Don Keen created Dilworth Coffee from a passion for good coffee and a frustration with the lack of it in North Carolina.
For many years, Don, principle owner of Dilworth Coffee, would buy cups of coffee in restaurants and convenient stores take one sip and discard the rest. This became an increasingly irritating routine, as he knew from his travels in Europe that really good tasting coffee and coffee beverages could be enjoyed. His professional career took him to European capital cities where a thriving coffee culture existed.
While losing himself in great lattes in Italy and the rich coffees of Germany his mind drifted back to the sorry state of coffee in the U.S. With impressive ad campaigns like Maxwell Houses’ “Good to the Last Drop” and Folgers “Mountain Grown,” one would think the coffee would be of good quality and taste. And who could forget Mrs. Olsen? Unfortunately this just wasn’t the case. If the U.S. had a coffee culture, it could easily be called “cream and sugar,” as most people needed the added sweetness and cream to make the beverage drinkable.
The Early Years
In every business story, there is what Oprah Winfrey calls an “a-ha” moment. For Don, this moment came in the early 1980’s when he noticed a quantum improvement in the taste of coffees in the finer restaurants of New York City. For the first time, it occurred to Don that there was hope for good tasting coffees in the States. Don’s inquisitive nature uncovered Kobricks coffee company in New York. A company dedicated to offering the restaurant community truly great locally roasted gourmet coffees.
This turn of events occurred at about the same time Don visited some of the 1500 espresso bars in Milan, Italy. A visit to one particular shop generated a defining moment for Don. He stood mesmerized by the many shiny brass bins brimming with locally roasted coffees and couldn’t help but notice the bins held many different roast colors and blends. The beautiful wall of freshly roasted coffees combined with baristas in crisp white aprons busily extracting perfect espresso shots convinced Don this was the right way to do coffee. The idea for a Dilworth Coffeehouse was born in that beautiful shop in the heart of Milan. More importantly, the idea was about to become a reality.
In November 1989, Don and Alyene Keen opened the first Dilworth Coffeehouse. Borrowing heavily from that espresso bar in Milan, they set out to offer the Charlotte market their first taste of finely crafted espresso beverages and gourmet coffees. The store on East Blvd. married their personal ‘”relaxed, comfortable” style with the upscale look of that memorable shop in Italy. Complete with luxurious brass bins to hold the freshly roasted coffee and an Italian espresso machine, Don and Alyene went about changing the coffee culture in Charlotte. Roasting the coffees in the shop afforded them the opportunity to offer only the highest quality and freshest coffee beans in the area.
Initially, there were many skeptics wondering if you could really make a business out of coffee but they weren’t skeptical for long. For most, they welcomed the taste of coffees that equaled the aroma. The first group of pioneer customers at the Dilworth Coffeehouse got to experiment along with Don as he lead the roasting staff in developing the “Dilworth Coffeehouse” style of roasting.
Since that opening in 1989, Dilworth Coffeehouse has been committed and passionate about the development of its roasted coffee program. Many other coffee roasting companies have come and gone in the past 30 years, while Dilworth Coffee has continued to expand its retail and roasting operations. Continued growth is a direct result of dogged determination to stay focused on sourcing, roasting and blending only the finest coffees available. Dilworth Coffeehouse’s commitment to quality is stronger today than it has ever been–and the market is responding favorably.
Creating a Licensed Brand
A milestone in the first 15 years of Dilworth Coffeehouse occurred in the spring of 2000 when Don and Alyene approached the manager of the East Blvd Dilworth location about purchasing their store, which was the beginning of the Dilworth Coffee licensed program.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to accomplish the two primary goals of the company. First, under the ownership of Jennifer Carletto Berg, there would be a re-energized focus on offering the Dilworth neighborhood a local and fresh alternative to the coffee chains. Secondly, the sale of the retail operation would allow the Roastery staff to focus exclusively on the roasting and wholesale operation.
It has been this increased intensity of focus on the roasting operation that has fueled the tremendous growth the company has seen since 2000. Dilworth Coffee had created a successful track record of owning and managing Dilworth Coffeehouses on the retail side, and working with other entrepreneurs in the creation of successful coffee businesses throughout the Charlotte region. The development of a Licensing arrangement was a natural part of the growth of the company.
Early in 2001, the company was approached by the Charlotte Chamber organization to have a Dilworth Coffeehouse in a newly remodeled and renamed visitors bureau. In the spring of 2002 the Dilworth Coffeehouse Main Street location opened to much fanfare and a grateful and loyal customer base. For visitors and employees in the nearby high-rise office buildings alike, Dilworth Coffeehouse offered a wide variety of locally roasted coffees and specialty drinks.
Since that time, Dilworth Coffee has worked with entrepreneurs to establish several more Dilworth Coffeehouses throughout Charlotte’s suburban landscape, extending out to communities like Matthews, NC.
Partnership with Stockton Graham & Co.
Seeking the American dream of becoming entrepreneurs, a North Carolina-born entrepreneur Jeff Vojta thought the Raleigh market was ready for a coffee house concept that offered high quality coffees, and handcrafted espresso drinks in a comforting atmosphere. In 1994, this concept became Classic Coffees, a 784 sq ft. espresso and coffee shop offering some of the best coffees in the Triangle.
Jeff was inspired by Don Keen and Dilworth Coffee. New to the coffee shop business, he spent a lot of time talking to Don and training at Dilworth Coffee houses in the Charlotte area. Jeff considers those early years fundamental in his ongoing coffee business success, and he even served Dilworth Coffees in his Classic Coffees shop.
Business was good. Classic Coffees expanded in 1996 to nearly 2,000 square feet and added a 12kg coffee roaster. This was the beginning of Jeff’s exploration into the art of roasting coffee. During the next several years, the company expanded into four retail locations operating in Raleigh and landed wholesale accounts throughout North Carolina and Virginia. They began selling their coffee to other coffeehouses, gourmet specialty stores, fine dining and other establishments wanting to serve craft-roasted specialty beverages. Due to this high demand, Classic Coffees Roasting Company was created as a wholesale roaster and distributor. Today, that company is called Stockton Graham & Co.
Don Keen was pleased by the success of his young padawan at Stockton Graham & Co. In 2010, Don decided to begin reducing his personal involvement in coffee roasting. In December 2010, Stockton Graham & Co. became the exclusive roaster for all Dilworth Coffees. Don understood that by integrating the roast operations that he started in 1989 into a business modeled after itself, the Dilworth Coffee legacy would continue strong.
Meanwhile Don and his team continued to manage the Dilworth Coffee licensed storefront operations, which grew to stores in Charlotte’s ever-popular SouthPark Mall and the coffee-and-car town of Concord, NC.
The Next Chapter
Seven year had passed, and Don Keen looked to completely retire from all his Dilworth Coffee duties. He approached Stockton Graham & Co. about purchasing the Dilworth Coffee brand outright, including the licensed operations. As a result of those discussions, Dilworth Coffee became wholly owned by a subsidiary of Stockton Graham & Co. in June 2016.
In 2017, under Stockton Graham & Co.’s tutelage, a re-invigorated Dilworth Coffee brand was born. Dilworth Coffee unveiled an exciting brand refresh with the Grand Opening of a new store in uptown Charlotte’s Fifth Third Center, a new logo and new coffee packaging.
The new Dilworth Coffee store is located at 201 N Tryon Street in one of Charlotte’s premier office buildings, the Fifth Third Center. The Dilworth Coffee store refresh includes a new menu focusing on espresso and other hand-crafted coffee preparations and personalized service based on old-fashioned southern hospitality. The new store design emphasizes connections, comfort and community.
The Dilworth Coffee brand refresh was the brand’s first since 2005. It is part of a much larger strategy to redouble the brand’s efforts to meet the needs of coffee connoisseurs who desire artfully crafted espresso and a consistently exceptional customer experience.
The new Dilworth Coffee is a modern interpretation of the brand’s original mission of providing exceptional quality and service in a comfortable neighborhood coffee shop. The new logo centers around the iconic coffee bean, which reinforces the bean as the company’s main focus: its heart and soul.
The new brand visuals also include a signature pattern rooted in the natural colors and textures of the Piedmont region of North Carolina. This pattern is integrated into the new store through signage, menus and wearables.
We’ve also introduced a series of Heritage Blends that pay homage to Dilworth Coffee’s founder and home state of North Carolina. Read more here.
Throughout 2017, the re-invigorated Dilworth Coffee continued to focus on its primary products: wholesale coffee and the licensed Dilworth Coffee storefronts while developing an innovative Proudly Brewing concept.
Watch this space for new, exciting Dilworth Coffee news!