No Free Coffee is anything but “just a coffee shop.” Founded by Mario Kristian, No Free Coffee is a marvelous pop-up streetwear/community-building coffee shop that was inspired by Japanese cafe culture and Italian wine windows.

After visiting Japan, where the cafe aesthetics were a breath of fresh air, Kristian wanted to bring that same sensibility to America. However, trying to open a business during a pandemic was a rude awakening until Kristian’s wife showed him what people in Italy were doing to buy wine. Walk-up wine windows that were first created during the bubonic plague were now being repurposed during the ongoing pandemic.

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Kristian was instantly inspired by these concepts, and the rest is history. Now, in 2021, the business is going strong and has been co-signed by artists such as Rico Nasty. And while No Free Coffee embraces everything from community to streetwear, Kristian wants it to be known that their coffee is the center of it all — and that it’s made by people who truly care.

Tell us about No Free Coffee, where it started and what your dream is.

I fell in love with photography, just being in college. My granddaddy is a photographer, so just sitting with him and going over Photoshop, that led me to, “I’m going to drop out of school and move to Atlanta.” [I] started working with Motion Family and essentially moved to New York. I went out there, and it was summertime, and you instantly fall in love with the city in the summertime. That turned into becoming a better photographer, a better director and eventually getting burnt out of all of that. So just getting tired of that and traveling more. I wanted to open up a coffee shop and live in Tokyo.

Then one day, I was like, “Man, I want a real coffee shop.” At first, it was an agency disguised as a coffee shop, and it was different members at one point, and we finally got our crew down with a couple friends. We started in 2019, just piecing together, “What does this look like?” Branding and marketing were just really important to me, but not force-feeding people with something, where it’s just like, “OK, I see this thing, but what is this thing?” A lot of people still don’t know what it is because we’re not necessarily intentionally like, “Come get this. Come have our coffee.” It’s just here, and it’s the thing we do. If you like it and you’re like-minded, you’ll gravitate toward it and have a blast.

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We geared up for our first pop-up in 2020, right when the pandemic started. We were like, “Whoa, rude awakening. This is not looking good. How are we going to pivot things?” Eventually, we were like, “Man, people are still getting coffee. No matter how dangerous it is outside or what hazmat suit you need to wear on what day, people are still getting coffee. How can we still fill this void?” My wife was like, “Have you seen the wine windows in Italy?” Wine windows in Italy had opened back up to help people get their wine and socially distance themselves while doing so. It was created during the plague in the early 1800s. And that’s what we did.

That very much shaped and molded the business, and things really took off in 2020, where everything seemed uncertain and you didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s been a great year. Having as much of that early success and going into 2021 where we had our biggest year, it’s been a blast.

The biggest message that I want to get across is that we are showing you how coffee is in every lifestyle, in every component. No Free Coffee will never die because coffee is not going anywhere. [We’re] using the medium of coffee to communicate product and streetwear. Secretly, we are a streetwear brand disguised as a coffee shop, but just so happen to have really good coffee. Really interesting coffee. I’m a nerd about the coffee first, and I just so happen to like cool shit, so [we’re] just merging both of those worlds and creating something new and fresh.

The way you talk about starting No Free Coffee, it’s almost like talking about starting a band. You’re doing it for fun a little bit here and there. Then all of a sudden, it blew up in 2021. Someone asks you to play an event, and then next thing you know, you’re opening for someone, and then you’re headlining.

That’s funny ’cause I work at Instagram full time, so when we started this, I was like, “We should treat this like a startup.” Nostalgia is a billion-dollar industry, so that’s gonna get people going. How do we drop nostalgia shit? That’s what made people fall in love with the brand in the earlier days. Instagram is just nostalgic shit, like reading a book, then a cup of coffee, or it could be an episode of Power Rangers and then a cup of coffee. [It’s about] bringing people back to that nostalgic mindset but also moving forward, like using the best coffee equipment. That’s really important to us. You hit it right on the head — we’re headlining now. We are gonna do our first pop-up in New York in April, so we are super excited about that.

Pop-ups feel so much different now. I see people putting things together where they’re creating this space for fellowship, and fellowship is so important. I want more people of all ages to see what you’re doing because you’re super inclusive.

One of our biggest pop-ups was in March last year, and that was right after the big surge in L.A. I met some of my favorite photographers. I am still a photographer, [so] I still look up to people like Cam Hicks. He’s like, “I just drove 45 minutes here, and my friend was like, ‘I gotta have this coffee.’” It was so many stories like that. Like you’re saying, people are just hanging out, and seeing your favorite people means more than anything now at this point ’cause we’ve lost so many people in the last two years. A lot of people just move away. A lot of people are dealing with depression and may not even be coming outside right now. So when you do see your favorite people, it is a big celebration. I’m just happy to be able to connect those dots.

This interview first appeared in issue #403 with cover star Dominic Fike, available here.