Client Success Story: Black Rifle Coffee Seeks Like-Minded Aficionados
Original News Source: Wall Street Journal
Black Rifle Coffee Co. says its AK-47 Espresso Blend “is here to conquer your taste buds.” Its extra-dark Murdered Out roast “will fuel your midnight ops or your morning commute.” Another of the six-year-old company’s blends promises to “keep your freedom engine running.”
With firearms-themed branding, unabashed support for police and the military and an irreverent founder who hasn’t shied away from political debate, Black Rifle is a prime example of the way some businesses are capitalizing on politically engaged consumers’ hyperpartisan shopping habits.
“I know who my customer is. I know who I’m trying to serve coffee to. I know who my customer isn’t,” said Evan Hafer, the company’s 44-year-old founder and chief executive. “I don’t need to be everything to all people.”
Salt Lake City-based Black Rifle said its revenue nearly doubled in 2020 to $163 million, 70% of it from e-commerce. In 2015, its revenue was $1 million. The company said it is profitable but didn’t provide further details. Of its 450 current employees, 55% are military veterans.
Playing politics can have its pitfalls. Kyle Rittenhouse, charged when he was 17 years old with killing two people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis., was photographed wearing a Black Rifle Coffee T-shirt when he was released on bond in November. One of the best-known photos from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot showed a man in tactical gear and a Black Rifle Coffee hat leaping over a railing with a handful of plastic handcuffs.
Mr. Hafer has sought to distance Black Rifle from such incidents, angering some fans in the process. After he said in a video that the company had no ties to Mr. Rittenhouse, a small roaster that also targets right-wing buyers, Stocking Mill Coffee, praised the accused killer on Twitter and offered him one of its own T-shirts.
“In an increasingly divided country where people are feeling one away or the other, taking a stand can build a lot of brand loyalty,” said Nicholas Guy, a spokesman for Virginia-based Stocking Mill, whose motto is “Arrive Violently.”
Mr. Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Hafer said in an interview that as he has increasingly focused on military veterans’ issues, he has been trying to move Black Rifle beyond being affiliated with a particular political party.
“I’ve got an incredible opportunity to affect veterans’ lives for the better, and I’m not going to squander it in the gutter of partisan politics,” said the former Green Beret. “If we’ve done it in the past, it’s probably just based on you know, I was carrying a rifle five years ago, I’m not a sophisticated businessman.”
Mr. Hafer said he began roasting coffee on a tour of duty in Iraq in 2006 and later got the idea for the company while working for a Central Intelligence Agency contractor, training former special forces soldiers. He named it after his service rifle, which was usually by his side while roasting coffee between training sessions. “Black rifle” is a phrase used to describe military weapons like M16s and their civilian counterparts, AR-15 style rifles, which have become a potent symbol in the gun-rights fight in America.
“It dawned on me later, like ‘Oh this is going to piss people off,’ ” he recalled. “And I just kind of embraced it.”
The company’s roasts are named for various firearms, political stances (“Thin Blue Line”) and jokes about coffee snobbery (“F— Hipster Coffee”). To market the brand, the company posts over-the-top YouTube videos that poke fun at liberals, but also at macho gun guys.
Its following grew by plan and happenstance. In 2017, when Starbucks promised to hire 10,000 refugees in response to Mr. Trump’s executive order barring more of them from entering the country, Mr. Hafer grabbed headlines by vowing to hire 10,000 veterans. Later that year, after Keurig dropped its sponsorship of Sean Hannity’s show over comments the Fox News commentator made about sexual abuse allegations against then-Alabama Sen. Roy Moore, Mr. Hannity and Donald Trump Jr. promoted Black Rifle Coffee on Twitter.
Mr. Hafer said the spike in sales in 2020 was helped by his company’s direct-to-consumer and subscription model that appealed to coffee drinkers stuck at home during the pandemic. But the company wants to expand its nascent retail operation, too. In addition to a small shop at its headquarters in Salt Lake City, the company currently has one location in San Antonio, with two more set to open this spring in Dallas and Clarksville, Tenn.
Still, there is likely a limit to its growth prospects. Tom Davin, the former CEO of Panda Restaurant Group Inc. who was brought on as Black Rifle’s co-CEO in 2019, said the company is targeting a specific segment of the population: military members and their families, first responders, sportsmen and gun enthusiasts. “We’re not going for the entire coffee market,” he said. “We’re going for roughly half.”
In doing so, Black Rifle Coffee, whose 12-oz. bags sell for around $13 to $15, is engaging in a little snobbery of its own. Many of its customers drank bargain brands like Folgers beforehand, said Mr. Davin. “We think we’re maybe moving people up the coffee-consumption chain,” he said.
Mark Lamprecht, 50, said he bought his first bag this past Valentine’s Day at a gun range where he had gone shooting with his wife. The Atlanta-area financial adviser said he liked the company’s support for law enforcement and the military. The $15 he spent on a bag of Blackbeard’s Delight dark roast represented something of a splurge for him. “That’s definitely more expensive than the $6.50 a pound at Costco, ” he said.