AKA Coffee Creative Director Brian Jones
We talk with AKA Coffee’s Creative Director Brian Jones about reimagining a brand, taste, and the importance of design.
Brian: My name is Brian Jones. I’m one of the co-founders of AKA Coffee. My primary role with the company is that I do all of the design and branding and all of the marketing. I manage our website, help update it when we have new coffees, work with our social media.
We’re a really small company. There are only four of us, so we pretty much are all hands on deck for other things.
I work remotely most of the time, but when I’m in town I help fill bags of coffee on production day. Whenever we do events, like you met me in Portland, I was there brewing coffee for people and talking with people about the company. I do a little bit of everything.
Kandace: You feel much bigger than four people, that’s amazing.
Brian: Yeah. We get that a lot. It’s sort of the double-edged sword, I think, of having a designer sort of a part of the company, is things sometimes feel a little more polished, so people think that we’re bigger than we are. And that can sometimes actually have a negative affect, I think. But it can also be a benefit as well.
Kandace: How did you guys get started? What made you decide to start a coffee company together?
Brian: We kind of have a long and complex story, so I’ll try to keep it short. But, originally we started the company and we had a different name and different brand entirely. We were called Supersonic Coffee.
The way all of that got started was my partner John had left his job at Verve, and he was doing some different contract projects and was approached my someone who wanted to start a coffee company. He already had a roasting space and equipment and everything. And, John had previously run a café and roasting company in Walnut Creek years ago. He had recently left working at Verve Coffee and all of a sudden this opportunity was presented to start a coffee company in the San Francisco area.
His wife, who’s from the Faroe Islands, had just moved over from Denmark. They decided together that they wanted to go for it and start this coffee company. They had worked in coffee kind of directly and peripherally for many years and one of the things that they realized from the start was that, in a market like San Francisco — where there’s already a lot of good coffee roasting companies, but also a lot of really strong brands — that design would play a big part in sort of the recognition and success from the start of the company.
I had worked with Bjorg previously in Copenhagen with this event that she used to organize called the Nordic Barista Cup. And so we had a working relationship and she really loved my design work and the way that I worked. And John knew me from my relationship with Bjorg, and I’ve worked on design projects for other coffee companies. So they were familiar with my work and really liked what I had done.
Crafting a Brand
So, they sort of brought me in at the beginning as the third person to kind of help create things from the start. We all had a very similar idea of what type of coffee we liked, how we wanted to roast the coffee, and how we wanted to present the product. But, there was no name, there was no identity. All of that needed to be crafted. And I helped with that process from the beginning.
We actually did a couple, all hands on deck workshops that lasted a couple of days. We did a retreat down in Half Moon Bay, California, where we had a workspace for three days and just kind of sorted things out then.
So that was how we started the company. We all loved coffee and we all always wanted to put our own spin on things instead of just working for other people. The opportunity arose for us to do that.
But, we didn’t work out too well with our investor; we had different views of where we wanted to take the company and what we wanted to do, so after about a year or a year and a half, we actually split ways with the investor. And so, we went back to just being sort of a mom and pop. It was just the three of us. We moved into a different co-roasting space and started over.
And meanwhile, while all this was going on, We had a trademark dispute with a very large fast food company who took issue with us using the name Supersonic. During that whole process, we were renaming, rebranding, and working on what the future of the company would be. We got to start over in a sense; we got a second change to re-evaluate who we were and how we wanted to represent what we are doing.
What’s in a Name
Kandace: So what do you think changed from Supersonic to AKA?
It’s actually I think one of the most interesting things, was how people responded to the new brand. The product was exactly the same, we are still roasting on a Loring. We are still sourcing our green coffee from the same import partners and even some of the same farms. The product, on the inside, didn’t change at all.
There were definitely people who we had to talked to as Supersonic who liked our products, but didn’t really buy from us for one reason or another. Then, as soon as we rebrand, they decided all of a sudden that they wanted to work with us.
So, in some ways their reasons why they did that, or they had their own reasons for doing it. But I think also a lot of it spoke to the brand itself.
Supersonic was very different and that was part of the idea when we launched it. Everything from the name, to the design and the packaging. We used neon green. We used the metallic silver. We used colors and textures that weren’t common.
When you look at café design—approaching this as a wholesale coffee company—a lot of cafes, a lot of time, have a much more organic or tactile aesthetic. You have a lot of wood textures, you have a lot of cozy atmospheres that are designed by coffee shop owners, which is great, because customers love them. We show up with a packaging that is extremely contrasted to all of that, so even if the coffee … Even if people liked the product inside, the packaging and the branding didn’t really sit well on their retail shelves. It was a problem when we realized that we were going to be doing a lot of wholesale coffee. Originally, we had planned on opening our own retail cafes, so we would’ve been able to design the entire experience, and the whole space, that all fit within the brand aesthetic of Supersonic.
But when we sort of shifted our business plan to more wholesale, then it started to pose a little bit more of a challenge that we had to work with.
At AKA, we wanted to address that, so the color palette is decidedly more neutral. But also, I think, still unique in the realm of coffee, by using the salmon, peachy color. We have a palette of different pastels, which are definitely trendy at this point, but I think the way that we have started using them, are still fairly unique in the world of coffee.
We kept that uniqueness, while also creating something that was more approachable and a little more softer. It sits well in a variety of different types of retail environments, which, I think, is incredibly important if you are a roaster who is selling wholesale to coffee shops, because there are so many different types of designs.
Kandace: Do you think that you’ll have a retail space of your own in the future?
Brian: Yes, it’s still in the plans. So with Supersonic, basically what happened was we, in the trademark dispute, part of the agreement was that we couldn’t use the name in retail. So we were allowed to keep using it as a wholesaler until we rebranded. So that sort bought us some time, so we didn’t have to rush the rebrand. But it also meant that we couldn’t open retail, which is definitely a big part of what we want to do. I mean, it’s a great way to kind of share the experience of what you’re trying to create with your customers.
And so without having that sort of showroom or showplace for your brand, and being able to show people like how you want your coffee represented, it can sometimes make it harder to … Well it’s harder to find customers in a market, especially like San Francisco, because you’re out of sight, out of mind. Like if people can walk down the street and go to Ritual or go to Sightglass, or any of the other great coffee shops in San Francisco. That’s always on the front of people’s minds. So, when you don’t have a retail space, it becomes a little bit more difficult to raise brand awareness.
Brian: It’s hard to sell coffee that way, and it’s also hard for just everyday customers to sort of discover you. I mean, we have a lot of local customers that, like they will come to our roastery on our production day to pick up their coffee, just to save on shipping, because we don’t have our own cafés. So they can’t just walk in and buy the coffee. So, we try to be as accommodating as we can to the local customers.
We are working on a retail space. One of them that we had in the works, it was sort of an outdoor kiosk, and that kept getting delayed because of permitting issues. And so we’re still working through all of that right now. But retail is definitely a big part of what we want to do.
Kandace: Can you tell me about your coffee, you mention that AKA coffee is thoughtfully roasted, can you talk more about that?
So, you know, Bjorg coming from Denmark, she lived in Copenhagen for most of her adult life. Myself, I have lived in Sweden now for seven years and John has spent a lot of time visiting. So, we’ve all been exposed…a lot of our peers are sort of the Scandinavian style, which is a little bit lighter on the roast spectrum.
However, I think in the last three years, in the process of figuring out who you are and what you’re trying to do, we definitely have found a sweet spot. We’re by no means as light as a lot of our Scandinavian peers. When I bring my coffee to the cupping table of some of my friends here, our coffee always stands out.
I n terms of where we sit in the market in the U.S., we’re very happy with how we developed the coffee and we definitely like coffees that are a little more acidic and brighter. But you always want to balance that out with sweetness. You don’t want it to be grassy and jarring. And, that’s sort of where a good roaster comes in. I think there’s a lot of really good roasters in the U.S., especially on the West Coast, who are accomplishing that.
And then also I think when it comes to green buying, like when we all cup together, making our green coffee decisions, we’re usually really calibrated in terms of which coffees we think are the best on the table, and which ones we want to buy.
The lineup of our coffees over the last three years has been fairly specific in scope, but we think they’re really fantastic coffees. We really love coffees from Colombia and also East Africa. Kenya and Ethiopia of course are gems.
In the three years we’ve been a company we’ve only had two natural process coffees, which I think is a display of sort of what we enjoy. But also sort of what we look for in coffees. And we like really clean coffees with really transparent flavors. And with natural coffees, that can sometimes be hard to achieve without sort of extra hand-sorting of the roasted coffees.
We’re just very particular about the flavor profile that we want to create as a company. But, we also have blends that we have started to offer, more so than with Supersonic. With Supersonic, we only had one blend and it was our espresso/house blend. So, people who wanted it for their batch brewed filter coffee used it for that, but it was designed for really well balanced espresso.
Now we have multiple blends to fit different flavor profiles, but also budgets. You know, some of our customers are more price conscious than others. Especially when you start getting into the world of restaurants and offices, because they just have price points that they have to hit. So we’ve been more conscious of that and sort of responded to our customers for that.
Getting Started in Coffee
Kandace: How did you get your start in coffee?
Brian: I studied design in school. I was a barista back before I went to college. And then, during college, I worked at a couple of independent coffee shops. But this was like, early 2000s, so it was before latte art; it was sort of before sort of the third wave that we have now. It was very different then.
And I actually didn’t drink coffee, because I thought it tasted terrible then. And I wasn’t wrong; it did taste terrible then. But while I was working at a design agency in Chicago in 2007 I walked into an Intelligentsia. And at this point I had started drinking coffee socially, but I didn’t enjoy it that much. But this day, I walked into Intelligentsia not knowing who they were or what they were, and the coffee that I had was remarkably different. Like, it was noticeably different.
I just started asking the barista questions and it sort of piqued my interested and that was sort of the beginning of going down the rabbit hole. And I also really loved the design of Intelligentsia, so I looked up the design firm who did their branding, which was a place called Planet Propaganda, in Wisconsin I think? So I just loved everything that they were doing.
And so a couple of years later, I was always just kind of aware of the design in the coffee world. So Intelligentsia, and Stumptown, and Counter Culture were sort of the three big ones at that point. And Intelligentsia and Stumptown were sort of, in my opinion at the time, like the best branded. But they were also polar opposites of each other. Like, Intelligentsia had this very sort of polished feel, and Stumptown had this, you know, clearly Pacific Northwest kind of grunge feel to it. And they were like two sides of the coffee world. And I really appreciated that.
And then that’s, 2009 is when I started writing Dear Coffee, I Love You, which was basically my way to kind of explore the world of coffee through the perspective of a designer. So I would start doing sort of reviews of coffee packaging and café design, and the more I learned about coffee, the more I would write about other things, so brewing techniques, and … I started going to barista competitions and just started delving into the world of coffee life.
And then ultimately that let to people in the coffee world hiring me because they noticed kind of the crossover. Because coffee people, I’ve learned that they like working with designers who sort of understand what they’re doing. And I’m sure you guys have learned that as well, like when you understand a lot of the industry talk and you understand why certain information is important and others not so much, and certain jargon words to avoid, I think it makes the process easier for them. And it allows the designers to be kind of more creative.
So, yeah, and then the last few years I’ve just sort of fallen into this world where I had been doing a lot of design work for cafés and coffee roasting companies. And it’s a fun world to be in, as you know. It has a lot of perks as well, like lots of coffee.
Now I feel like, you know, there’s this rapidly expanding bubble of coffee roasters. I think now that sort of the coasts have been saturated, now you have all of these roasters popping up in the middle of the U.S. I can’t even keep up with them all. At this point, so many roasters are aware of the value of design. The roasted coffee, at a certain point, has reached this parity where we’re getting coffee from the same importers, so a lot of us are roasting very similarly. It really comes down to which lifestyle brand you want to purchase or which local brand you want to represent.
You know, as much as I think roasters hate admitting that, the design side of me knows the reality of that, that it’s incredibly important.