Most people don’t treat their morning coffee ritual with the same reverence given to a glass of fine whiskey after dinner.
But Rod Johnson and Pernell Cezar, the pair behind BLK & Bold Specialty Coffee, say our daily cups of joe should be savored, pointing to parallels with wine.
“Coffee shouldn’t only be looked at as fuel for you to get through your day, but you can actually sip your coffee with the intent to enjoy the nuanced flavoring,” Johnson said.
The Black-owned coffee startup began with a phone call from Cezar in which he asked Johnson if he liked coffee.
“My answer at the time was 'no' — I was more of a tea guy,” Johnson said.
Cezar and Johnson, who grew up together in Gary, Indiana, had separate careers but were both considering more fulfilling opportunities. Although Johnson wasn’t a coffee drinker then, they both saw value in manufacturing a drink found in millions of homes nationwide while generating revenue to recycle back into their community.
In 2018, BLK & Bold launched inside a garage, with a single tabletop roaster. Many beans were burned in those early days, Johnson said. And they once released so much smoke while roasting coffee that folks called the fire department to Pernell’s house to investigate.
Since then, they’ve leased space behind a brewery before finding a home in a 20,000-square-foot roasting facility in Des Moines, Iowa. The company brands itself as the first nationally distributed, Black-owned coffee company. And the founders say conscious consumerism — the idea that shoppers vote with their dollars — is at the core of their business model.
Growing up and giving back
Cezar and Johnson grew up across the street from each other in a town that has struggled with high poverty rates since the collapse of the local steel industry.
Johnson said their shared childhood experiences have shaped how they operate the company now. The certified B corporation donates 5% of proceeds to programs supporting youth in need, locally and nationwide.
“We knew that we wanted our business to pour into kids, because they have the potential,” Johnson said. “We wouldn’t want them to be deterred from realizing that potential because they just didn’t have access.”
He said the organizations they support teach kids about coding, urban farming and college preparation, among other things.
So far, BLK & Bold has been able to contribute twice as much money as it took to start the business, Johnson said; their 2021 contribution was just over $60,000, spread across 15 organizations.
And they’ve grown quickly: With Cezar at the helm as CEO and Johnson operating as CMO, BLK & Bold began selling online-only, but their coffee is now nationally distributed through partnerships with Target and Amazon. Today, their products are available in more than 5,600 retail locations.
In May 2021, BLK & Bold became the first Black-owned beverage brand to ink a licensing deal with the NBA. Their first launch under the agreement was a medium-roast coffee called “The Warm Up.”
The pair grew up as NBA fans, but Johnson says this deal is especially sweet because for every bag of NBA-licensed coffee that is sold, the NBA will be matching their 5% donation to youth programs. Johnson says this agreement sets the standard for future partnerships, intentionally chosen with their community in mind.
“I think that is embedded in the DNA of businesses today that we stand for more than just trying to make a profit. That is gone, right? There needs to be a level of reciprocity between businesses and the communities that they serve,” Johnson said.
Just in time for the 2022 NBA All-Star game, BLK & Bold is announcing their latest release: new commemorative team bags, featuring the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors.
Another major partnership came last September, when the company worked with Ben & Jerry’s to create a new ice cream flavor called “Change is Brewing.” Johnson said the name represents their hopes for criminal justice and public safety reform legislation, like the People’s Response Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO). He described working with the legendary ice cream brand as a surreal “What is happening?” moment.
But the nearly four-year-old company has spent the last two years operating through a pandemic. Yet many companies saw digital sales increase during this time as shoppers turned to online ordering. And BLK & Bold grew after it was featured on Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator last August.
Johnson says they have not been immune to supply chain shortages and disruptions. Still, he said they’ve been able to work around those hurdles so far, and unexpected problems can come with the job.
“I think that’s kind of embedded in entrepreneurship, you’ve got be ready to pivot. Because there is no straight path,” Johnson said.
BLK & Bold does not have any brick-and-mortar stores yet, but Johnson says eventually they will likely expand beyond supplying individual coffee shops, cafes and hotels, to offer customers an in-person shopping experience.
“I’m looking forward to it because I think it’ll give people an even more tangible vantage point to what we’re trying to accomplish,” Johnson said. “They can see and feel that energy behind our business. Much more so in person.”
While there’s no linear path to entrepreneurial success, Johnson says he hopes other young aspiring business owners will act on their creativity and ideas for innovation.
"Put some energy behind that and give yourself an opportunity to see what can come from that,” Johnson said. “Don’t let anyone distract you or deter you from realizing that and certainly be prepared for a windy, curvy road, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel."