Interview with Al Keating and Doug Johns of Coffee Supreme
A conversation with Al Keating and Doug Johns of Coffee Supreme. Live from the Needmore Designs studio in Portland, Oregon.
Al: I’m Al and I’ve had a few roles at Supreme. I started out with the title Auckland Guy and I’ve never really shaken it. I guess I’m still Auckland Guy, but my role now is Creative Director, whatever that means. Basically means I don’t have to do much anymore, sort of. Introducing Doug.
Doug: I do Doug stuff. Around the company it’s often referred to as that. Which looks like graphic design, marketing, art direction.
Al: Doug stuff. His formal title would be Art Director. Super talented designer. All the little beautiful things you might notice from afar, Doug Stuff.
Kandace: Tell us about Coffee Supreme? Where are you from, just general stuff.
Al: Where are we from?
Doug: We’re from hospitality originally. In Wellington, New Zealand. So our founder Chris Dylan, Maggie Wells, started a small café in Wellington called Reds, which was a really popular little spot right when I guess café culture was kicking off in New Zealand. And they quickly outgrew their current coffee supplier and through a course of events, ended up purchasing the coffee roaster at the time, and over night they became a coffee roaster. They were doing such a good thing, people wanted a piece of it too and it kind of grew from there.
Kandace: Do you remember their original branding for Coffee Supreme, how that came about?
Al: Yeah, it was originally dreamed up by Chris Dylan who’s our founder, as Doug said, and he commissioned a designer in Wellington called Mission Hall who designed the first logo, and I guess …
Doug: There was a guy called Kato.
Doug: Dean Kato?
Al: Dean Kato.
Doug: Is it Dean?
Al: Yeah, maybe. Shout out to Dean Kato.
Al: We never met him.
Doug: Drawn on a napkin.
Al: It was drawn on a napkin, it’s one of those legendary stories, drawn on a napkin. I guess, if you look at it, there is some literally coffee bean referencing in the logo.
Doug: It was the nineties.
Al: It was the nineties, this was 93, we started 93 25 years ago.
Doug: Make it a coffee bean and yeah.
Al: And the text is red, which I guess referencing Reds, the café, and it’s actually stayed pretty true to the original brand. It’s had iterations over the years and a few people have tweaked it now and then but it’s still very, very recognizable to how it began. And it’s probably at Supreme, one of the few things that are kind of off limits. Yeah?
You can have hoon on anything else, but you can’t have a hoon on the logo.
Yeah. Do you know hoon?
Kandace: Have you ever tweaked with it? Tweaked with the logo?
Doug: Yeah it has. So the original had the vertical lines and the Supreme, Coffee Supreme, but it didn’t have a bounding boarder.
Doug: So that came in and then both text has had little tweaks.
Doug: A few nip tuck over there.
Al: In the early 2000s, early to mid-2000s, we followed the Portlandian trend and put some birds on it and there was a design outlet in Wellington that had a go on it and they put some birds on it, which we then shot a few years later. We shot those birds out of the sky, and it is now what you see. Yeah.
Kandace: I’ll admit to you that our logo had a bird in it and when it had arrived, and we killed the bird too. Time for them to go.
Al: Yeah that was hunting season when that happened. Definitely all the birds got shot down.
Kandace: The packaging that you have now, that’s very recent within in the last few years?
Doug: Maybe it’s five years.
Al: Four or five years old. Four years old, yeah. The new white packaging. Before that, we had … Our packaging’s been a bit of a dog’s breakfast over the years, we’ve never really aced it. We sort of paid attention to lots of other things and then just tipped it into a brown craft tin tie type bag, like lots of other roasters. Which is great you know, and if that’s what’s within your budget, then that’s fine. But it didn’t, craft tin tie bags don’t really look after coffee and it seems a shame that you go to all the trouble of meeting these amazing people who grow coffee and they put all of this work into it and you pay all this money to get it half way around the world, literally, in our case.
Coffee on the planet travels no further than it does to New Zealand. You put all this love into it and then you stick it into a brown paper bag and it dies, so that was why we thought, “Yeah we probably have to do something about our packaging.”
Kandace: And weren’t you two part of the design?
Al: Definitely, yeah.
Doug: Part of I guess the current brand direction actually came from a trip Al took, and I think a light bulb went off when you were here in Portland.
Al: Yeah, years ago I was here and I saw some really fun things, I guess the Portland sort of design culture and language and thought, yeah it was very inspiring being here and this is maybe five or six years ago, yeah. So it was definitely quite influential.
Al: We actually reached out to a friend of ours, a guy called Ryan Marks who we’ve known for years, who’s a really clever designer but he specializes in packaging, so we have struggled, Doug and I and our art department, we’ve struggled to go from 2D to 3D. We found 3D quite difficult, especially when it comes to packaging. So we went to Ryan and his team and they did an awesome job of helping us get our brand translated into a package. Yeah.
Doug: They had a really good process.
Doug: For leading us along the path to end up where we wanted to be. It was good.
Al: Yeah, actually their process was … We took a lot from their process that they took us through. They almost help us rewrite our brief. They asked us a series of yes no questions where they described it as being tour guides, walking us through our own thinking and they said, “left or right? Are you black or white? Are you this or that?” And we were like, “This is awesome!” So we answered their series of questions and they led us to a place.
Doug: Yeah it was good.
Al: Yeah it was really good.
Greatest Little Coffee Company
Kandace: True, true. I saw that one of your goals is being the greatest little coffee company in the world. What does that mean? What does that mean to be great and is part of it that you want to stay small or?
Al: There’s layers there and there’s also New Zealand cultural layers inside that as well.
Doug: Tall poppy syndrome, in Kiwis, is pretty strong.
Al: Yeah. There’s a culture in our country of keeping people grounded and you know, quotes like, “be humble.” Basically, we tell each other, “Get back down here. You’re getting a big head.” And so that’s very Kiwi to do that, whereas in your culture, you praise and celebrate promotion and…
Al: You know, you might introduce yourself as … A guy last night introduced himself as being the general manager of the restaurant we were eating at. You would never do that in New Zealand and in New Zealand we just say, “You know, I just work here.” Or, that’s a very … To make a claim to say we want to be the greatest little coffee company in the world, there’s some fun between the greatest and the littlest. We don’t want to be the biggest, but we want to be one of the most loved. Like the greatest band doesn’t necessarily have to fill a stadium. So it’s more like that, yeah?
Doug: Yeah. Perhaps having influence on the market, perhaps is a goal. And being loved, it’s definitely a little thing that makes a few decisions for us when we’re working on a project and how can we make people fall in love with us? And it’s through the product, it’s the design and it’s the stuff all around the coffee.
Al: And there’s some, you know I’d confess that there’s some commercial motivation behind that. We’ve been commissioned to grow the value of the brand for the shareholders and for all of the stakeholders. There’s 125 staff, so we’re here representing all of them and everything we do we think, “How can we do this so that it is remarkable and remembered and adds value?”
And yeah, like Doug says, gets people to fall in love with us. Yeah. We weren’t ever intimidated by being at the bottom of the world and being in a really big, crowded…and it’s a massive, the coffee industry is huge, right? It’s really crowded and there’s a new roaster opening every day somewhere in the world and we weren’t freaked out by that. We thought, “Nah, bugger it. We’re from New Zealand but we can still get around and make friends.” And we’ve made a lot of friends and yeah.
Kiwi Coffee Culture
Kandace: What is New Zealand coffee culture like? Is it similar?
Al: No. Yes and no. They’re lining up now. But, we’ve come from different ends of the continuum. You talk about waves and second wave and third wave and all that, it’s … When we were starting and when I was a teenager in the nineties making coffee, I was making coffee espresso. It was very espresso. Drip coffee was seen as a real no. That’s for Americans and Europeans and it probably sits on the backbench and tastes a little bit like a burnt version of last week’s coffee.
That’s where drip coffee sits in New Zealand coffee culture, so we were very espresso, and we drank lattes out of soup bowls and sat around in cafes with retro furniture and grunge music and all of that. That’s how we got into coffee, personally. That’s very New Zealand coffee culture, but we’ve become more as we got into third wave and then pour over started happening, and we kind of met you guys somewhere in the middle, yeah?
Doug: Yeah. It’s very I would say maybe a little more restaurant culture driven. So there’s lots of table service. Yeah, you’re seated, you’re looked after.
Al: Our coffee itself is European, the Italians, and the Greeks in Australia and New Zealand really introduced New Zealanders to coffee. Rather than the American coffee drinking culture. So really dark roasted, espresso.
Doug: Filter coffee has come in, I say in a big way. It’s still pretty small percentage, but good new places are serving really nice filter as well. But largely, it’s espresso. Lots of milk. Our country loves dairy.
Doug: They love it. Yep.
Al: Pretty hard to make money out of hand brewed coffee, though. Commercially it’s pretty challenging so that’s why espresso machines are pretty amazing at turning coffee into money.
Kandace: You wrote something recently about opening a shop and then closing it?
Kandace: And the challenges with that. What do you, you see you have opened quite a number of spaces, what do you think was the—first of all, I thought it was amazing that you wrote about that, people don’t often write about what didn’t work, but that’s how you learn, that’s how you get better—what do you think you all came away with from that experience?
Al: We came away with a few lessons learned. A big one for me was to go with my gut. My gut said, “Don’t do that.” But, I got swept up in it and crazy deadlines and being in a really fast growing part of the city, there were a number of things that we got swept up in and I ignored my gut. So that was the biggest thing I took away from that.
Doug: One of the things I think you wrote in there too, is when you don’t have control, you don’t have control. I think one of the things was, we were quite hamstrung by the space and the landlord and what we could do with the space and we had to work with their architect.
Al: Their builder.
Doug: So there was already a number of things that meant we couldn’t do what we wanted to do. Yeah.
Al: And it sort of passed the point of no return, where we had committed and it was all going pear shaped, but we just had to keep going, so we just had to throw money at it and yeah. It was a really difficult space, we had a really hard working team down there who tried their best to make it work but after two, three years.
Doug: Three years, I think.
Al: Three years, we decided we’re just gonna wrap it up.
Character in Christchurch
Kandace: But then you have a space, I don’t know if this is the right one, but is it in Christchurch?
Kandace: Is that the one where you found the ledger, like it was just in-
Doug: Yeah, so in Christchurch we have our wholesale home and café called Supreme Supreme. Quite early on, we were searching for almost four years to find the right place to move to because it was post the earthquake.
Al: After the earthquake, yeah.
Doug: And so everything was cheap, gross, tilt slab, new and so we finally found a great old building with some character, and the landlord who really was into us being there. And I think early on you and Jess Barter who’s our architect who we work with, were down there, rummaging through the skip.
Doug: And found, they’d sort of just chucked a whole bunch of stuff, what was it? A Chinese sort of goods supermarket called Hot Yip.
Al: “Skip” is a dumpster.
Al: Rummaging through a skip. Yeah, dumpster.
Doug: Dumpster. And these guys found this beautiful Chinese ledger book.
Doug: And that was the one little gem we found which we were like, “That’s it.” That sort of influenced, I guess, some visual direction for the brand.
Al: Yeah. There was something else we found in the dumpster and that is my wallet, which was a used wallet and it’s beautiful, been around the world many times, beautiful leather wallet, which I found in the trash so yeah it’s awesome.
Kandace: The space is absolutely beautiful. Looking online.
Al: Thank you.
Doug: Thank you.
Always Something New
Kandace: It was so interesting that that became an extension of the brand because it seems in some ways so new and different, so do you do that for each of your spaces?
Al: Oh the brief is open, you mean?
Doug: We like to make it hard for ourselves sometimes. So we had the approach of each new space would have its own brand and spacial design, different elements due to its location, it’s history, it’s city. Which is fun and you get to carve out a new thing, but it means you have to carve out a new thing rather than just putting the supreme logo up. But that one we did stick a little bit closer to home.
Doug: We hadn’t had a public space in Christchurch for four years where we used to have a café and we were sort of falling off the radar. And so we wanted to make sure it was supreme. So we named it twice. Yeah.
Al: True story.
Al: Supreme Supreme. Nobody will miss that we thought.
Doug: And red and white and other brand touches where it made it us.
Al: And it still had its own things. In New Zealand, we have almost like an anti-franchise culture where if somebody does the same thing twice, that’s lost its authenticity and even Doug references making it hard for ourselves, we’ve been accused in the company of reinventing the wheel every time we need to do something. That’s because there’s something in our culture or maybe in our DNA, especially as a team, where if you’ve done something then you just move on.
Even if it’s awesome, you wouldn’t repeat it because it loses its sparkle, it loses its authenticity. So every time we approach a new project be it a café, or a piece of deicing work or whatever, we’re always like, “Nah we did that so now we’ll do something else.” And it makes us feel like we’re very creative, so we love to create.
I guess the café thing too, we wanted all of our sites—they’re like our children—so when you have a child, you name it and the name helps to create the personality. Obviously, what’s inside the child creates the personality, so you nurture that and out comes a unique person. And so, when we create cafes, we like to give them their own name. So we have Day Made in Brisbane, the Abbotsford Club in Melbourne, Customs in Wellington, Supreme Supreme in Christchurch…we give them their own identity so that they can stand alone but it sits inside the supreme family. And so we all have the same surname, but we each have our own identity.
What’s happening in Tokyo?
Al: You said, “So what’s happening in Tokyo?”
Kandace: What’s happening in Tokyo? Yeah.
Doug: It might be the first exception to the rule where we’re going to a new market and we feel our strongest brand of our children, our strongest child, is Coffee Supreme. So, we’re going to open Coffee Supreme in Tokyo.
Al: How about that?
Doug: Yeah. It’s gonna be awesome.
Doug: We had a couple of years ago, a lovely couple Tomoko and Hirogi came to us, became friendly with them. They live in Auckland in New Zealand and they said, “Hey we’d love to help you go to Tokyo. We love the brand, how about it?” And we worked on it, worked on it. Couple years later, we’re doing it.
Al: Yeah they met us in a café we had in Auckland called Good One and that’s where we met them and they fell in love with us and said this would probably go okay. So, eighteen months later, I think, we’re gonna be open.
Al: So it’s taken a long time, a lot of planning, obviously lots of cultural stuff, lots of grown up stuff that we’re not really involved in but there’s people in the business who do some grown up stuff, so they’re doing that and yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
Doug: Yeah and we couldn’t do it without them and some local knowledge.
Doug: And we definitely want to be courteous about how we approach it. We’re making some … Yeah we want to fit to their culture rather than just go in, guns blazing.
Kandace: Don’t really strike us as a guns blazing type of group.
Doug: We’re not.
Al: Yeah we’re not really guns blazing. We want to take some of the best of what we’ve done and the best of where we’re from and to a culture that we have a huge amount of respect for, what they’ve already created and their culture an their coffee drinking culture I guess to be specific. Not lend them, but we want to turn up with the appropriate bottle of wine to the dinner party, you know? Yeah.
Doug: And so we have a tiny little shop, actually. For six months, and that’s where we’re first landing and in that time we’ll yeah, find somewhere where we can do some more stuff.
Kandace: Good, exciting.
Doug: And that’s happening late next month.
Al: End of September. Yeah. We’ll see.
Kandace: Are you roasting Tokyo or are you roasting and sending it over?
Al: We’re gonna send coffee from Australia, roast in Australia. We don’t yet … So we’re opening a store and then from there. We’ll look around to find somewhere we can set up roasting distribution in a small thing. So yeah but for now we’ll send from Australia. Yeah. Store.
Doug: Yeah, the Melbourne team are gonna look after us. They’re awesome.
Roasters in Residence
Al: Yeah. And if you get a chance to visit our little café at La Marzocco Café, we’ve had some fun and created some nice little products and touches there that we’ve partnered with some very clever people for Tokyo to produce some very beautiful things. Watch this space, some really, really nice stuff.
Kandace: And what are you doing at La Marzocco I know that you do lots of choices about service, coffee or?
Al: Talk about reinventing the wheel.
Al: They work so hard that …
Doug: Yeah Amy and her team are pretty amazing.
Doug: It’s an open house, you just go to town and we definitely paired it back, we didn’t go to town. We did one filter, one espresso to try and give them a month off.
Doug: A little bit. And so I guess what our, some of the touches and things that we find important, we wanted to impart with them so they could provide that to their customers so some of the other little touches around how they did service and present food and drinks. Yeah.
Al: Lots of … As an industry, we’re love new shiny things, and we love complicating stuff and we love using language that only we understand it’s a very. You know we include ourselves in this to some degree, we just take ourselves way too seriously and it’s quite alienating to customers, the people who we’re actually there to serve. So one of, like Doug said, we just went for very simple coffee choices in our service to give the baristas, to give Amy and her team and the staff there a chance to look up from what they’re doing and engage and give hospitality, which is the main thing we wanted them to do, was to look after customers and give them a really good experience.
So, instead of dialing in a thousand grinders on the bench and you know what all the stuff costs, cafés open with all that gear and it’s just like wow, so much money. So, we just wanted to do a very simply thing so they could focus on giving good service and delivering a really great product and having a few laughs along the way. That was the idea. Yeah.
Kandace: Are they delivering on trays?
Al: Yeah. Coffees on trays.
Doug: There’s four little tray liners with printed on grease print proof paper. Each one has a different story to tell. Hopefully over the time, customers will get all four. But there’s a few laughs on there and a few stories from our history.
Doug: Because we can’t be there for a month. It’s a chance for us to tell them a little bit about ourselves when we’re not there.
Al: You’re comment earlier about when we were off camera about Ray, I think you said “everybody’s a designer.” We definitely have … there’s a lot of people … the art department at Coffee Supreme, and this is probably the same for lots of businesses, especially in coffee because coffee and creativity they really go hand in hand and a lot of creative people working in coffee and vice versa.
Our little department is lots of people in the company are really interested in what we’re doing because it’s like the fun part of the business. Nobody’s sort of queuing at the door of accounts payable to have a hoon in there are they? Most of them are really showing interest here so everybody is a designer in a sense and everyone’s got an opinion on it.
I think one thing we’ve done really well at Supreme is we’ve recognized who is a good designer, who is a creative, like a true creative, and I think creativity and the term creative is very over-used. A creative is somebody who can see things differently and see things floating past that they may not have necessarily created but they’ve identified something that’s great out there and they’ve plucked it out. That’s, I think, what creativity is. Another very important part of the puzzle, which we’ve got in our team is the craftsperson and at one end of the continuum is perhaps the creative and the other end is the craftsperson.
The craftsperson is somebody who can take creative ideas, package them, and execute them down to the best they can be, every detail, put it on a shelf and make it a sale and you have to have that person as well and in our team, we have craftspeople and creatives and I think that’s how we’ve created something quite beautiful if I can say that. I think it’s very un-New Zealand of me to say that but.
So we’ve got all of those people on our team, the craft happens, the big ideas, and we’ve recognized in each other and our team, Doug, Johnny, Lily, in our art department, who can dream up something like a big idea but they’re actually quite shit at executing it. Then you’ve somebody who’s really good at executing, but the creative process, they’re a bit rambling, you know? So I think that’s something we’ve done okay and that’s really important to remember, so I just thought of that when Ray said, “Everybody’s a designer.”
Like your comment about Lennon McCartney, you’ve got an incredible creative in John Lennon, and then you’ve got somebody who knows how to polish it and execute it and that’s why that team works so well. And you think about lots of teams, I think two people who can identify in themselves and in each other what their strengths are, can make a product that’s far better than just each of them individually.
Kandace: Maybe we shoot the word designer.
Al: I don’t know what a designer is. I studied design, but I’m not a good designer.
Doug: Al’s definitely a creative. He’ll kick down the door, create the opportunity or have the idea then he’s like, “here you go guys. See you later.” Not see you later but-
Al: No, I don’t know how to finish, I have no interest in finishing anything. They call me 80% Al because I get to about there and I just lose interest and I walk away from it. Yeah. It’s the same in my home life as well, all these unfinished projects around the place. Cooking’s another one, I make a terrible mess and … But I really enjoy it. A creative enjoys the process, not so much the end product.
Al: Whereas a craftsperson really gets off on the end product. Yeah.