rules and taste is king and maintains that achieving superior taste is a science in itself.
And this science he says “starts with the bean.” Keen and May strive hard to find the best beans on the market, which often involves traveling. Keen tells of trips to Mexico, South America, and Europe—all, which he says, were part of the learning process.
“We’ve spent extensive time studying the different regions across the globe and the growing processes for different beans,” explains Keen.
Dilworth Coffee is assisted in this process by special coffee brokers who bring them beans from different regions which they then test in-house.
“We are looking for beans we can get the most out of,” Keen says. “Our goal is to roast every bean to peak flavor.”
And how is this achieved? “Trial and error,” May says with a smile. “They only way to find the right coffee is taste evaluations. It can be a long process—but it’s a fun one.”
Keen says over the years they’ve learned to match their coffee with what they feel best matches the Southeastern taste bud, which he describes as going for flavor above the burnt taste popular in areas like the Pacific Northwest.
Dilworth’s coffee is high in flavor and intended to be drunk without any added extras, namely sweeteners. “You lose the purity of the coffee when you add to it,” May insists.
When asked about a favorite flavor, May refers to the Morehead Estate, which he says is drinkable all day long. Keen also boasts about their anniversary blend as “rich, complex, and balanced.”
Adding to the unique experience and superior quality offered at Dilworth Coffee is the fact that each beverage is hand-crafted—meaning there are no super automatic buttons or machines in the shops.
“We are following the traditions of espresso etiquette, which states a 25-second pour for each drink,” Keen says proudly. “We got serious about espresso about 10 years ago and have made it a large part of our business. Its success comes from our attention to the details.”
“It is the harder way to do things, but it forces us to be better,” May adds. “We are going the extra step and the market is responding.”
A visit to the neighborhood Dilworth Coffee shop is more than a freshly roasted cup of coffee; its a comfortable respite and a place of familiarity and neighborhood feel. Each shop has a loyal following with many customers working visits into their weekly and sometimes daily routines. All locations offer free Wi-Fi and some feature local acoustic musicians from time to time.
“We’re a gathering place,” May offers. “And each store has its own feel, from the décor to their ability to customize for their particular neighborhood.”
“But they all share the same guarantee for great quality,” Keen adds.
At each location you will find a menu of core products, like the company’s signature flavors and blends, which May says accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the each store’s business.
These days Dilworth Coffee’s menu features 20 to 25 small batch-roasted coffees. Additionally, they supply a full compliment of products such as syrups, powders and sauces needed to make the company’s core products.
“We invite creativity from the store owners,” says May. “Although each store offers store specific specials, you can always rely on the quality behind the Dilworth Coffee brand and customers appreciate that.”
“I was drawn to Dilworth Coffee because they were a local company,” remembers Colleen O’Grodnick, who has owned and operated the Mint Hill shop for three years. “The product is fresh and something I can get my hands on without worrying about shipping. I like what they stand for, and find that our philosophies align.”
Upon becoming a Dilworth Coffee licensee, owners and employees undergo extensive training. “We make sure they are expert by the time their doors open,” says Keen.
May and Keen work particularly with the baristas (coffeehouse jargon for those entrusted with the preparation of espresso-based coffee drinks), encouraging them to be craftsman as opposed to order takers.
“We hold barista competitions along with public and private training sessions,” May describes. “These events help to elevate awareness and develop the barista culture.”
Although the national chains seem to be struggling with the current economic downturn, Keen and May have noticed little more than a slowdown in new business startups and view it as an opportunity to expand market share. Unlike the contractions of their competitors, they’ve maintained their market presence, pointing to the newest Dilworth Coffeehouse which recently opened in Ballantyne Village.
While they aren’t shy about growing the brand, May and Keen say the company will continue in its natural expansion.
“We shoot for 10 percent annual sales growth,” discloses May. “And we are proud to say we’ve met that percentage growth 18 out of the past 20 years.”
Currently, Dilworth Coffee can be found throughout North Carolina and South Carolina and recently expanded into Georgia.
“North and South Carolina make sense for us because they are in our backyard,” May explains. “Eventually, we hope to expand the brand throughout much of the Southeast, and the way things are taking shape, we are well on our way.”
Acknowledging the slowdown as offering with it certain challenges, May also says that it is giving them insight into what is most important to their customers—quality.
“The marketplace is a little softer, but people are still coming in the door,” he explains. “We aren’t losing customers, but we are seeing customers trading down on the size of their orders. What we are learning is that people aren’t willing to give up that good cup of coffee.”
“Which means that right now, the pressure is on to be really good—every cup,” Keen says. “And that is what keeps us motivated to get it right, and to keep getting better. We are proud and passionate about the products we sell and we are confident that you can taste the difference.”