In Los Angeles, awards season is longer than wildfire season. For your consideration billboards loom above Sunset Boulevard much of the year to remind the nearly 9,500 Oscar-voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—and the 20,000-plus voters in the Television Academy who weigh in on the Emmys—about a show or movie that came out eight months earlier.
The evidence that awards shows are approaching can now be found on more than just billboards. Over the past two decades, production studios such as Paramount, Universal, and Sony have shelled out for increasingly ostentatious campaigns: catered parties, even more billboards, mail promotions that can cost millions, and even bus-shelter ads to reach all four Academy voters who take public transit. Perhaps the most niche method of earning votes: the to-go-cup sleeves at Alfred Coffee. In the last few months, Alfred sleeves have hawked ads for several Amazon Prime original series, including Harlem, With Love, and The Pursuit of Love.
Alfred started in 2013 as just one shop on Melrose in West Hollywood and has since expanded into 12 highly Instagrammed locations around L.A., from Pacific Palisades and Beverly Hills to Silver Lake. There are even a handful of them outside California: one in Texas, two in Japan, and a fourth in Kuwait.
If you haven’t heard of the shop, perhaps you’ve heard its slogan: “But first, coffee.” Alfred founder Josh Zad, who started his career as a real-estate developer, has owned the registered trademark for the phrase since 2014 (and claims, somewhat improbably, that he coined it). Every store has it immortalized on a giant neon sign.
Wearing It on His Sleeve
Branding was on Zad’s mind when he first opened Alfred, which he named after both the street he lived on and Bruce Wayne’s butler in Batman. Third-wave coffee shops, such as Blue Bottle and Stumptown Coffee Roasters, were popping up all over Los Angeles and around the country, but Zad found them to be “focused too much on the beans and the craft itself” rather than on “design, vibe, and community,” he said in a 2020 interview. His idea was a social-media-oriented shop with an Urban Outfitters aesthetic and an emphasis on intellectual property. Their World Famous Iced Vanilla Latte is trademarked.
Alfred’s coffee-cup sleeves have been decorated with bespoke designs since the start. The store’s first batch featured illustrations of mustaches once ubiquitous among millennial hipsters. But Zad had bigger dreams for his cups. One of his real-estate properties had been a parking lot, and the valet tickets came with movie advertisements on the back. When the interior decorator Kelly Wearstler offered to design coffee-cup sleeves in 2014, he seized the chance. “Having her design it would liberate these sleeves,” Zad said in 2020. “It would set it free.”
In the years since, Alfred has partnered with Lululemon, Bumble, Postmates, American Airlines, Nike, Kylie Jenner’s cosmetics brand, the illustrator Paul Frank, the photographer Gray Malin, and Paige jeans, among others. According to Adweek, monthly partnerships “run in the high five figures.” A few brands have even paid six figures for space on Alfred’s coffee sleeves.
Alfred Coffee founder Josh Zad found third-wave coffee shops to be “focused too much on the beans and the craft itself” rather than on “design, vibe, and community.”
For the past few years, the entertainment industry has played a major role at the shop. In 2017, Alfred served five limited-edition Power Rangers–themed drinks with Power Rangers coffee sleeves to publicize the franchise’s latest film. The same year, Alfred sleeves also paid homage to Minnie Mouse, to mark the premiere of Disney’s limited series about her, Rock the Dots.
Many of Alfred’s show-business sleeves are awards season–related. Since 2018, CBS has periodically purchased the space to promote their FYC (For Your Consideration) app, where Emmy voters can watch screeners on their phone before they cast their votes. Shows from Netflix’s The Crown to Amazon Prime’s Fairfax and movies from Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story to Michael Rianda’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines have appeared on Alfred to-go sleeves.
Does the sleeve-as-ad model work? Put another way: Has any awards-season constituent seen an Alfred coffee sleeve boosting a Disney-affiliated feature and thought, “They have my vote”? That seems to be an industry secret. The coffee chain, Zad, and the Academy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
One Academy member, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this subject, did say she’d noticed the sleeves. They mostly struck her as a bellwether of how lavish awards-season spending has become. “You sort of rack up in your brain the frivolous amounts of campaign dollars that [the studios] are putting towards things like this,” she said.
This Academy member, who frequents an Alfred shop in Pacific Palisades, said the coffee sleeves seem to indicate how awards advertising had become nearly synonymous with the banal everyday activities of a subset of Los Angeles life. She often sees Netflix-sponsored events at the community lawn next to Alfred. Even the movie theater nearby is Netflix-affiliated.
“It gets so over the top,” she said. “It doesn’t sway my vote.”
Another Academy member I spoke with, whose teenage daughter drinks Alfred every day, took an informal poll of six 15-year-old girls. She asked if they’d ever paid attention to the shows or movies on their coffee-cup sleeves. “Every single one of them fires back on the text thread like, ‘There’s movies on the coffee sleeves? What are you talking about?’” the Academy member said. She asked if they were joking. “They’re like, ‘Nope, never noticed.’”
Tarpley Hitt writes for Gawker and is an editor for The Drift