The past decade has seen a notable increase in socially conscious business ventures. More entrepreneurs and business owners are launching projects designed to help society rather than earn the biggest profits.
Black Rifle Coffee is a great example of the trend of businesses making a difference in the world. The company gained attention for its pledge to hire 10,000 veterans, among other unique social marketing campaigns.
Along with its charitable efforts, Black Rifle Coffee stands out for making a mark in a heavily saturated market. The coffee industry is mostly dominated by major players, such as Starbucks.
Despite many challenges, Black Rifle Coffee achieved over $80 million in sales after just five years in business. Yet, the company is not without controversies. Here’s a closer look at the company’s history, charitable campaigns, and potential growth.
Who Founded Black Rifle Coffee?
Black Rifle Coffee Company was founded by Evan Hafer, a former Green Beret with the US Army Special Forces and a former CIA operator. He also worked many years as a military contractor in Iraq and has completed over 40 deployments. However, his connection to coffee goes back to his childhood.
Hafer’s father and grandfather were both loggers and always went to work carrying large thermoses of black coffee. During his time in the military, Hafer gained a renewed interest in coffee. He received a one-pound coffee roaster and soon started experimenting with different blends.
As Hafer’s desire to brew coffee grew, he also began thinking about how to transition from government service to civilian life. He didn’t feel fulfilled anymore and had a growing family to think about, which led him to leave the CIA and start a new chapter as an entrepreneur.
How a Former Green Beret Started a Coffee Company
Hafer’s first business venture wasn’t a coffee company. He first partnered with Jeff Kirkham, a fellow CIA operator, to launch a project called TwistRate. The company was built as a crowdfunding solution for developing tactical firearms.
While TwistRate didn’t work out, the process of launching a business venture provided Hafer and Kirkham with education in entrepreneurship. The two also met Jarred Taylor and Mat Best, the military veterans behind Article 15 Clothing.
Article 15 Clothing produced humorous and controversial T-shirts and other articles of clothing. The concept wasn’t entirely original, but the company gained notoriety for its marketing campaigns. Taylor and Best produced wild videos, which eventually attracted Hafer’s attention.
Hafer met up with Taylor and Best, which led to the formation of Leadslingers Whiskey. Shortly after, Hafer presented Taylor and Best with a marketing idea for Article 15 Clothing, a limited-edition Article 15 coffee blend.
Taylor and Best were not entirely interested in coffee but agreed to the idea. Hafer went to work producing over 500 pounds of ready-to-ship coffee using his small one-pound coffee roaster. The coffee was a success, selling about 300 bags within the first few days. The popularity of Hafer’s coffee was the motivation that he needed to pursue his passion.
In 2014, Hafer founded the Black Rifle Coffee Company (BRCC). The company’s website was up by December of that year and the first sales started in January of 2015.
Building a Coffee Brand on YouTube
The Black Rifle Coffee Company followed a marketing approach that has gained steam in recent years — irreverent marketing. BRCC is one of many companies led by older millennials that uses bold, in-your-face marketing and packaging to stand out from well-known brands such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts.
The BRCC brand includes a strong pro-military vibe, with social media campaigns featuring rifle-carrying veterans and coffee blends with names such as “AK-47 espresso.”
BRCC started as a small company with just a few employees. Yet, the military veterans behind BRCC knew that they had a quality product. They just needed to grab attention, which is something that Taylor and Best had plenty of experience with.
The marketing campaigns for Article 15 Clothing were often wild, confrontational, and not politically correct. These are the same characteristics found in some of the most-watched videos on YouTube. During the summer of 2016, the group behind BRCC decided to produce a coffee commercial with the same non-PC style used for Article 15 Clothing marketing material. One of the company’s first YouTube videos was titled “How to be American.”
The video was released in August 2016 and led to a surge in coffee sales. The video soon attracted over 20 million views and an influx in orders. The company had to temporarily shut down its store to catch up with demand.
By October of 2016, BRCC had grown to employ close to 80 people. Before the company’s commercial went viral, BRCC averaged about $8000 in sales per day. The popularity of the marketing campaign brought sales up to $20,000 a day.
Meme Day Gives Black Rifle Coffee National Exposure
BRCC started 2017 on good terms. The company was expanding rapidly using its direct-to-consumer coffee subscription service. Most of the company’s sales came from its subscription service and online store. However, BRCC was also working to get its coffee on store shelves.
You can now find BRCC coffee at Bass Pro Shops, 5.11 Tactical stores, and various firing ranges around the country. The company also entered the Canadian market after opening a separate division in Alberta.
Yet, the growth of BRCC reached new heights thanks to a viral meme released in February 2017. Employees at Black Rifle Coffee now refer to this moment as “meme day.” Starbucks had recently launched a marketing campaign pledging to hire 10,000 refugees. The campaign was met with ridicule and hostility from various groups, including veterans, active service members, and Republicans.
Instead of hiring refugees, Hafer and his team believed that Starbucks should be focused on hiring veterans, leading to the infamous meme. Gary Stevens, BRCC’s director of design, created a meme mocking Starbucks. The meme included an image of jihadis holding Starbucks coffee cups. The bottom of the image included a pledge: Black Rifle Coffee Company plans to hire 10,000 veterans within the next 10 years.
The meme quickly went viral in the polarizing political landscape of early 2017. A few days later, Evan Hafer appeared on Fox & Friends to discuss his business. The exposure created by the meme helped BRCC reach a new level of success.
Sales skyrocketed and the company’s website temporarily broke due to traffic volume. Yet, the viral moment that helped BRCC gain national attention also glossed over a few facts.
While Starbucks pledged in 2017 to hire 10,000 refugees, the company had already pledged to hire 10,000 veterans back in 2013. By the end of 2019, Starbucks had hired over 8000 veterans. The company is now on track to reach its goal of hiring 10,000 veterans several years early while BRCC currently employs about 550 people. About 50% of BRCC’s staff are veterans, military reservists, or military spouses.
The Far Right Co-Opt the Black Rifle Company’s Logo
The team at BRCC used the attention created by the viral meme to solidify its brand. It embraced the right-wing politics of Trump, who had been sworn into office just a few weeks earlier. The company doubled down on its support of Trump’s MAGA politics. While BRCC’s abrasive marketing may offend some individuals, Hafer and his team do not care. They understand that their coffee isn’t for everyone.
Yet, Black Rifle Coffee is good enough for plenty of people. The company’s sales continued to grow exponentially through 2017 and 2018. Shortly after the viral meme that helped bring attention to the company, Hafer partnered with 5.11 Tactical to open over 600 retail stores.
The success of the company led Hafer to move the headquarters to San Antonio, Texas in March 2018 and open a new coffee roasting facility in Manchester, Tennessee. Black Rifle Coffee grossed over $30 million in revenue in 2018 and $80 million in 2019. The company also expanded its product range, offering ready-to-drink iced coffee and opening several coffee shops.
Black Rifle Coffee Company continued to launch marketing campaigns to give back to certain groups. In 2019, the company offered to donate a bag of coffee to a police officer for every bag of BRCC coffee purchased. The campaign was a response to a news story about several Tempe police officers that were asked to leave a Starbucks location. In 2020, BRCC worked with several non-profit organizations to deliver over 30,000 bags of coffee to American troops currently serving overseas.
Black Rifle Coffee Distances Itself from the Right
Embracing right-wing politics and military humor helped Black Rifle Coffee Company become a major force in the coffee industry. However, Hafer and his team never wanted to be associated with some of the more fringe elements of the far right.
The pro-gun, pro-military marketing content produced by BRCC appealed to a specific demographic. BRCC became the unofficial coffee brand of the far-right and Trump supporters. BRCC T-shirts appear on individuals at almost every major political event of the past few years, from anti-lockdown protests to the invasion of the US Capitol.
Everything was going great for Black Rifle Coffee Company until the summer of 2021. The New York Times released an article featuring an interview with Hafer and his co-founders where they distance themselves from the far-right groups seen wearing their T-shirts.
Hafer denounced the Proud Boys and other white nationalists that had started using the company’s branding. The co-founders expressed their dismay that T-shirts featuring their logo were worn by racists. The article led many on the right to immediately condemn Black Rifle Coffee Company.
Around this same time, Black Rifle Coffee Company rejected a logo idea that featured an image of Saint Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of military personnel. Hafer was told that the image of Saint Michael is also used by white supremacists in images featuring the archangel standing on the neck of Satan due to its resemblance to the murder of George Floyd.
These incidents sparked blowback from people on the right. Many conservative news personalities stated that BRCC had likely just destroyed itself by alienating its core audience. Several smaller coffee companies also took this opportunity to promote their products and express support for the far-right groups that BRCC denounced.
The New York Times article led to backlash and likely cost the company some of its loyal following. However, it was also a necessary move for a company looking to expand its customer base. Distancing itself from the more extreme right-wing groups allows BRCC to appeal to a wider market, which is critical for the next stage of the company’s growth.
What Does the Future Hold for BRCC?
Black Rifle Coffee Company is relatively young, as the company recorded its first sales in January 2015. Within five years, the company was generating over $80 million in revenue and opening new facilities to keep up with demand.
Hiring veterans also remains a priority for Evan Hafer. After opening its first stand-alone coffee shop in 2019, Hafer announced plans to open another 50 stores within the next five years. He wants at least half of the employees to be veterans.
As part of the company’s initiative to expand its market, Tom Davin is brought in as the new co-CEO. Davin is the former CEO of 5.11 Tactical and Panda Express. While at Panda Express, Davin helped the company expand from 650 restaurants to 1300 restaurants. 5.11 Tactical went from no physical stores to 50 stores under Davin’s leadership.
Whether the far right continues to drink Black Rifle Coffee is unknown. However, the company has ambitious plans that involve aggressive expansion across North America. The company wants to open additional coffee shops and get its coffee onto the shelves of more retailers.
In the end, viral marketing helped Black Rifle Coffee become a national brand, but it also brought support from groups that the company didn’t want to associate itself with. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Black Rifle Coffee Company walks the line between its pro-military roots while denouncing extremism.
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.