Tucked in among large Jacaranda trees on a sleepy side street in the historic district of San Juan Capistrano, California, inside a 120-year-old cottage building, sits Hidden House Coffee Roasters. The cozy space has a lively energy with a steady flow of locals and tourists who are drawn in by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and house-made pastries.
Hidden House owner Ben Briggs dove into coffee in his early 20s, after serving a four-year stint in the Marine Corps, with a dream of owning a mom-and-pop cafe. Briggs had no prior experience in coffee — he perhaps naively saw the business as a way to make some extra money on the side.
Then coffee happened.
After opening Hidden House in 2010, Briggs began attending events, testing brewing recipes, and reading blogs to learn as much as he could about coffee roasting and running a coffee shop. In 2013, a 5-kilo Primo roaster was added to the shop and the company’s name was updated to include the distinction of being a coffee roaster.
“The intention was always to roast our own coffee, rather than buy wholesale coffee,” Briggs said. “We found a local roaster manufacturer and bought the roaster. Then we found a local importer — Bodhi Leaf Coffee Traders — drove there, bought some green coffee, drove it back, and started roasting.”
Now, Hidden House has built a strong presence in the region and recognition among the specialty coffee community, yet that success has not come without some financial setbacks and painful business decisions.
In 2016, Hidden House expanded with two additional Orange County locations, while in the midst of a build out on a new location in Santa Ana — which officially opened in January of 2017 after almost two years in construction. The Santa Ana buildout included the installation of a US Roaster Corp 18-kilo machine, which is now being used for roasting all Hidden House retail needs and wholesale orders.
“Dealing with architects, city permits, construction, and funding were all things just to get the store open,” Briggs said of some of the challenges the company faced with the Santa Ana location. “Once the store was open, we had to manage staffing and consistency of service, as well as consistency of product — not to mention the challenges of trying to build a new clientele to sustain a new store.”
Despite the company’s best efforts to maintain all four stores, ultimately Hidden House made the decision to sell both of the locations it had acquired in 2016.
“The biggest challenge I have faced is the constant pressure to expand,” Briggs said. “Going from one to four stores was a learning experience that no business school could have prepared me for — it was the hardest thing I have ever done.”
The move to close the two less profitable stores allowed Briggs to be able to focus his energy on ensuring the success of the new location, as well as his latest endeavor — an eatery down the street called Dear Lacy, which opened in the spring of last year. During this time, Briggs was also in the process of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Vanguard University and planning a wedding with his now wife, Devyn Briggs.
As a business owner, Briggs says he has always taken the approach of “leading from the front” — meaning that he won’t ask anything of anyone on his staff to do something if he isn’t willing to do it himself.
“Leadership is something that I feel is lacking in a lot of businesses, and I truly believe leadership is something that has to be earned,” Briggs said. “I want to make sure that I am always constantly trying to get better at what we do, and ensure that everyone is happy to be a part of our team.”
Briggs credits the Marine Corps for building up both work ethic and leadership skills, which are now translated into the hospitality/retail business.
“We want to make sure the Hidden House service experience is great the first time,” Briggs said. “We literally have one shot at ensuring that a first-time guest becomes a long-time customer.”
Three Questions with Ben Briggs
What inspires you most about coffee?
I love that coffee is never the same. It is something that is constantly changing, and always requires attention. I also love how this industry truly can be a community-building business. I have met some people in the industry that will be lifelong relationships. I met my wife through Hidden House. Coffee is an international language that can truly shape and form a community.
What troubles you most about coffee?
I think the biggest thing right now is that I really don’t understand the phrase “support local roasters” anymore. I feel like in today’s market, many multiroaster shops are selecting their coffee based on whoever has the coolest branding, or the biggest name, and so on — it seems to be more about following trends rather than supporting local coffee businesses.
However, the coffee culture is definitely growing in Orange County, and it is amazing to see. Within the companies that are currently open, there is so much diversity — even though we all serve coffee — and that’s the great part about what this industry can do. I truly don’t view other specialty coffee companies as competition, but rather I see it as the more the merrier. I don’t think all owners think this way, but there is not much I can do about that other than try to remain open and welcoming to the larger coffee community.
What would you be doing if it weren’t for coffee?
I would really like to consult for people, drawing on everything I have learned to help other businesses. I’d like to help companies get from point C to F.
Lily Kubota is the digital content manager of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. She is based in Southern California.