Coffee X Design. Q&A with Al Keating of Coffee Supreme.

You probably know his name. Al Keating. He is the Creative Director of Coffee Supreme. If you didn’t. You do now.

So why are we interviewing a coffee guy? Well, it’s probably fair to say, creative and coffee walk quite closely together sometimes. In Coffee Supremes’ case design has been an integral part of the success of their business.

Al has had an app designed and developed for a promotion (Double Shot – by Sons & Co), his brand design won a Gold at Best in 2012. In 2014 their website won Silver. In fact, since 2010 their brand has been a finalist or a winner at the Best Awards every year. From spatial design to self-promotion, Coffee Supreme has been a stand out in the design industry for innovation, creativity and good coffee.

We have it wafting around our office every day.

Projects you will find Al involved in, in 2017 include Popped Culture. Popped Culture is ‘a series of bespoke breakfast events focused around the morning ritual of starting your day with toast and coffee. Each event will see Coffee Supreme join some of Auckland’s most inspiring emerging chefs, bakers, hospo personalities to serve up your morning breakie at an unexpected and inspiring location.’

Check out the website for next event details and to see how past events have taken place and who with.

You’ll probably find the breakfasts a bit more than jam on toast! So let’s get stuck in to Al with some hard hitting questions.

You’re a busy man. You must run on more than coffee! Is that what inspired Popped Culture, the importance of breakfast to keep you going each day!?
Popped Culture is a good example of how we work as a team at Supreme. We all play our part, and the outcome – well, it’s often a little bigger than we’d collectively imagined it to be.

The inspiration really just came from us missing our customers. When we closed Good One a couple of years back, it caused us to really miss having our people sitting around our table. And we had pretty good reason to believe that they missed us too.

So we thought, ‘bugger it – let’s have them all over for breakfast!’.

Of course, having a few hundred people round for breakfast isn’t as simple as popping out for a couple of loaves of Vogel’s and borrowing another plunger off mum. It was a logistical challenge for sure. But – our team hustled it together with a few dear friends, one being Arkade Hire, and we created what we like to think has been a bunch of pretty memorable breakfast experiences.

Breakfast is the unsung hero of kiwi hospitality. It’s often when we reset, flowing easily through the subconscious rituals of daily humdrum – be they seated or standing at the bread-board, quiet and alone or amidst familiar family morning mayhem.

For us, breakfast was the ideal way to get our friends together, early in the morning, allowing us to take care of every detail. They could just turn up, take a seat and enjoy breakfast.

If I’m completely honest though – my regular breakfast rarely includes eating food, or even sitting down. I really do normally just ‘eat coffee for breakfast’.

The NZ coffee market must be pretty competitive. What do you think makes Coffee Supreme…um…more supreme?
Yeah it’s pretty crazy – more competitors than the Auckland regional secondary schools’ rugby try-outs.

With over 200 roasters in NZ, they say we have more than any other country in relation to our population. The trouble is too, that all of us bleat on about how we ‘scour the globe, sourcing the world’s best coffees, blending them to perfection’, all that jazz you’ve read a thousand times on bags and blogs. A good handful of us – but certainly not all – roast some pretty amazing coffee in NZ and deliver it consistently well to our customers.

But, you want to know our secret? We realised a while ago, that although we love coffee (and after 25 years have become bloody good at doing it) alone – it’s not what we spring out of bed for each morning. I’d even go as far as to say that coffee is not in fact our sole core product. Instead, it’s what happens around that coffee. And crucially, what happens around that coffee shared.

Our brand is what we have that no-one else has. Our brand; made up of our people, our product and our collective values and character, are what we have that sets us apart. What makes us Supreme is the way we invite our friends and customers and fans to be a part of that. And, you know you’re getting the best coffee too – bonus.  

Who are your heroes? Who out there in the world is doing good stuff that gives you motivation?
This is a tough question to answer. So many have influenced me, for a range of different reasons.

Some of the most influential people in my life have been quite unlikely heroes.

I had a mentor of sorts years ago who spotted my creative talent, and encouraged me hugely in that. He saw in me, my ability to think creatively – laterally – in many ways. It wasn’t just typical creativity, like drawing pictures and making music. He encouraged my obscure sense of humour, the way I used words and crafted sentences, the way I looked at space and problems and situations from different angles. This encouragement was hugely formative for me in the way I have developed my creative thinking, and I owe a lot to him.

Now, decades later, I’d like to say that as a result it has helped me develop my talent for creative thinking that can be applied to all areas of my life – personal and professional. My creativity allows me to create chaos no matter what I put my hand to…

I am hugely grateful for his investment in me, and a number of other people who have trusted me and given me opportunities.

If one of your kids wanted a pet dog and one wanted a pet cat, which kid would you choose?
Whichever one was the most convincing that they’d actually take care of it. I’m not much of a pet guy really. But, the kids are working patiently together to convince us to get them a dog. I always loved Tintin’s Snowy – maybe one day. 

What piece of advice were you given in the past, that has remained with you to this day?

There’s been too many…

Measure twice, cut once.
Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
Never wear a pair of shoes two days in a row.
Shall I keep going…?

There is one piece of advice that was given to me years ago that has stuck.

It was from the founder of Supreme, Chris Dillon, when we were setting up the Auckland operation from scratch. I was deliberating over the purchase of a piece of kit while we were building. I was considering a cheaper option, and called him for some input on spend (or more likely permission at that time).

He listened patiently and then responded: “Al, we’re not here to fuck spiders mate…”

After years of recounting that story and chuckling every time, it really has stuck with me as a great piece of advice – it’s a great rule. Don’t sweat the small stuff – don’t go for a cheaper option because it’s easier or, well, cheaper.

This surely is true sustainability is it not? By doing it properly first time, it’s likely to last, and will make it possible to be reused or repeated over and over.

If the big things are considered thoroughly and the best outcome is crystal clear, the small things often takes care of themselves.

I’ve learned too – details are not necessarily the ‘small stuff’. Details are in fact the big stuff. Never confuse crucial details – however seemingly small – with the ‘small stuff’.

Are you listening to any new music at the moment?
I’m actually having a little radio renaissance currently. My old hero Mikey Havoc is back on bFM and I have to say I’ve been loving listening in again on the drive to work.
I heard our lovely Nadia Reid play again the other night and was reminded of how world class she is.
And, of course, I’ve been listening soberly to Chris Cornell.

Coffee Supreme are about to move offices. What is behind the move?
Chaos is what it currently is. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re moving out of a building three and a half years after we signed a one-year lease, into a an empty building that is still waiting for resource and building consent.

We’re like that family that’s 41 weeks pregnant, moving house, and hosting Christmas dinner tomorrow. We didn’t plan it like this, but we’re a creative and resourceful team who will find the adventure in it.

The good news is, come ‘actual Christmas’ this year, we’ll finally be in our permanent Auckland home, with room to grow, and a pretty special hospitality experience. We’ve partnered with our old mates Bureaux, to bring the old 60’s Arch Hill warehouse out of hiding. It’s going to be our best yet – like your favourite spot in the sun for breakfast, a lunch-date with your love and reheated leftovers – all at the same time.

Watch this space.

You’ve worked with a couple of design agencies during your brand’s evolution. Who are your current creative partners and how much of it do you do in house?
We’ve worked with a few over the years. And during that time, we realised that no-one can truly develop a brand – a DNA, a language –  like the people inside the organisation.

About seven years ago, after a string of expensive best-award-winning stunts and rebrands, I gave a farewell low-5 to our design agency at the time and hired Doug Johns. He’s now our Art Director.
Alongside our little team, Doug has built around and on top of Supreme’s solid brand DNA, resulting in what is now one of the best and most loved little coffee brands in the world. That’s a big claim I know, but I’m constantly humbled when I travel abroad, at just how known and fanatical people are about Supreme. It’s crazy.

What’s crazy too is that as a result, we’ve been lucky enough to do some cool design work for other international brands. For cash money. One we’re super proud of is the recent rebrand of the World Aeropress Champs.

Yes, we’ve won awards, but the awards are not what pushes our little Art Dept. along. Awards are nice moments of recognition behind us – they are not goals coming over the horizon. Crafting our brand to truly represent all of her people, to add value to her, all the while having a few laughs in an otherwise ridiculously over-serious industry is what keeps us motivated.

I should say too, that Marx Design helped us make some super tasty packaging, General Studios built us a beautiful website, and a few other friends have chipped in from time to time to help where needed.

Thanks for your time Al. One final important question…what’s your tipple? Short Black, Long Black, Chai Latte?
I drink it all to be honest. I’m not very regimented when it comes to coffee. Mostly I drink it black, but sometimes with cream.

My favourite coffee of the day is probably my morning filter brew at home in the kitchen, with my wife, turning a blind eye as the kids destroy the butter and abandon sticky-handled knives in the kitchen sink.Q&A with Annie

Coffee Supreme are opening in Japan in September. Al is pictured with Tomoko Matsumoto – one of thier Tokyo Partners.


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