Hidden House Coffee Roasters
Conversation lingers in the window as roasted coffee warms the air. The door yawns wide as fresh beans hum from a single grinder. Espresso froths over porcelain on its way to the counter as silverware pinballs against the rim of coffee cups. Nestled behind the California Amtrak in the Historic District of San Juan Capistrano, Hidden House Coffee Roasters serves as both a communal ground and a slow living staple in Orange County. Considered a neighborhood oasis, Hidden House offers a break from daily motion; a resting station in our race to finish the day.
We sit with owner and employee Ben Briggs to discuss the perfect cup, the community surrounding Hidden House Coffee, and how he hopes to continue fostering relationships in San Juan Capistrano.
Tell us about the origins of Hidden House Coffee.
For me, personally, Hidden House was an accident. I grew up playing hockey, and my dad contacted the rink owner to see if we could run a small coffee shop with their equipment as a means for my team to raise money. His only rules were that the team worked the booth and the proceeds would go back to building the team. That was the only experience I had been given with coffee. That was when I was thirteen. Hidden House stems from the mom & pop dream of owning a cafe. We found this building for lease and thought it would be a really great coffee shop. We opened it up as Hidden House.
What is your connection with San Juan Capistrano?
San Juan is one of the most unique towns. Before we opened Hidden House, I knew nothing about this place. The more we got involved in the setting, we began to see so many cool aspects. It almost makes you feel like you’re outside of Orange County. And the street we’re on [Los Rios Street] ― it doesn’t get much better than this. The train is right across from our store, with a porch to sit out on. San Juan has a small town feeling, which, in Orange County is really awesome and hard to replicate.
Could you describe the first few years of business? How did you measure success?
The first two years were pretty rough. Five years ago this area was not as big of an attraction as it is now. It was much slower. The only traffic we had through the week was maybe a passerby going to Ramos House Cafe. There were times where we would sell ten things in an entire day; days where we only made $50 in sales. I was here 7 days a week open to close. We didn’t have a huge staff or a huge payroll. We had no identity when we opened. We were just a mom and pop shop with no idea what we were doing or why we were doing it. Once we found the direction we wanted to go in, the specialty world, we began refining our menu. We started evolving into what we are today. It was a very slow process. Measuring success, for me, was taking what we started with, throwing everything but our name away, and rebuilding Hidden House Coffee Roasters into what it is today.
Could you explain the transition from serving in the armed forces to serving coffee?
[Laughs] Looking back, I never thought, in my entire life, that I would be in the service industry; let alone serving coffee to people. It took me a while to get used to it. The first two years were just different. Leaving the marines ― being told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. It’s much different being told the same things by a customer. It was a bit of a mental challenge but because of my military background, it’s 100% one of the reasons why we are able to do what we do. Knowing that as you start something new, you have to work for its success. Every single day, from open to close, however long it takes. We had to create our space. The marines definitely helped me get here.
You recently visited Ethiopia for coffee sourcing, could you touch upon your discoveries?
I hadn’t been to Africa until this trip. Ethiopia is my favorite origin for coffee, so it was cool to finally visit. I’ve been going to Central America the last two years, but never Africa. Once you’ve seen one coffee farm it can feel like you’ve seen them all. It’s how they process their beans that separate them. It’s something that’s really cool to see at the farm level. It was a culture shock for sure. We drove 12 hours across half of the country to get to the farm. It was not the easiest trip. I went there for coffee and gained an entire cultural experience.
What do you look for in a coffee bean? Is their an initial quality you seek before roasting?
There are several aspects we look at. The defects of the beans, the moisture content, the processing of the farm that they come from and the certifications that farm has. For me, if it tastes good, I’m interested. It all starts with taste. The goal is to take the coffee we buy and bring out the best of it. Our job is to bring the natural exotic notes of these beans to life.
What is your perfect cup?
I have two, and they go together. I love to wake up and have an amazing espresso to start ― something smaller and more concentrated. After that, I would finish with a drip. It’s those days where you can get that good coloring, a sweet nose, and you can just taste all the different nuances in the tiny espresso shot. There are so many different variables going into that little amount of liquid that when you can pull them all together, it’s like ― “Wow. That has a nice mouth feel to it, a good finish, there’s no bitter or sour after-taste.” I love when that happens. I typically finish that with an African style coffee. Something sweeter and juicy.
What is the perfect Hidden House experience?
A lot of it has to do with the atmosphere. We really play into the area around us. The trees, the train, everything that comes with downtown San Juan. We hope people walk in and see that we’re different than what you might expect ― from the greeting and customer service to the product. We want people to experience a cultural goodness. The experience is just as important as the product we sell.
How does Hidden House Coffee impact the community?
It’s a place to come and see familiar faces. I see it from behind the bar, the roaster, and when I’m sitting down. People show up and run into great friends that weren’t expecting to be here at the same time. It’s cool to see this place become a community of its own. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see somebody that you know or that you’ve met because of this place and formed a new friendship with.
The atmosphere surrounding Hidden House Coffee alludes to a sense of closeness and family among the staff, could you explain how this sense of family inspires you and the business?
I keep a small staff on purpose. The sense of closeness brings us together. You actually get to know who you’re working with. I know when something cool happens in a staff member’s life. That makes our team feel really unique. From day one that’s something we’ve been blessed with. As cheesy as it sounds, we’ve become a family that works here. I’ve made so many friends that I would have never met if we didn’t open up this shop. Hopefully everything we do and touch remains unique and special. We never want to lose sight of quality over quantity.
31791 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675