Our mates from way back & neighbours in Christchurch (Welles Street). Al Keating, CEO of Coffee Supreme gives us all the insider coffee scoop.
Where did it all begin for you at Coffee Supreme?
I became familiar with Supreme while I worked for another great coffee company here in Auckland.
I admired them for their standout brand, brave use of red, their cool website with the espresso shot that filled while the website loaded – remember when we made things for people to watch while websites loaded?
Their coffee was good. It was packaged in little clear plastic bags with label-printer stickers stuck crookedly – stating basics like blend, roast date, and batch. Tasting notes and flavour profiles hadn’t even been invented.
The Mouthfeels was a post-punk-goth-rock band from a small town near Hove.
Chris Dillon (co-founder with his partner Maggie Wells) had gathered a posse of industry pros and hustlers.
They boarded planes and went to origin to meet producers and choose coffees.
This is before Instagram too, when people had to simply take your word for it that it actually happened; when we did things for good reason, not reach and likes.
I remember being asked by Supreme’s founder to keep an ear to the ground.
He was looking for a two-person team to break into Auckland.
They’d won the South Island over.
They’d introduced Melbourne to coffee that tasted like it grew on a fruit tree planted in the ground, as opposed to standing behind a drag race in the 80’s with your mouth open.
So how hard could Auckland be..?
That’s where I started.
What’s the biggest blunder you’ve made as CEO or throughout your professional career?
Man, where do I start…countless examples.
I’ve opened cafes that failed.
I’ve signed of typos.
I’ve launched new coffee bags made of soft plastic on the day NZ said ‘sorry guys, no more soft plastic recycling in NZ’.
I’ve hired the next person when I should have hired the best person.
I could go on…
Perhaps my biggest mistake tho – failing to communicate thoroughly.
By default, I’m overly optimistic and have been known to overlook details.
As a result, I can sail on ahead thinking that somehow everyone else is onboard.
I can sail into the future onboard a ship called HMS Hope & Assumption, only to realise I’ve failed to ensure the team had fully boarded.
She’s a beautiful ship. Loaded with ill-preparation and best-intentions, sails billowing with ego.
Every crew member, a slight variation in mind of what our destination actually is.
I’ve embarked on that voyage a few times if I’m honest.
I’m learning at last to be a part of a close, solid team who keep me accountable, and who understand how to manage amongst my optimistic scattiness.
I am improving. Really.
If you could go back to the start of your coffee journey, what advice would you give yourself or to anyone?
Establish and learn more about the product that’s at the core of your business. Never forget it. Never stray from it.
Sure, there are times to diversify, maybe even make significant changes.
But be very intentional and explicit about that.
I declared years ago – ‘coffee isn’t our core product, it’s what happens over a coffee shared’.
This is an apology to all Supreme’s hardworking staff, our customers – amazing coffee professionals and coffee lovers, our shareholders, our friends who grow and supply us with our amazing coffee! (I’m fortunate to have met some of them – not all – but there are people within Supreme who catch up with them at least once a year).
Coffee IS actually our core product.
Everything we are and everything we do revolves around it.
What happens over a coffee shared is everything else: our brand, our culture, friendship – just like anyone else.
Our essence is not complex; Supreme, Everybody, Every day.
Better coffee for all
What projects are you currently working on?
Often, so many projects on the go here. We have big dreams and limited resources – just like everybody I guess.
We’ve just recently welcomed you (Burger Burger) to our home in CHCH. It’s been so good having you guys move in next door.
We’ve launched Instant coffee, which has been met understandably with mixed reactions. Largely super positive. But there’s always a few reluctant folk.
And then, those who remembered to tuck some into their carry-on bring it out on a flight and, in an instant, they see exactly what we were thinking. The next best thing!
We’re also making ourselves more accessible to all Kiwi’s and Aussies who love drinking good coffee. And where better to meet them than where they’re already at…? The Supermarket.
Supermarkets have changed hugely over the last few years.
We once shopped at supermarkets for 72-packs of loo paper and Weetbix and teabags. Now, we go there to buy those staples, but we can find some of our most beloved brands in the aisles too. If I’d told you 10 years ago I was shopping under the one roof for stuff like Bonnie Oatcakes, Fix & Fogg, Antipodes, and Garage Project, you’d assume I was at a specialty supermarket or similar, right? Nope – just good ol’ New World.
So – we figure, why shouldn’t we be on the shelves next to our other favourites, where everyday kiwis are shopping for their favourite everyday needs.
That’s an exciting project.
What has been crucial to your creative/CEO career?
Autonomy and Team.
I know, oxymoronic.
Autonomy, because no one thrives under micromanagement.
And, micromanagement is inflicted onto staff not by leaders, but by managers who struggle with their own weaknesses.
I’ve been lucky, as a creative-thinking CEO, to serve a board that has given me a lot of room to move.
Not a boundary-less space though. They certainly hold me to account, and ask annoyingly tough questions when the need is there.
You can make quite a tit of yourself on a course without boundaries.
Team, because no matter how good a sailor one might be, no-one can sail Supreme singlehandedly. Everybody with talent also has weaknesses, which is why the team is so important.
We all play our part. Regardless of how important or insignificant we think that part is, the truth is: if any member of this team fell over, or disappeared tonight…we’d all be up sh*t creek.
The challenge for me is ensuring we have a culture of working together, clear on what it is we’re actually doing.
How have you developed your relationship with the financial aspect of Coffee Supreme over time?
That’s a great question.
It’s not something that has come naturally to me.
I had for some time been living under a financially-illiterate rock.
There was a time when I thought margin was a dairy-free toast spread, and that EBITDA was a song from The Muppet Show.
But, that was then.
I’ve more recently worked with some very talented commercial folk.
I have learned a mountain from working with our founder, our Commercial Director, and others in the business who ask relentlessly for process, strategy, accountability.
Cool doesn’t always pay the bills, and true sustainability is ‘repeatability’.
I’m learning these things in a very tough, competitive environment.
What’s your go-to BB order?
Beef w Cheese every time.
I’ve never tried anything different*.
Curly fries, and the broccoli with the almonds and the garlic.
Seriously so good.
*Ok, there was that one time I tried the BwC Bunnice.
My wife gets it every time – loves it.
She’s got discipline tho.
She also drives a car with a heater that works.
Disciplined and practical people can be so annoying sometimes.