How No Free Coffee Is Building Community With Its Tiny Cafe Window and Streetwear Sensibilities

A conversation with No Free Coffee founder Mario Kristian on how he is building community with his Tiny Cafe pop-ups and streetwear approach to coffee.

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Image via No Free Coffee

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“We do coffee, but the clothes really hit.”

This is No Free Coffee’s Instagram bio. Mario Kristian, who founded the company, created a part-cafe, part-streetwear pop-up shop concept out of Los Angeles in 2020. Kristian says the sentiment initially started out as a joke amongst friends but turned into an IG bio that he didn’t think anyone would read. But today that joke rings true. No Free Coffee’s clothing output thus far, which has included everything from lavender logo hoodies to baby blue mesh shorts to giant brown totes all bearing its signature pink script and hearts, really does hit. And locals in the Los Angeles area seem to agree. 

“The reception has been crazy man,” says Kristian, who notes friends like Bobby Hundreds and Anwar Carrots attending the first pop-up back in October 2020, which helped give the brand an early boost. “People are coming to the pop-ups just for the clothes. They’re like, ‘I don’t even drink coffee, but I just want a hoodie and some shorts.’ Like what? That’s crazy.”

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Before Kristian started No Free Coffee, he was in LA directing videos at Atlantic Records and working with artists like NBA Youngboy and Rico Nasty—she pulled up to one of his No Free Coffee pop-ups back in April. His first creative outlet was film and photography, and he attended the University of Memphis to study film and production in the early 2010s before eventually dropping out and moving to Atlanta. It was there he began working on set with upcoming acts at the time like Trinidad James and Rich Homie Quan. From Atlanta, Kristian would move up to New York where he had gigs at Complex and Fader helping with video editing and production. Kristian still shoots artists like 42 Dugg when he can, but says when he was working in the music industry full time, he eventually started to feel jaded by it. He wanted to take a step back and “become a fan again.” Thus, he started on a new path that led him to operating his Tiny Cafes today.

Kristian says trips to Japan, where he admired the specialities and techniques they implemented in cafes, sparked the idea for his coffee-fueled experience. He was also influenced by a display of water bottles that weren’t for sale at the Noah store in Japan, and Chocolate, a Japanese clothing brand that doesn’t actually make any chocolate. This made him want to mesh streetwear and coffee into one cohesive vision. 

“Me and my wife would travel specifically to Japan ‘cause it just feels like you can be a kid there. We just always wanted to go, so we started going in 2016 or 2017,” says Kristian. “We would go every year and we’d always make this running joke like, ‘Yo, let’s just leave all this behind and move here and open up a coffee shop and be like on some regular shit.’ Everything in Japan is just dope.”

When the pandemic hit last year, Kristian says it allowed him to really sit down and think about what he wanted to do. Thus, No Free Coffee’s Tiny Cafe was born. No Free Coffee is a bit different, but abides by the same line of thinking as the spots in Japan. It offers an uber-limited speciality menu. Its Grapefruit Tootsie, a mixture of Ethiopaian cold brew and grapefruit soda inspired by an espresso and tonic mix served by his favorite coffee shop in LA, Menotti’s, is their signature drink. And he sells his pour over coffee alongside a rotating carousel of baked goods that vary from pop-up to pop-up.

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Kristian wants the beverages themselves to grab the attention of an LA Times food critic or a reviewer from Eater, he’s just presenting it in a way that is authentic to him. But he spent a year learning the tricks of the trade to become a legitimate barista before opening the pop-up. He studied different techniques and categories of beans, and says it took him roughly five months before he could even make a “good” cup of coffee. Coffee isn’t a gimmick for him, and Kristian is really committed to pouring you one of the best coffees you’ve ever had. But where did the interest in coffee come from? He says it started simple enough, as it probably does for many, just needing a cup to get through a work day. Eventually, pouring a cup in the office kitchen progressed to a curiosity about beans, their origins, and the intricacies of the coffee-making process, which pushed him to create No Free Coffee.

“I like starting over in spaces where I gotta go beat who is killin’ the shit in this world right now and show them I’m not a poser. I really build the craft and work at it to show them we’re doing good shit,” says Kristian about entering the coffee world. “It was really important to me to find out who was killin’ it in the coffee world to understudy, train, and ask questions to make sure we weren’t doing anything corny. But I think not being from the coffee world is working to our advantage. We’re breaking rules. I have a cold brew soda. That’s not your everyday coffee beverage.”

What sets the No Free Coffee experience apart and what’s brought them a lot of attention on IG is the way that the beverages are served through small windows that Kristian refers to as art pieces. The idea came from his wife, who was inspired by wine windows that originated back in Florence, Italy during the Bubonic Plague in the 1300s. It’s a time far back in history that felt eerily similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, another layer of storytelling to add to the No Free Coffee concept that’s certainly unique. Where else are you being served from a wine window in 2021? Kristian and his team have built on the idea by designing the window differently for each pop-up. For example, their most recent event at Harun Coffee had an eye-catching iridescent treatment. Others have been more simplistic: a purple wall with a copper logo plaque or rows of wooden panels

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Generally speaking, combining the world of streetwear with food and beverage is becoming pretty common these days. Los Angeles’ Jon and Vinny’s recently collaborated with Madhappy on a special merch capsule that Jay-Z wore. The Hundreds frequently hosts food festivals in California to spotlight local vendors. Supreme made red Oreos. Travis Scott has stamped his name on a McDonald’s meal and even sells his own hard seltzer beverage now. And then of course you have NIGO, who Kristian says at least partially inspired him to pursue his own venture. The streetwear legend operates multiple Curry Up restaurants in Japan and recently collabed with coffee brand Blue Bottle through his line Human Made for a special blend of coffee and accompanying merch like a T-shirt and apron.

“A lot of it comes from seeing Curry Up in Japan and Nigo having a restaurant where there’s Curry, but then you can buy Human Made Curry Up apparel there too. But it’s fly. It’s always sold out. People are wearing it with their fits. Pharrell always has on a Curry Up dad hat. And it’s like, ‘Damn, that’s hard.’ But it’s curry, it’s food,” Kristian tells Complex. “I think that’s really important when you can make people fall in love with not only the brand, but something that they can actually taste. There’s only so many things that you can connect with people like that, on a real personal level.”

But what Kristian wants to cultivate with No Free Coffee goes beyond food and clothing. He sees it growing into an agency of sorts, an umbrella company that houses multiple ventures that extend to areas like tech. He also just released a fully playable Gameboy game cartridge in collaboration with Krool Toys that exemplifies the ability for the brand’s product offering to expand to other avenues. He even says he wants to be the first coffee shop on Mars, something that initially seems like a tongue in cheek reference to how big he wants to become until he says it again, and it becomes obvious that he really wants to sell pour overs on another planet one day. 

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Kristian’s view of coffee through a streetwear lens is refreshing. He emphasizes how you will never see No Free Coffee use common cafe advertising tropes like coffee beans falling through someone’s cupped hands or black coffee spilling over a white cup. In fact, sometimes the brand’s Instagram page doesn’t even post about its coffee or apparel at all. One day it could be a photo of Lil Uzi Vert flaunting his jewelry. Another is a photo of Lil Wayne during his illustrious Bape era. But somehow it all fits together to craft the unique world that Kristian is building, a coffee world for someone who is more likely to toss on a Stüssy T-shirt and pair of Carhartts instead of a sweater from Banana Republic or chinos from J. Crew to take on the day.

“I wanted to post pictures of Uzi and that’s it, because that’s the world that we live in. Coffee just so happens to be there,” Kristian tells Complex about his posting habits on the brand’s Instagram page. “We’re going to this show. We’re going to get fly. And we may grab a coffee on the way.”

He’s creating a community that cares about style, which is why he puts a lot of attention into his clothing. “I don’t even like calling it merch. It’s apparel. It’s become a brand of its own,” says Kristian. With each release, Krisitan is giving his supporters a new piece of their uniform, and a new way to rep the No Free Coffee community when they are out and about. Most recently, he teased brown staff jackets could be on the horizon for friends and family. They were first worn by the staff serving No Free Coffee during Kerwin Frost’s second annual film festival at the Chinese Theater from June 25-June 27. At ComplexLand 2.0 earlier this month, the brand released grey zip-up hoodies with pink puff print detailing through the Kids of Immigrants booth.

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Kristian says he plans on making cut and sew items like cardigans or polos down the line to supplement the mint green T-shirts, purple sweats, and mugs that he’s already released. He also mentions wanting to make a varsity jacket that he will sell and wear after his victory at the next World Brewers Cup, an annual competition that pits coffee brewers from around the world against each other. It’s a personal goal of his. 

Despite the attention the pop-ups have garnered from month to month, No Free Coffee is still a passion project for Kristian. He spends most of his time working as a creative producer for Instagram where he has been for almost two years. 

“[Instagram] champions doing your own shit, which is cool,” says Kristian. “I just came out of a meeting and the whole team had [No Free Coffee clothes] on.” 

He’s dabbled in brand building before. While attending college in Memphis, he had Black and White by Mario Kristian, a line of T-shirts and hoodies that featured photos he took of graffiti around the city. He says he never profited from his first brand venture, but still sees people rocking the items as a sentiment to the communal aspect that he can cultivate with his projects. 

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In the future, Kristian hopes to keep growing the No Free Coffee brand beyond its current status and he plans on working with his close friends like fellow LA streetwear brand Babylon and Carrots by Anwar Carrots. He wants to bring his pop-ups to cities beyond LA, eyeing New York as an obvious next step that could be coming sooner rather than later. Playing to his background in music, he wants to put on small performances with artists. Down the line, he also envisions collaborations with coffee chains like Blue Bottle. Rather than open his own cafes, what he calls the obvious route, he hopes to partner with clothing boutiques around the world like Dover Street Market to be the exclusive coffee program there. A pop-up at Bodega’s LA outpost this coming Friday seems like a step in the right direction. Whatever it may be, it is clear that much more is in the works from No Free Coffee.

“I would like to see No Free Coffee become a billion dollar company, and become a tech company, and be the first coffee shop on Mars. I want to be able to take over the coffee space.”

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