How a Small LA Coffee Shop’s Cup Sleeves Became the Go-To Marketing Vehicle for Billion-Dollar Brands

The story of Alfred Coffee and its trendy rings of cardboard

Though Alfred Coffee is a chain that's largely confined to Los Angeles, huge brands such as Netflix have signed on to promote themselves on its coffee sleeves. Images by Audrey Ma / Claire Haycox; courtesy of Alfred Coffee
Headshot of Robert Klara

Six years ago, a staffer from Kelly Wearstler’s studio stopped by Alfred Coffee in West Hollywood to fetch a bunch of cappuccinos and vanilla lattes for the office. This was nothing especially out of the ordinary, since the indie coffee shop and the headquarters of the acclaimed furniture and interior designer were just a few blocks apart. Besides, even on a bad day, L.A. has no shortage of trendy people walking around.

But when the staffer casually asked if the shop might be in need of any design services, owner Josh Zad perked up. While Zad takes pride in handling the interior design for his stores on his own, he did have a project in mind that, if the design was right, he hoped would turn into a thing: the sleeves of his coffee cups.

“It was the moment we were waiting for,” Zad recalled, “because I needed somebody with a name, a presence and, of course, style, to really unlock the element of creating custom coffee sleeves.”

The name Alfred Coffee is an homage to Alfred, millionaire Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler from the 1960s Batman TV series. Accordingly, Zad had already decorated his cup sleeves with four stylized mustache illustrations. They were a clever, simple riff on the brand name that had also started to rouse the kind of curiosity that fuels word-of-mouth marketing. But Zad’s collaboration with Wearstler gave him something else—not just a cool design, but a partner brand with its own cachet.

Since its first collaboration in 2014, Alfred has sent scores of coffee sleeves out onto the street.

“We worked with her team and we launched the Kelly Wearstler sleeves, and from there, it’s snowballed,” Zad said, “unlocking the potential of coffee sleeves.”

A band of cardboard that keeps customers from burning their fingertips? What sort of potential lay in that? More than one might think, actually.

Zad had long suspected that the humble coffee sleeve had more going for it than heat insulation. What if he could launch eye-catching designs and change them every month? And what if, down the road, he could sell space on the sleeves to other brands?

These days, Zad lays claim to being the first entrepreneur to turn the humble coffee sleeve into a functional billboard. His coffee cup sleeves have hosted companies ranging from apps like Bumble and Postmates to tony apparel makers like premium denim brand Paige and Lunya sleepwear. He’s even done partnerships with truly huge names including American Airlines, CBS, Nike and Disney.

Zad, who cut his teeth in real estate before going into the restaurant business, likens his coffee sleeves to billboards you can get people to carry around for you. “One of the most coveted prizes in real estate is property that had a billboard,” he said. “So I really had always had my eye towards unlocking this sort of billboard for the cafes when we launched.”

Seen on Melrose Place

Alfred Coffee isn’t a huge operation. Apart from an outpost in Austin, Texas, plus several Japanese locations of a sister concept devoted to tea, Alfred counts eight units in Tinseltown. Compare that to 137 outlets for Starbucks, plus any number of indie shops.

Yet not long after opening his first store on Melrose Place in 2013, Zad began making a name for himself. The coffee was good, sure, but the café itself immediately captured the neighborhood’s vibe. Soon, influencers and a few genuine celebrities began to haunt the café’s tables. Alfred’s white-tiled fireplace, trophy antlers, and floral wallpaper made the place Instagrammable (a term Zad claims he “basically” coined) and the café’s slogan—“But first, coffee”—found its way into the L.A. vernacular. The success of the first shop gradually led to more and, by 2018, CNN was calling him the “Beverage King of LA.”

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@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.