“Its main characteristic is that it doesn’t stay the same,” says Jim Munson, CEO and president of the Brooklyn Roasting Company, referring to his company’s logo. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” he adds for emphasis, as he shows me an array of his business cards—some silver, some gold, and many more with colorful letters in varying shades of powder blue and marigold. Designed in 2009 by Munson himself, the Brooklyn Roasting Company sports a homegrown mark—a mix of hand-drawn type and all-caps Impact—that makes its way onto plastic cups, labels, tins, signage, T-shirts, mugs, and just about everything else made by the six-year-old company.
Munson, who was a partner at the Brooklyn Brewery before turning his attention to coffee, has always loved art and design. An avid photographer, he studied art history in college and, in addition to his role as VP at the brewery, Munson also acted as the in-house or “back-up” designer to Milton Glaser, working on brochures or other collateral beyond the iconic “B” logo, when Glaser’s services were deemed too expensive. Self-taught, the experience shaped his approach to crafting a memorable identity. “At the brewery, I learned the importance of a business projecting its logo and only its logo, as often as possible,” Munson says.
The Brooklyn Roasting Company logo, a jumble of overlapping letters spelling out “Brooklyn” with “Roasting Company” nestled underneath, is playful and loose. A refreshing counter to the typical aesthetic of small-batch coffee roasters, Munson was careful to avoid the kind of design that defined Williamsburg at the time, even when his company operated out of a loft in the neighborhood and entertained early clients with certifiably hipster pedigrees (Dumont, Dressler, and Egg). He’s quick to point out a certain naiveté to the mark. “It’s not fancy like Manhattan,” he explains. “It reflects a simpler, more functional approach.”
The unfussy lettering “gelled in an afternoon,” but not before Munson entertained more clichéd versions featuring the Brooklyn Bridge and its signature arches. He settled on the outlines so colors could be easily swapped, and the letters might be filled with photographs or art. When a new employee starts, they select a few favorite hues and unique business cards are made to order. “It should reflect the constantly changing culture of Brooklyn,” Munson says.
While that may be an impossible dream, the mark does allow for great flexibility; its colors constantly shift and reassemble for each of the company’s 21 (and counting) different roasts in pops of orange, green, and purple. Packaged in silver tins with stick-on labels, each flavor is profiled with a list of descriptive terms and customers are encouraged to bring back the canisters and refill them at a discount.
The copy on each label acts as a kind of rejoinder to the coffee industry, which Munson can find overly pretentious, especially “when they began to describe coffee in really serious, almost wine-like terms,” he says. “Late season Meyer lemon for example, or the soft blush of pomegranate… ridiculous.” Brooklyn Roasting Company keeps things simple and cheeky, using tight leading, bold line breaks, and Helvetica in all caps to describe each roast. The 3D blend is “deep and dark, pops out pulls you in,” while BQE espresso, coined by Munson’s business partner Michael Pollack, is “always under construction”—the beans in this package are constantly changing.
Each Brooklyn Roasting Company cafe is equally quirky, taking cues from its surroundings rather than a signature design. “The history of each space informs what you’re going to do,” Munson says. “It can be beautiful, rough, cheap.” The cavernous headquarters on Jay Street in Dumbo, which also serves as the company’s main roastery, features rich wood floors and tables with black leather bar stools scattered throughout, while the newest outpost on West 23rd Street in Manhattan is centered around a 1930s bar Munson bought in Pennsylvania.
My favorite by far is the glass-front corner location at Flushing and Washington avenues. Formerly home to JJ’s Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge, a seedy dive that closed a few years back, Munson and his team preserved the original floor, ironwork, and dressing room lighting (the bar was rumored to feature topless dancers). Sitting on a red banquette with Édith Piaf playing overhead and a cold brew in hand, the scene is now comfortable and inviting. At dusk, when the space glows from within, patrons look like extras in an Edward Hopper painting.
Munson may soon expand his odd family of letterforms into a full alphabet, along with newly planned BRC outposts in Japan and Paris, but he remains clear on his intentions: “There’s a value to sticking with something and keeping it simple.”