Coffee Against Cultural Colonisation

Text and photo by Evan Tan

From shoes to brews: that would perhaps summarise branding and design expert Brian Tenorio’s career path, to date.

In 2014, Tenorio ventured into the coffee business, among big coffee brands already present in the Philippines, such as Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and Seattle’s Best (among many others.)

He wasn’t always into coffee; in fact, in another career lifetime, he had been designing shoes. Hailing from Marikina, a city renowned for its high-quality shoes, Tenorio dreamt to help the trade which was being killed by low-quality, imported, and cheaper pairs.

He has been a strong advocate since then, organising a number of events to promote Marikina’s shoemaking industry.

Shoes were a means to an end, in Brian’s head: the goal in his mind was, ultimately, social development. And ever the quintessential branding and design professional, Brian saw another opportunity in which that goal could be realised: coffee.

And that is how KKK Coffee (a name inspired by the revolutionary society which fought for Philippine Independence from Spain: Samahang Kataastaasan, Kagalanggalang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan; or, Supreme and Most Honorable Society of the Children of the Nation) was born.

You’ve been a shoe designer and a branding consultant. Why did you decide to venture into food, in particular, coffee?

It wasn’t really a decision but a turn of events that made coffee happen in my life, happen to me. Before KKK Coffee, I was asked by social entrepreneur, Jamir Ocampo, to partner with him for a high end tea brand – that became Tsaa Daloy. This was in November of 2013. By December, we were packing the tea bags ourselves and I was very much into experiencing tea personally and hands on. Some of the tea bags we sold that time were packed into those small foil bags by myself!

But by January 2014 while having dinner in Cubao, two or so months after starting with tea, I mentioned to Jamir that coffee was more exciting to me and that maybe we could do a Filipino brand. We were with another friend then, Petot Namoc, who was also active in social enterprise for coffee. In that same dinner, we thought of dressing up our baristas differently with fabric head wraps and some of those Filipiniana filigree work – all this until we all started to think, KKK!

Coffee now has a special place in my heart because it is one of those products that has a social dimension to its character, and in the Philippines, a vivid social dynamic. Since I did not come from a professional background in food or food services, my approach was via design and branding. I felt that everyone was selling Philippine coffee beans but preparing them all the same way as with the West: espresso-based, Starbucks-ish, and third-wave-esque. So our Filipino-ness in coffee, then, stopped with the beans. With KKK Coffee, we are Filipino beyond beans, with the way we prepare our coffee and our recipes (Kapeng Ginto, Kapeng Pandan, Kapeng Salabat, among our other trademarked offerings).

We’ve always been very confused about our identity–the question of what truly makes us Filipino has always been a subject of debate. Coffee itself is not endemic to the Philippines, having been brought here hundreds of years back. How do you reconcile these with your objective to put the spotlight on our identity and culture? When does something ultimately become Filipino? 

Something is/becomes Filipino when made/designed/crafted by a Filipino. This criterion makes it easier to claim some form of ownership of products and ideas created by Filipinos from the diaspora, a phenomenon very much real currently and should be applied more often to so many things – from public policy to spaghetti, and yes, coffee. This way, the take is development-oriented.

Admittedly, Philippine culture is much influenced by Western culture. It’s not a small hurdle you’re facing in terms of changing that. Which do you think would work best: appealing to the masses, or going aspirational?

This question made me smile a bit because “mass” and “aspirational” would not usually be considered a dichotomy, but more often come about as the latter describing the former in most situations here in the Philippines.

I will say though that I’ve always believed that the best products are the ones that can be enjoyed by the most number of people. This approach to things gradually developed through my years in fashion and design where there would be more effort in exclusivity. That was probably one of the main reasons why I left fashion and moved to development work – my brand of design, and fortunately for my career in this country, the Philippines’ brand of doing things (from an international perspective). This eventually became the take-off point for KKK Coffee and our company’s primary tagline: “Kape para sa lahat.” (“Coffee for all” in Filipino).

From my personal take on the industry and some personal research here and there, I felt that most Filipinos liked their coffee a certain way and that is usually not anywhere near espresso-based. They like sweet and creamy, usually more palatable paired with something else like sweet bread or slightly salted (like Pan de Sal). So we aligned our brand themes to this idea and also tried to stay as far away as possible from most third wave endeavours in coffee in this country. In a way, we’ve taken to providing an alternative to what everyone else thinks everyone else is into. Think of it as sweet spaghetti – previously considered to be inferior to pasta from its origins in Europe, but now a recipe exported around the world by one of our major Filipino fastfood brands.

I think the tides are turning and people are now looking more inward than outward. And I’d like to believe that we at KKK Coffee are trying to re-define “aspirational” as being better versions of our Filipino selves via coffee.

You say you’re exporting coffee culture–the experience, rather than the product. Isn’t that a form of thought colonization as well? By pushing our culture to other communities, isn’t that a form of changing their culture too? What’re your thoughts on that? 

I think colonisation, in any form, is based on the premise that one culture/entity is superior to another or that there is some fundamental premise of correctness and destiny in forcing one’s culture onto a population.

But coffee is not that way. Coffee is warm charm. Coffee is soft power via people’s palates.

And with that, what I’ve always been emphasising is how KKK Coffee is set to cater to Filipinos in the Philippines, visiting foreigners who would like to experience Filipino coffee while here, and to the Filipino diaspora all over. For Filipinos in the Philippines, it is that phenomenon of “lutong-bahay” (literally, “home-cooked” in Filipino) that we are going for. For Filipinos aborad, it is about reminding them of home. For everyone else, KKK Coffee’s brews and recipes make for the country’s contribution to the world of coffee. We are making Filipino coffee culture available to the world. And. Not. Just. Philippine. Coffee. Beans.

Two years after, what impact have you made in the communities you’re assisting? 

It is not so much in our marketing verbiage that we discuss directly working with communities. Our suppliers and partners are the ones who do that and I think they are more experts at that than I am or we are. We are in the business of retailing out these products in our cafes and locations. Someone has got to do that part, yes? A lot of the more social-enterprise-oriented coffee brands stop at being coffee beans sold in packs that are distributed directly to shoppers or consumers or various coffee shops. Our part in all of this is preparing and making available to everyone these great coffee bean varieties from the Philippines – not in some Western recipe like most thing espresso-based – but in truly authentic Filipino ways of preparing our great coffee.

We present the last part of the value chain – brand and distribution, where we make sure that our customers experience Filipino coffee in a way that is…extremely Filipino.

You first established your branch in a mall chain which is known to kill a lot of small businesses in communities. Was this a practical move on your part? How does it align to your vision as a brand? 

It was a practical move, I think, yes. But beyond that, we felt that if we could take on a mall, we would be better equipped to take on other forms of locations and set-ups. If the objective were to bring Filipino coffee to as many people as possible, maybe a mall would be a good starting point. Plus, with the volume and quality of traffic a mall gets, it may be the best place for us to test out our theory and advocacy of “Kape para sa lahat” (“Filipino coffee for everyone!”)

With regards to that insight about malls and small businesses, I’ve seen businesses and start-ups that worked well outside a mall. So I think that a business that gets killed must not have not been innovative enough to be sustainable, because if it were not the phenomenon of malls, it would have been something else that would cause the end of businesses that can’t catch up.

Where do you see your brand in 5, 10 years from now?  

(laughs out loud) I see my brand and logo by the lips of coffee drinkers, Filipino and otherwise, from around the world.

About the interviewee

Tehran-born Filipino-American Tenorio is a Manila/New York-based design manager and strategic communications consultant for international organizations (ADB and WHO) and the corporate and social development sectors. His advocacy work spans Design education, LGBT in business, and Filipino Coffee Culture.

KKK Coffee was established in 2014, with its first retail coffee shop set up in SM Marikina in December of that year.

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