“I didn’t expect to be in the coffee business,” says retired shoe designer Brian Tenorio, sitting upright on the sofa in the SM Marikina branch of KKK Coffee, his newest venture promoting proudly Philippine-grown coffee paired with native snacks.
It is the first of many meetings that day, and although always meticulously put together in black (today it is a jacket he designed himself, over a shirt, paired with pants and black shoes) he has a rushed air about him. From Marikina he will head to the World Health Organization office in Manila after an hour and a half.
His answers during the interview are ready, and he will dash behind the counter every now and then to serve a shot of Kapeng Labuyo, infused with native chili so the slightly bitter beverage goes down the throat with a cough-inducing kick, or a cup of Kapeng Ginto, sweetened with muscovado and honey, an everyday drink for parents and their children who sneak sips when no one is looking.
Tenorio seems to be everywhere. He is a consultant for branding and design at WHO and the Asian Development Bank, a sought-after speaker (recently at the MNL Urban Design Week and Festival), and an organizer of footwear fashion shows for the city he calls home, Marikina, during its annual Sapatos Festival.
Always he aims to promote the Filipino, and KKK Coffee is his vehicle for “beans, brews, and brand.”
The beans come from various provinces in North Luzon while the brews include recipes such as Kapeng Pandan, which is coffee poured over fragrant pandan leaves.
The brand name, meanwhile, can mean anything from “kapeng-kapeng-kape (absolutely coffee)” to “kanya-kanyang kape (your coffee) to “kapihan, kaibigan, at kwentuhan (café, camaraderie, and conversation).”
In Philippine history, KKK is the abbreviation of Kagalanggalangang Katipuanan ng mga Anak ng Bayan or Katipunan, the revolutionary society that fought for sovereignty against the islands’ Spanish colonizers.
“I said, my goal is to export it like how Jollibee’s exported,” he said. “We want to export brand, not beans. Because when it comes to beans, all the farmers earn are the decimals of a centavo. But for brand, your earnings are the entire profit margin. In the Philippines, we export beans, but we don’t export brands. We import brands. You are giving money to a foreign culture.”
Tenorio initially partnered with Jamir Ocampo to open their first coffee bar in January last year at a co-working space in Katipunan, Quezon City, to see if their concept worked. In December, they opened their first store in SM Marikina, followed by the second in Kalibo International Airport, Aklan, and the third in Maginhawa Street, UP Village in Quezon City. At least six more are opening this year. (Ocampo, however, has decided to focus on another venture while Tenorio continued the enterprise.)
During a meeting with a consultant, he was told, “Brian, we want to educate Filipinos to drink coffee the right way.”
“Nagpantig ang tainga ko noon (That sounded wrong to me),” Tenorio said. “And I felt bad because I thought, ‘The right way? Grabe naman (That’s too much), does it mean that everything we’ve been doing in Batangas is wrong?’”
The “right” way supposedly had to do with acidity and brewing time and other factors but Filipinos prepared their brew through pakulo or boiling coffee and water in a kettle. Traditionally, they did not use espresso machines or coffeemakers.
“I said, ‘You know what’s happening? Whenever we say ‘Make coffee the right way,’ we are getting colonized by another culture via coffee,’” Tenorio said.
Which is why KKK Coffee tries to promote native coffee-making through pakulo, buhos, and pita (boil, pour, and squeeze), albeit in a slightly altered form for a commercial establishment. Franchising is easy, he said, because no expensive coffee machines are involved.
“You don’t need that in Filipino handcrafted coffee,” Tenorio said.
Filipino coffee is “comfort coffee,” he explained. “It’s the coffee that you have with your parents. It’s the coffee that you have when you’re not pasosyal (uppity). It’s really good, home coffee.”
And this is what he tries to provide his customers with at KKK Coffee. His friend said of the beverages, “It’s like coffee at home, but a little more special.”
For example, the bestselling Kapeng Guinto approximates the taste of three-in-one coffee—but in the form of an all-natural (not processed) brew and using muscovado sugar, of course. Tenorio’s recipe was patterned after the way his mother would ask him to make it. He would just add cream and sugar to the coffee until it became the color of the mix his mom preferred.
He believes Filipinos have a taste for creamy and sweet coffee, just as how they are as lovers.
“The realization is that the Filipino coffee experience is about being together with someone. It’s slightly emotional, especially among the youth,” Tenorio said.
Instagram is the perfect illustration. Westerners post photos of their coffee with captions about their own coffee and how they like it a certain way. Meanwhile, Filipinos post photos of their coffee with captions like, “Sana kape na lang ako para hinahanap mo ako every day (I wish I was a cup of coffee so that you would look for me every day).”
“We’re making coffee for Filipinos,” Tenorio said.
He also wants to rediscover and promote Philippine coffee culture among Filipinos, who seem to be more attuned to the way “hipsters in New York have their coffee.” He wants to export it, too.
A “socially good” business, KKK Coffee seeks profit so that it can be sustainable, but it also tries to help by patronizing Filipino farmers and the beans they grow.
“But we don’t romanticize it that way, we don’t say ‘Grown in the shade of the acacia tree, watered by the tears of virgins,’” Tenorio said lightly.
It is the entire package he wants to focus on.
“If you look at the way I design, I think I can say it now with guts that it’s very local. I’m confident about it because I don’t try to be international. Because I’ve been there and the more international you are, the more local you have to be. And that’s my frustration with a lot of designers. ‘Ooh, you have a coffee shop, is it Italian?’ As if we’re all white-skinned! Ano ba?” he said.
Tenorio wondered why Filipinos kept trying to appear Western, with some entrepreneurs opting to name their establishments with European-sounding names.
“Parang naglolokohan tayo. (We’re just kidding each other). We’re not good at being other people,” he said. “When we had a shoe factory we called it ‘Pabrika’ with a ‘K’. We like it that way! We are better when we are ourselves. That’s the point.”
It works for KKK Coffee, whose foreign customers at its Kalibo airport branch order a big-sized mug of spiced up Kapeng Labuyo, Tenorio said. “Why serve Italian coffee to Italians when they can have it in Italy anyway?”
In the next 20 years the Philippines will be one of the largest populations in the world, Tenorio surmises. “Who will design and create products for Filipinos? Will it be Thailand and Vietnam? We are a bigger market! If we just design for ourselves, tiba-tiba ka na (imagine how much you’ll earn)!”
Filipinos have to be the ones designing products for the Philippines, he stressed. Jollibee had sweet spaghetti which sounded ludicrous when it was starting as Italian spaghetti was the norm, but now it was being exported. Why can’t Filipinos do it for their coffee?
Tenorio believed he got his nationalism from his parents, but it became more pronounced in New York, where he was the first Filipino to finish a graduate degree in Design Management from the Pratt Institute.
The more he traveled abroad, the more he realized how Filipino he was, he said.
Strengthening Filipino design
Tenorio relates a personal experience. One time, in New York, he repurposed a table runner handwoven from Ifugao and wore it as a scarf. Every few hours someone would stop him on the street to ask where he got the fashionable piece.
“There’s a lot of good Filipino design, but it’s not done strategically,” Tenorio said.
He recalled meeting a vendor who sold only table cloth when he or she could sell scarves instead at a higher price but with less effort and material.
“Tapos ‘yung t’nalak ginagawa lang pencil case! Eh ang t’nalak natin, one month mong gagawin ‘yung ganun! Tapos gagawin mong 20-peso pencil case? My God! Eh dream weavers gumagawa niyan, eh! Idi-dream muna yung patterns. Kahit pigain mo ‘yan kung ‘di natutulog, walang dreams (And they just turn t’nalak into pencil cases! Our t’nalak takes a month to make, and you reduce it to a 20-peso pencil case? My God! Dreamweavers make that. You have to dream the pattern first. No matter how much you force it, if they don’t sleep, there are no dreams),” Tenorio said.
His hometown has also shaped his patriotism.
“I love Marikina because the concept of ‘bailiwick’ is very strong. And not so many people have the chance to have a bailiwick where you feel most loved, most powerful, and most effective. With just a bit of effort, you get things done,” he explained.
Ahead of Independence Day, Tenorio curated shoe designs made in Marikina and presented them at an exhibit just a few steps away from KKK Coffee in SM Marikina.
The event coincides with his tenth year in the shoe industry.
“I don’t believe in exclusivity or high-end. The idea is the design has to be experienced by as many people as possible,” he said.
Tenorio also goes by another principle which young entrepreneurs would be wise to follow. “Before, I would say ‘Follow your heart.’ But follow your mind also, and follow your other friends and parents. Because the idea is, I always say, the work will teach you,” he said.
Tenorio has had interns and apprentices who asked to design for him, to which he would reply, “That’s the only part of the entire shoe production process that I enjoy, the design, and you want to do it under my name? How about you hammer and I design instead?”
Those at the starting point of their careers see a lot of good things written about their idols, but they do not see the trying times or the failures, he said.
“I started there.” When he first started working, Tenorio was a junior graphic designer at an Ayala company in 2000. He was lucky enough to land Jaime Zobel de Ayala as a client eventually, which fast-tracked his career.
“My small psychological complex is, I feel I’m very lucky and blessed,” Tenorio said. “If I don’t give back, grabe naman (that would be wrong).”