But first, Coffee.

Michelle & Josh Zad Talk Alfred

How Alfred Became A Globally Recognized Brand

Michelle & Josh Zad

Location: Alfred Office
Date: 2/25/2020
Title: How Alfred Became A Globally Recognized Brand
Profession: Michelle (Director of Brand), Josh (Founder & CEO)

Josh Zad, opened his first Alfred Coffee location in 2013 with its trademarked "But First, Coffee.” catchphrase on tree-lined Melrose Place. With his knack for eye-catching design and innate understanding of customer wants, Zad has developed Alfred into the standard bearer on how to successfully marry a brick and mortar offering with an enduring, memorable digital presence. After successfully growing to 16 locations now across the U.S. and Japan, Josh has more recently shifted gears and launched his newest concept – Calidad Beer.

Q & A

What's your backstory and what led you to Alfred?

Michelle: My name is Michelle Akhtarzad and I’m the brand director for LA-based coffee and tea shops, Alfred. Before I landed at Alfred, I moved to Texas to study at the University of Texas at Austin and graduated with a degree in Textiles and Consumer Sciences. During my time in Austin, I worked for a number of different brands. One company in particular where I gained much experience was MMH, or McGuire Moorman Hospitality. Under the leadership of the creative director of this prominent restaurant and retail group, I learned what makes a food & beverage space unique, and all of the little details that help make it stand out. Besides working on sourcing fabrics, uniforms, and music, I took over their social media sector to convey each detail that made their spaces special, whether that was design, food, music, or events. The job was very influential, and a nice marriage of food and design for me.

After moving back to LA in 2017, I worked at Garrett Leight California Optical on the PR team. However, I felt that I wanted to dive into something even more creatively challenging, like my time at MMH. At this point, my brother Josh, had 7 Alfred cafes open and was hoping for me to come join him in helping to expand Alfred, not only with more brick and mortar locations, but also as a stronger brand. Reluctant at first to work with family, I took a leap and joined him in January 2018. After joining I slowly gained more authority on the branding and design of different elements within the company and eventually carved out my role as Brand Director. It’s now been two years and 8 locations later and I’m still excited by the thrilling challenges of creating and maintaining a strong brand presence for Alfred in Los Angeles and beyond!

Josh: I’m an LA-native, born in West LA. After bouncing to a couple local schools while growing up, I ended up at The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks for high school. From there, I was accepted to Yale for college, so I packed up and headed for the East Coast. Once I moved back to LA at 20 years old, degree in hand, I got the job of a lifetime working for John Anderson at his hedge fund, Kayne Anderson. My first year there I worked in partnership accounting, and by the second year I was on the trading desk, doing many of the personal trades for Mr. Anderson himself. During my time on the trading desk, I felt the urge to go back to school. Given that many of my fellow colleagues at Kayne Anderson were UCLA Anderson graduates and the allure of attending UCLA had never escaped me, I decided to apply to UCLA Anderson and was accepted.

In 2005, I showed up to Anderson the second youngest in my class, and although I felt a bit insecure because of my age and relative lack of experience, I was thrilled to be a part of the UCLA family. In 2006 I graduated with my MBA in Real Estate and Finance.

After UCLA, I went to work where I thought I’d always eventually end up – working in real estate with my family at their boutique firm, The NASA Group. There I was part of a dynamic, small shop where I had my hands in everything from finance, design, architecture, leasing and management. We operated primarily in West Hollywood doing high end commercial real estate, so as part of the job I got to rub shoulders with best-in-class brands and designers – which added a sense of excitement and sensibility to the job.

About a year into it however, I grew disillusioned working with the family, so I ended up leaving my post and moving to Dallas on a whim where a good friend of mine from LA lived at the time. After searching for a plan in Dallas, my friend and I launched a music, fashion and photography blog, before blogs were cool of course. We started monetizing the site by throwing parties in Dallas and Austin, and at our largest point we had 8 individuals in different cities blogging for us.

When blogging, I spent most of my time at a Dallas coffee shop called Crooked Tree Café – a really cute place, with mismatched furniture that may or may not have been picked up on the side of the road. The coffee was subpar, but the community element was everything and everyone was super friendly. And that struck a chord with me. Concurrently, a friend had introduced me to famed interior designer, Laura Hunt, an AD100 designer at the time. With her, I worked on a few large residential projects and had my hand in various facets of the business, but what stood out to me the most was decoration and spatial planning.

I didn’t realize it in the moment, but my time in Dallas had stirred a creative spirit and confidence I had never explored before. Up until then, my studies and career had always been so pegged towards an eventual future in real estate – but being free from the pressures and expectations of life back home had really opened my eyes.

Back in LA 2 and a half years later in 2010 and now 28 years old, I went back into real estate but it didn’t take long until I decided it was time to take a leap. I tossed around many concepts in my head, big and small. I was constantly looking around to find something that inspired me creatively and that I could call my own. And then, I got it. I was going to open a coffee shop!

Why coffee, you may ask. Well, great question!

Firstly, there was a distinct need. With the introduction of third wave coffee came a strong focus on the origins of the coffee itself, and artisanal brewing methods. At the time that I hatched the idea for Alfred in 2012, third wave coffee was booming all around me with no signs of slowing – however I had found that at most of these third wave coffee shops the totality of emphasis on the craft of coffee left much to be desired when it came to the physical customer experience. So, I asked myself: What if I could channel my creativity and sense of style to create a vibey third wave coffee shop – a place that you’d come to for the coffee but would stay for the ambience?

What was the music that played when you walked in, what art was hung on the walls, and how were you were greeted at the register when you walked up? Well at the time I was living on this quaint, tree-lined street Melrose Place where you had the biggest names in fashion but unless you had $2,000 to drop on a purse or a dress, you had no reason to be on the street and enjoy its natural charm. Not to mention, they had a legendary Sunday Farmer’s Market. So I looked and looked, and finally found a funky shaped and mostly subterranean space that was perfectly imperfect and suited for my needs…

Secondly, I had this design itch. From my time working in Dallas under interior designer Laura Hunt, I felt this need to create something of my own. Now, Melrose Place had a very cozy, neighborhood feel, and I would carry that over into the design of my new coffee shop. I decided on reclaimed, rustic hardwood floors, subway tile, and floral wallpaper like you’re in your cool grandmas kitchen. And boom – in January 2013 Alfred Coffee Melrose Place opened!

What drives you? Why Alfred?

Michelle: I love seeing the way people react to and interact with all that we create at Alfred. Whether it’s a new retail mug, or a drink special, it is always like a fun experiment to expose our creativity into the world.

Josh: I do this to build community. Spaces people are happy visiting daily.

Tell us about what it's like working with your family.

Michelle: It’s fun! And challenging at times. It’s definitely nice to be on the same page as someone from the beginning, and always easier to communicate honestly.

Josh: Definitely both rewarding and difficult; but in the end we are both cut from the same cloth, so we see eye to eye for the bigger picture items.

Since starting, what has worked well for you in attracting customers and a following?

Michelle: We’ve always tried to be very relevant and make Alfred a place and a voice that speaks to our generation. It’s important to research current trends and make it a place that we know customers will not only visit once, but will keep coming back to. It’s not important to create a space that is simply “Instagram- able”, but rather something that is longer lasting and impactful for years to come.

Through your career, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Michelle: I’ve learned how to interact with coworkers in creating successful projects. Teamwork is everything. Before I started at Alfred, all graphic design work was done out of house. However, once I started, we hired our first in-house graphic designer as well. Working side by side (and even sharing a desk at first!) we learned how to grow with one another and capitalize on the things the other person was good at to garner the best outcome. It’s important to use your strong suits in teamwork, and to not be shy in leaning on others when you’re at a roadblock. At the end of the day, you can’t just rely on yourself to build a successful brand.

Josh: Having mentors and a solid, trustworthy group you can turn to allows you to move much quicker in business. Leaning on experts allows you to more than often not make the same mistakes, you just have to be open and willing to listen.

Along my journey I have gained some invaluable business lessons, and somewhere along this journey, I became an accidental serial entrepreneur.

Here are some of my key takeaways:

  1. Find a gap and smash it.
    • Identify a need in the market and fill the void. Play up the differences between you and the rest of the field. You don’t have to create a whole new category per se, as we all know coffee, tea and now beer existed way before me. But you can still make an impact if you find that sliver of opportunity in a giant market and go after it.
  2. Engage your community – connect.
    • People are much more tech and brand savvy these days so you need to be prepared when you launch a business. Make sure your brand goes just beyond the product or just a single sale. You have to be a fully integrated brand that connects with the consumer from the minute they stumble upon your product all the way through enjoyment, and then figure out how to bring them back again. And then back again.
  3. Quality matters!
    • You can build a killer brand image with the coolest aesthetics and the best photos money can buy. But at the end of the day, if you aren’t selling something of quality that actually tastes good, what’s the point?
  4. Know your limitations
    • Look, I am not a coffee expert. I used to be very self-conscious of this fact when we first opened Alfred. But I learned eventually that it was okay that I wasn’t a coffee expert, because plenty of people out there were. Instead, I was a great leader, I was a great problem solver, and I had a whole host of other skills that would make the business successful. Coming to grips with who you are and accepting your limitations allows you to work much quicker in business.
  5. Take the leap – and figure out the rest later.
    •  If you never go after something you believe in, how will you know that it can succeed? It took me one and a half years to open my first Alfred location. “Where do I get cups from?” “What color should I paint the walls?” I was paralyzed by indecision, but eventually closed my eyes and went for it. And figured the rest out along the way. And I’m still figuring it out.

What would you say makes you different than others in your space?

Michelle: I would say our unique advantage is our ability to stay relevant and constantly improve everything in and about our shops. We like to make the most of new ideas and never let ourselves get too comfortable.

Josh: Personality; Alfred exudes fun, energy and community in every regard; from drink specials, to sleeve collaborations, to cafe design.

What career accomplishments would you say you are most proud of and why?

Michelle: Definitely the growth of our Sleeve Partnership Program. Every month we partner with a different brand that designs our coffee sleeves. Over the years we’ve been lucky to partner with best-in-class brands from Bumble to Disney! In November 2014, Josh collaborated with interior designer Kelly Wearstler on the first sleeve collaboration ever. As the months went by, more and more brands reached out for the opportunity to design our coffee sleeves. One brand we’ve always had the desire to work with is Nike, and it was our goal to make it happen. Somewhere along the way, we were introduced to someone at the Nike LA offices. We connected and collaborated on a few events with them, and when the perfect opportunity came around for Nike’s LA 13.1 Half Marathon, we had to hype it up with our coffee sleeves!

Josh: Opening 2 cafes in Tokyo ON THE SAME DAY! When creating the Tea Room, it was a newer concept and people were still a little hesitant about ditching coffee for tea. There was a perfect little space on Melrose Place across from our original coffee shop and I just had to create something with it. I started the perfectly pink Alfred Tea Room and after only a few months of being open, we were approached by a café group in Japan that wanted to license Alfred Tea Room in Tokyo. Seeing that this was a great opportunity to expand Alfred internationally and with the help of experienced professionals, I took the leap and decided to do it. So on October 31, 2017, we opened TWO Alfred Tea Rooms in Tokyo!

What's the biggest challenge you've had to overcome in business and how did you go about it?

Michelle: It’s difficult when working on a partnership, to maintain your own brand image while melding it with another brand. Sometimes two brands have different visions, so overcoming that hump of differences can be a challenge. Since day one, we’ve strived to partner with like-minded brands, even if they were in completely different industries than us. It is important to partner with those who have the same brand imagery and vision as you, since this will make the process of collaboration a lot smoother and ensure that both brands are looking to convey the same message.

Josh: Opening the first Alfred location, 100%. Lack of restaurant knowledge, fear of failure, and a million little things that seemed to be in the way of it happening. I overcame this fear by putting my head down, opening the shop, and dealing with all the headaches as they came. Believe it or not all of the decisions and issues that were slowing me down before opening were NOTHING in comparison to the whole slew of issues that presented themselves when we actually did open. At some point you need to stop thinking, stop analyzing, and take the leap!

To what would you attribute your success?

Michelle: My team! I’ve been lucky enough to grow with my coworkers and create a strong design department.

Josh: Trusting my instinct and being confident in my choices.

How is Alfred doing today and what does the future look like? What's your ultimate goal?

Josh: Alfred’s ultimate goal is to become the go-to coffee shop for people in different cities across the world. Innovative drinks, a friendly smile, and an all-around good time.

Software & Tools:

What software do you use for your business?

Slack is an easy way to communicate not only with individual team members, but cafes as a whole. We create individual slack channels for each cafe to streamline instant communication. When launching a new product in store it’s an easy way to confirm everything is set and to answer any questions managers may have.

Square is the POS system we use in all of our cafes. The easy interface makes training simple for new hires and allows anyone to hop on the register quickly. It’s also a great tool for collecting sales data and yearly reports.

We use Shopify as the e-commerce platform for our website shop. Shopify could not be more user-friendly. It allows someone with little to zero knowledge about creating a website, to setup a perfectly polished online shop. Plus, the marketing tools are a nice way to view how people are landing on your shop.

Dropbox has made our lives so much easier in this new world of social media and marketing. Since we use an out-of-house social media company, it allows us to all have easy access to photos when we need them, in an organized way.

We are currently in the process of converting everything into Google Suite. From the docs to spreadsheets, it’s a nice way to ensure everyone has access to necessary files and can be collaborative on new projects.

Last but not least! Mailchimp has allowed us to create marketing email campaigns that catch our audience’s attention about anything from a new store opening, to the launch of a fun collaboration. It’s also a great tool to connect people to your website and shop to view new products.

What do you look for when trusting that a tool/software will meet your expectations?

Accessibility! Each tool needs to be something that is easy for employees to use across the board with little education.

What software would you recommend to someone starting out in your field? Why?

Shopify is an amazing platform for online retail. It allows someone with almost zero computer knowledge to upload and manage their products. As for in-store POS, Square is an amazing option which is very organized and allows seamless integration into multiple cafes.

What software would you advise people to be wary of, or not to use at all? Why?

Shopkeep. For years this was our POS system and their lack of responsiveness when their network was shutdown was a huge barrier.

If you could wave a magic wand and create any kind of software to help you with your business - what kind of tool would you build and why?

An easy app for in-store ordering that links to Square!

Resources:

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources you’ve learned from along your journey? Why?

Michelle: “How I Built This” is a very inspiring podcast. Through all the episodes there is one common theme that taking a risk can lead to a big reward.

WGSN is a great resource for identifying trends not only in the food and beverage space, but in consumerism as a whole. Also, going out into the world visiting grocery stores and different expos to see what trends are out there.

A lesson that I’ve learned from my brother that I still use to this day is to “take the leap – and figure the rest out later.” What’s most important is taking the first step, and not being afraid to do so.

Josh:The Ride of a Lifetime” by Bob Iger; he speaks about leadership in such simple, easy to follow terms that you almost forgot he is the most powerful CEO in media. His candidness and the ease with which he communicates is very inspiring.

What courses have you taken that have been beneficial to you?

Michelle: Consumer Behavior in the Marketplace. It allowed me to understand why people make the decisions they do when purchasing and the factors most likely to affect those choices.

Where would you steer someone looking to learn more about business and more specifically, your field?

Josh: There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned experience. Work in a cafe, ask questions, connect with people. Leaders have different management styles; by working in the field you want to go in you can pick up a few things from one leader, and also perhaps see what you don’t like. That way you can learn your own style and also pick up some other skills that will benefit you long term.

What are you doing to continue learning and growing in your field as well as personally?

Michelle: I always like to learn about new trends in design, for inspiration for our new stores as well as merchandise. I also love to discover new things like exploring museums and exhibits.

Josh: I’m always networking, talking to mentors and listening.

Michelle & Josh's Special Message to You


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