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Labor of love: Bishop Bean back in business

November 18, 2011

Bishop Bean owner Brent Kennedy with employees Jessie Leonard (l) and Kelsey Ditty, almost a year after taking back ownership of the local coffee house and six months after re-opening. Photo by Sterling Schat

Brent Kennedy likes to say there are a thousand ways to ruin a good cup of coffee.
He should know.
For the past 15 years, the Owens Valley native and Bishop High School graduate has been evolving from a self-described heavy-on-the-cream-and-sugar guy to one of the most respected roast masters in the country.
A roast master – coffee’s equivalent to a chef or wine maker – is as much a scientist as he or she is an artist. And not unlike his counterparts in the kitchen or vineyard, Kennedy channels his passion, knowledge and training in an effort to bring only the best to the palettes of his customers – whether those palettes prefer a simple cup of decaf that’s heavy on the cream and sugar, or a more refined brew.
For Kennedy, quality is king, and it’s a mantra come to life throughout the Main Street coffee house he and his wife Bonnie re-opened in Bishop this past May after an extensive, five-month remodel.
Formerly known as The Looney Bean, the Bishop Bean turned 6 months old this month, and while the preceding months have not been without typical small-business growing pains, the consensus among patrons and on consumer review websites is that the Kennedys have another hit on their hands.
Consistently praised are the lattes, cappucinos and espresso creations; the painstakingly and lovingly made fresh baked goods; the creatively-named and incredibly addictive iced and blended coffee drinks; the friendly service; and the new look – a mix of sleek contemporary and warm, earthy bohemian.
All of the coffee is made, of course, from beans roasted by Kennedy, who is also a direct-trade roaster.
Depending on the cup, those beans made their way to Bishop via a port in Long Beach, where they were delivered by Kennedy’s broker after a trip to a farm in some exotic locale such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Sumatra, Brazil, Guatemala or Ethiopia.
And depending on the bean, Kennedy employs a different roasting method, preparing 23-lb. batches at a time.
Much like the grapes used to make wine, the beans that go into a great cup of coffee change with the growing season – and are impacted by weather, drought and various other factors that Kennedy must take into account when ordering inventory and firing up the roaster.
According to Kennedy, because of the variations in the beans from season to season, his favorite cup of coffee changes, but currently he’s enamored with the El Salvador roast.
“It has a sweetness to it” – a subtlety – he said, that’s sublime.
Being able to taste those nuances of flavor is one reason Kennedy is strictly a black-coffee guy now.
“I want to taste what that farmer in El Salvador produced,” he said.
Kennedy’s take on the attributes of a cup of coffee is a far cry from the days when he’d visit Bonnie at the Looney Bean in Mammoth, where she worked in 1996.
The couple had moved to the then-quiet mountain town in 1992 and were eking out livings at whatever jobs they could find.
Almost on a whim, but motivated by the desire for a better life, the Kennedys told the owner if he ever wanted to sell, they were interested in buying. His response, according to Kennedy, was, “No way.”
Three months later, Bonnie’s boss approached the couple and asked if they were still interested in buying the Looney Bean. Their response, according to Kennedy, was, “Absolutely.”
Coming up with the capital for the purchase meant taking out loans from friends and family.
Paul Schat, Kennedy’s childhood friend and owner of Paul Schat’s Bakery in Carson City, was the first to step up with a generous loan.
“It was really Paul’s confidence in us that got the ball rolling,” Kennedy said. “To this day, I’m grateful to Paul Schat.”
And to this day, Schat offers guidance and other assistance with Kennedy’s pastries; Kennedy supplies Schat’s bakery and cafe with its coffee. Also supporting the couple were Kennedy’s parents, Bill and Kathy, and Bonnie’s mother and father, Mike and Jan Horn.
With a strong support system and financial backing in place, the Kennedys essentially learned as they went.
For Brent, this meant immersing himself over the next three years in just about every intensive roasting course available to him.
“When I would go to see my wife at the Looney Bean I was the guy who put creamer and all that foo-foo stuff in my coffee … I knew nothing about coffee,” he said. “As I learned more about coffee, I learned how to taste it, appreciate the flavor of different regions, and I really developed a passion.”
The Kennedys gave their new start everything they had – and never looked back, turning the Mammoth Looney Bean into a hot spot for the burgeoning resort town.
The couple’s success and drive, plus their determination to help those who supported them, would eventually change the course of other family members’ destinies.
Kennedy – after essentially inspiring his siblings (younger and older) to follow in his footsteps by tantalizing their tastebuds – helped brother Randy open a Looney Bean in Montrose, Colo., brother Tom open Kennedy Coffee in Bentonville, Ark. and a close friend open a Looney Bean in Mazatlan, Mexico. Fourth brother Bill owns Coffee PER, Inc., which manufactures the San Franciscan coffee roasters used in all of the coffee houses.
Lease issues prompted a temporary closure of the Mammoth location in 2005, just as local developer Gary Olsen was coming up with designs for the commercial complex at the corner of Main and West Pine streets in Bishop.
From the start, Kennedy knew he wanted a Looney Bean in the Bishop business center.
He started working with Olsen and was able to design his coffee house from the ground up, using concepts he admired from myriad coffee houses he’s visited around the world.
The end result, which opened in 2006, “is the most beautiful coffee house I’ve ever been to,” Kennedy said.
Shortly after the Bishop Bean opened, the Kennedys were able to find a new location for their Mammoth coffee house, and simultaneously ran both locations for a while. They eventually sold the Mammoth location.
By 2006, the couple, parents to Paris (now 14) and London (now 10), had relocated to Bend, Ore., though they do still live part of the year in Bishop.
Brent and Bonnie sold the Bishop location to another couple that year, opening what would become the fifth Looney Bean a year-and-a-half-ago in Bend.
When that couple decided to close the Bishop Bean last October, Kennedy said, he felt he couldn’t stand by and watch Bishop lose its locally owned coffee house.
By all accounts, it was through great personal sacrifice that the Kennedys not only took back ownership of the Bishop Bean, but brought it back to life.
“We didn’t want to see the Bishop Bean go away,” Kennedy said.
And they’ve returned with a determination to provide their hometown with the best coffee house possible.
To that end, the Kennedys revamped the menu, undertook the aforementioned remodel and enlisted a top-notch crew, including Paul Schat’s cousin, Sterling Schat, to bake the Bishop Bean’s acclaimed pastries (both men are from a family of five generations of Dutch master bakers).
“Our goal is to be THE community coffee house,” Kennedy said, “not only because we’re local, but because we’re the best: the best service, the best baked goods and the best quality beans in the whole world.”
The Bishop Bean is open 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sundays. Kennedy urges locals who haven’t already done so to stop in for a fresh-baked scone or bagel, or hot cup of coffee – with as much cream and sugar as they like.

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