Coffee & Design: Jason Burton

A closeup of a caffeine crawl mug that is smiling.

We spoke with graphic designer Jason Burton, the mind behind one of the industry’s most beloved events: Caffeine Crawl.

BY EMILY JOY MENESES
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Photos courtesy of Jason Burton

Caffeine Crawl is one of the most exciting events in the U.S. coffee industry, working with close to 1,000 coffee and tea businesses annually and attracting coffee professionals and consumers alike. In this installment of “Coffee & Design,” we’re learning more about graphic designer Jason Burton (he/him), Caffeine Crawl’s founder and owner, about his creative process, inspirations for Caffeine Crawl, and work in the coffee industry and beyond.

Note: This interview has been condensed for brevity.

Caffeine Crawl founder Jason Burton and his two kids.

Emily: Hi, Jason! It’s so nice to meet you! The folks at Barista Mag are obsessed with Caffeine Crawl, and it’s an honor to be able to hear more about it from the person who started it all. Could you start by sharing some basic information with us: full name, location, and how you first got started in graphic design?

Jason: I appreciate the kind words and back at ya! I think I have over 50 different copies of Barista Magazine in my coffee archives, and typically three on my main desk at a time. My name is Jason back in Kansas City since 2004. I’m the founder and owner of Caffeine Crawl, the concept for which launched in the fall of 2011.

My entire professional career has revolved around graphic design and marketing. Before moving back to Kansas City and entering the specialty-coffee industry, I worked for design and ad agencies in St. Louis, Richmond, and New York City. I designed everything from fairly known musicians to half a million packaging kits for Victoria’s Secret. My BFA is in graphic design, plus I taught adjunct at one of the best design schools: Virginia Commonwealth University. The early years of my career I spent on the board of different American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGIA) chapters, and that was an excellent resource for a design geek like myself.

Caffeine Crawl’s two latest posters.

Can you tell us a little more about what inspired you to launch Caffeine Crawl, what exactly Caffeine Crawl is, and how your work at Caffeine Crawl plays into your work as a graphic designer? 

I traveled a decent amount in my previous careers and had a focus on studying trends, which is really a study of human behavior and consumerism. My work with The Roasterie and Houlihan’s (Restaurant Group) accumulated a four-year span studying specialty-beverage experiences going to hundreds of coffee shops, craft beer bars, the best cocktail places, and events focusing on this liquid culture. What I noticed was that coffee kept missing the audience of consumers. The industry used all these high-level phrases and marketing talk, but every single event and activity was aimed at other industry professionals. That’s fine and is needed, but without curious and educated customers you do not have sustainability. Craft beer was good at hosting events for their potential customer base and making them feel comfortable. I took those ideas and models to create Caffeine Crawl. It started with three test events in 2011.

Caffeine Crawl is an experience connecting coffee and tea pros with consumers in a fun, engaging way. People buy tickets to a desired route in the host city visiting shops in an organized fashion. They receive samples and learn from that business in the 25-30 minutes at each place. We also take pride in being the most organized event in the industry, working with close to 1,000 coffee and tea businesses a year. Since the beginning I have done about 99% of the Caffeine Crawl branding and design with a few collabs with other artists. This includes online to print graphics, and most recently our packaging for our roaster collaborations. 

You’re also the founder of The LAB, an awesome marketing firm geared toward beverage companies. Can you share with us a little more about The LAB and the work that you and your team do? 

Thank you. We started out as a full-on marketing resource for the beverage industry. Our early years we worked with distilleries, wineries, craft breweries, and of course, coffee and tea. Once Caffeine Crawl took off and required more time, we shifted into having one or two clients a year and those being all coffee related.

We’re pretty picky about what we take on, as we want to make sure that we’re not just getting paid to move graphics around, but utilizing our expertise of 20+ years of high-end design and marketing. We’ve done everything from trade show design, packaging, full on rebrand projects, signage, writing and press release work, social media and web development … pretty much anything under the marketing umbrella. We’ve always stayed in the shadows of those clients and projects while they were happening versus being like, “look what we did for so and so.” Some of the well-known brands we worked with in coffee and tea include Baratza, San Franciscan Roasters, Unic espresso machines, Two Leaves Tea, and PT’s Coffee.

As an artist, what are some ways that you get into a creative mindset? Any tips for other artists on how to tap into that headspace? 

I’m going to be pretty bold here. First off, everyone has their zen and what makes them tick. It’s important to find that and embrace it as long as it’s healthy for you and those in your life. I worked two corporate jobs and felt like I witnessed a lot of abuse and waste of time. Many egos and old systems are getting in the way of progress.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the quantity of meetings, and for the most part the corporate world abuses work creativity and efficiency. If you are getting surgery, you rely and trust the professional to do the best job they can for what you need. The same is true with a car mechanic or plumber, etc.—no reason to tell them how to do their job if they are the trained professional in that case. The same is true for the creative arts. If you want the best work, teamwork comes upfront in a group effort of communicating from the client what is wanted or needed. Then, it’s the client’s job to trust the creative that they hired to solve the design/marketing problem …

With that said, I fuel my creative soul with time on the road by myself usually traveling to our events, listening to people at these Crawls, and a combination of good caffeine and good music together always helps. Oddly, afternoon showers spawn new ideas or better solutions. Weird! I’m an inner city kid, and embracing new creativity coming from urban cores has always fueled me from style to music. I’ve been around sports pretty much my entire life and my wife works on Nike projects, so design in sports always has an impact on me. On the other spectrum, the silence of nature and embracing scenery does the same for me. I can go for a good hike solo and come back feeling like I can change the world.

I’m not very routine at all in the sense that I might work in eight different spots of our home-office in a given week. I even utilize working from outside when weather permits. During COVID, we reworked our backyard to be more family-friendly, but also more work-inviting.

Jason’s packaging design for Three Keys Coffee.

When it comes to coffee, what do you typically drink? Any favorite cafés in your area?

So everyone that has been around me knows my reputation on this. I treat coffee like music. I might listen to hip hop from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. then move to ’80s pop, then to Motown, and so on. The next day might be a whole different lineup. Coffee is the same, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to visit as many shops as possible and spread the love (aka my consumer money).

I love customer service over the taste of coffee. I find myself ordering 8-ounce lattes when I don’t feel like thinking, once in awhile a pourover but I brew a ton at home since I have beans all the time (see below on this), and I’m a sucker for a bad mf’ing signature espresso drink. That’s the craft that gets me hyped up! This is weird and funny, but I do not like drinking the same exact coffee (roaster and origin) two bags/boxes in a row. I get bored easily with routine. When it comes to origins I literally try it all and attempt to rotate around the globe fairly easily, although I tend to lean towards natural processed coffees. 

Any upcoming projects we should know about, or updates on Caffeine Crawl? What sorts of changes did the pandemic bring about for Caffeine Crawl, and how are things going to change now that vaccines are rolling out? 

I feel like we always have something going on—constantly trying to expand and improve. The pandemic planted the seeds for us to launch and test ON FOOT, a jogging version of the Caffeine Crawl model where we go from shop to shop and get drinks as a small (socially distanced) group. The interaction is with the group stopping and talking about the drinks, opposed to the shop doing a presentation. For July, we will have our second annual Virtual Caffeine Crawl, which will include only shops that have never been on a Caffeine Crawl, and typically from parts of the country that don’t get coffee events anyway. We feel like this is the best way to highlight those businesses that we’ll never be able to get to for a live event due to the population in their area, but this will bring more coffee lovers their way. I’m excited about our collaboration projects which have started with roasters, and will continue to move outside the coffee industry but with a tie-in of coffee. Again, as an inner city kid choosing to raise his family in the city, I need to do a better job and want to be better at these collaborations bridging the gap in specialty coffee more. 

Even if some of our events were so small that they caused us to lose money putting them on, we felt that it was still necessary to go on and invest support into those cities. Memphis and St. Louis were two good examples. Personally, I stayed working and stayed aggressive with business in general. That’s just who I am at my core anyway. I’m known for not taking time off.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Based in Los Angeles, Emily Joy Meneses (she/her) is a writer and musician passionate about culture and collective care. You can regularly find her at Echo Park Lake, drinking a cortado and journaling about astrology, art, Animal Crossing, and her dreams. Explore her poetry, short stories, and soundscapes on her website.

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