[By: Danielle Directo-Meston] [LA Racked] [Read More]
It's a late Monday afternoon in May and a trio of late teens are coordinating their most candid girl gang selfie stances. Standing before a wall of powder pink tiling on Alfred Street, the young women — one sporting electric blue hair, another with a clear backpack slung over both shoulders, and all three clearly dedicated to keeping the ‘90s revival alive — perfect their peace sign poses for the camera, each while clutching a cup of iced tea just so.
There are others like them, all patiently waiting for their chance to snap a quick selfie in front of the just-opened tea stop, a feminine-modern space with a menu of inventive teas from around the world. Frequently Instagrammed favorites include the iced matcha green tea and the chai tea latte (with boba added, of course). This is no ordinary street, and this is no ordinary caffeine station: The location is Melrose Place, and this Alfred Tea Room.
Its stylish big sister, Alfred Coffee & Kitchen, began pouring Portland-based Stumptown on the luxury shopping haunt in early 2013, just in time to be hashtagged across Instagram by the fashion bloggers — early adopters of the photo-sharing app — and social media-savvy java junkies that frequented the street. Its debut coincided with the previously iPhone-only app's expansion to Android users, handing over promotional possibilities to a whole other plugged-in population.
With its floral wallpaper, charming illustrated walls (hand-painted by fashion-faved graphic designer Blanda Eggenschwiler), bright white mantle tiling, and its now world-famous "But first, coffee" tagline in art director-approved typography, Alfred on Melrose is no doubt pleasing to the creative eye — and undeniably 'grammable.
Sormeh Azad, an interior designer who dreamed up celeb-happy nightclub The Nice Guy, was a frequent customer during Alfred's early days. "I was designing and building [the club] down the street on La Cienega and was often on the construction site early morning and really needed a coffee," she remembers.
"At that time, I was there for the coffee but staying for the environment, [which sometimes] makes all the difference for me," she admits. "Call it a placebo effect, but somehow when a space is well-designed, the coffee tastes better."
WHO IS ALFRED?
The man behind Alfred is not named Alfred. He's Joshua Zad, a 34-year-old commercial real estate developer. And if anyone's surprised that he's the founder of one of LA's best(and certainly aesthetically-pleasing) coffee stops, it's him.
"It's still just the weirdest thing to me because I never thought in a million years I'd be involved in food and beverage," he reveals. "One thousand percent no. I think for most people it crosses their mind; it's a really sexy idea to have a restaurant or a bar. But I never had [those] aspirations."
As the story goes, Zad — then a resident of Alfred Street — noticed his neighborhood was "in desperate need" of a caffeinated watering hole. With a day job that involves developing West Hollywood's retail scene, opening Alfred was clearly self-serving in more ways than one.
"Obviously, I have a stake in [the area]," he admits.Combining his real estate intel and entrepreneurial spirit, in 2012 he signed the lease for 8428 Melrose Place, a cozy space beneath high-end aesthetician Kate Somerville's skincare studio and that previously housed edgy-luxe label Faith Connexion.
"It was kind of a gamble and there was no one there yet," he says. "Melrose Place has always traditionally been a sleepy tree-lined street, and in the past it's been mainly antique shops and rug dealers," he says. "I was comfortable with the fact that the street itself is so beautiful and speaks for itself."
Spanning less than a quarter of a mile between La Cienega Boulevard and Melrose Avenue, the low-key stretch's high-end boom began when Marc Jacobs and Marni arrived about 12 years ago. The year the inked dried on Alfred's lease, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, L'Agence and Equipment opened their doors.
Hit up friendly the local coffee shop on a weekday at high noon and it's clear that Alfred's arrival is a win-win for nearby inhabitants, Melrose Place shoppers, and the high-end street's tenants. Over the past three years, the stylish stretch has welcomed a slew of cool new kids to the block, including The Row, Nine Zero One Salon, Rachel Comey, and Vanessa Seward.
THE CHIARA EFFECT
"[Alfred's] locations tend to be perfectly placed where fashionable people hang out,"explains Matt Kang, editor-in-chief of our sister site Eater LA. "It's become preferred in the fashionable set because of its stylish decor and unfussy service."
When it opened in 2013, the café was perfect pit stop for label lovers seeking java jolts during their Melrose Place retail therapy: fashion blogosphere pioneers like Chiara Ferragni (who even raved to us about Alfred), Aimee Song, and Emily Schuman sprinkled their blog posts and social media snaps with Alfred's signature #butfirstcoffee sleeves. And when the world's most famous fashion blogger declares your cup of joe the "cutest coffee ever", her fans will likely want to drink it up, too.
Ferragni was one of the first influencers to tag Alfred and — nowadays a rarity for the upper echelons of style blogging — wasn't paid a cent nor comped a single latte to do it. "She had a million followers at the time," Zad recalls. "She posted [about us] like seven times in three weeks."
The blessing of It models and other celebrities certainly doesn't hurt, either. Power BFFs Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid — frequent patrons of Melrose Place — were both spotted with Alfred's famous coffee cups firmly in hand, solidifying the java joint's hot spot status among pop culture junkies.
An ongoing series of collaborations with cult-cool LA labels, have furthered Alfred's fashion credits. When Alfred, In The Alley opened two years ago, its coffee sleeves featured the work of California design star Kelly Wearstler. For the debut of its Silver Lake location, the cafe tapped Clare V. to design its charming coffee sleeves. It's even teamed with cool tech accessories brand This Is Ground, which created a leather cup holder last fall.
NOT JUST ABOUT THE IG
As New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell famously noted in his book, Outliers, location and timing, combined with drive and (for the most part) talent, equal the secret to success. In the case of Alfred Coffee, Zad capitalized on being at the right place (Los Angeles) at the right time (a decaf street during the digital age). While social media stardom certainly thrust Alfred before the thumb-scrolling Millennial masses, its founder was clearly onto something.
Now with almost six locations under his belt — an alley spot opened at Melrose and La Cienega in 2014, followed by locations in Brentwood and Silver Lake; next up is Studio City — Zad may very well have LA's fastest-growing, specialty coffee-focused café chain on his hands. (His bean supplier, Stumptown, has a flagship in the Arts District; fellow third wave coffee brands Verve and Blue Bottle have three and five locations, respectively, while Philz is nearing five — but this is all besides the point.)
Pre-2010, any pretty eatery was simply photogenic. These days, when hashtags provide an aesthetically-pleasing catalog of every noun and verb imaginable, anything that's decidedly well-designed is "IG-worthy." This idea was not lost during the M&D phase of Alfred, says Zad, and it certainly hasn't been for the rest of the restaurant industry.
As interior and event designer Ken Fulk told Tasting Table earlier this year, a lens-pleasing eatery is no accident. "It's like the chicken and egg: Does Instagram inspire design, or is it design that inspires Instagram?" he revealed. "It's a bit of both."
Step into any of the café chain's five LA outposts and try to resist pulling out your smartphone. Alfred in the Alley is punctuated by bold, monochromatic tiles that pull you towards the sleek stainless steel counter; Brentwood, as Zad describes it, is "very Williams-Sonoma, but edgy."
"Look, at the end of the day, everything that we do is visually appealing — that helps," admits Zad, calling out the many Yelp reviews that 'fess up to discovering Alfred Tea Room through social media.
Being shutterbug-friendly alongside offering a healthy foodie-approved menu (which includes Farm Shop pastries, Cafe Gratitude grub, and the unabashedly LA #10dollarlatte), good customer service, and even its employee uniforms (provided by local apron company Hedley & Bennett) were "[equally] important parts of our overall strategy," he says. Beyond designing attractive interiors, the ambition behind Alfred 1.0 was to offer a quality commodity in a stylish, approachable setting.
"It's [about] the quality of coffee that you deliver and the kind of customer service and the design experience that you get when you walk in the door," Zad tells us. "We're not world-champion baristas and we don't roast our own beans," he continues. With a reputable brand like Stumptown on tap, Alfred is afforded a certain street cred among seasoned and amateur coffee connoisseurs.
"We don't have to talk about the origin, [which] most people can't really connect with anyways," explains Zad. When served within Alfred's fashion-forward interiors, each and every iced coffee, cappuccino, and macchiato becomes a piece of that picture-perfect lifestyle.
Melrose Place, already a magnet for famous and non-famous Angelenos with cash to burn, finds itself at the intersection (not literally) of Hollywood and fashion. If you grab a seat at Alfred's communal table and glance over at the next laptop screen — or casually eavesdrop on that name-dropping convo behind you — there's a good chance your seat mate's a fashion industry insider, a screenwriter type, or a graphic designer, to name just a few LA creative archetypes.
As Sormeh Azad (now a PNW transplant) puts it, Alfred's bold interior design "can be overwhelming at times in terms of combination of colors, materials and patterns." Case in point: the chain's Brentwood location, where black and white diagonal stripes crash against bright green tiling. "This combination has become a staple brand and as a designer I commend that aspect; it inspires a part of my brain whenever I come in contact with it."
AND LASTLY, THAT HASHTAG
As of press time, #butfirstcoffee garnered just over 441,000 impressions on Instagram. It's the very first result that generates as you Google "But first...", and in our very non-scientific tracking, the hashtag is used on average about 700 times a day — making it nearly impossible (or at the very least, incredibly time-consuming) to determine which tags are the result of an Alfred visit. That's a lot of brand recognition for a coffee shop without the ubiquity of Starbucks.
The story behind it is not a PG-13 one, we're told. (Sorry, kids!) The term itself is a registered trademark of Melrose Place Coffee Company — a.k.a. Alfred Coffee & Kitchen, but Zad holds no hate (or lawsuits, that we know of) against spinoffs. "But first, yoga" is a popular offshoot, as evidenced by the proliferation of workout tanks emblazoned with the phrase.
"I love it," he says. "Anytime you see [it], what does it make you think immediately of? Coffee. It helps perpetuate my message so I'm definitely cool with it. I'm a lover, I'm a team player."
Plans to spread that message via brick-and-mortar cafes will remain in LA, Zad says firmly. "What a big beautiful city we have here — it would be silly not to be the most we can here before we get ahead of ourselves."
With Los Angeles playing home to the world's most famous fashion bloggers, someone needs to serve them stylish scenery — and who better to do the job than Alfred?