The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson, founders of US coffee and tea company Blk & Bold Speciality Beverages.
Pernell Cezar jokes that if he and his business partner Rod Johnson ever fall out, he will phone Rod’s mother to ask her to tell him off.
“If Rod gets too far out of line, I’ll just call his mom,” says Pernell. “Not too many business relationships where you get a chance to do that.”
Pernell and Rod, both 33, are childhood friends who grew up on the same block in the blue-collar city of Gary, Indiana.
Two years ago they set up a coffee and tea business together – Blk & Bold. Today it is believed to be the first nationally distributed black-owned coffee brand in the US.
Helped by a growing interest in black-owned businesses as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, Pernell and Rod have seen sales soar this year at stockists including retailers Target, Whole Foods and Amazon.
Both passionate about coffee, the two friends decided to launch Blk & Bold in June 2018, after spending a decade in different industries. Rod was previously a professional fundraiser for schools, universities and hospitals, while Pernell had worked for Target.
They started the business at Pernell’s home in Des Moines, Iowa, with the aim of not just selling quality coffee and tea, but also of doing good. They would donate some of their profits to charity.
“The idea was to take the affinity for this daily ritual of coffee or tea drinking, and make it so that anyone could participate in the social impact model,” says Rod. “That’s at the core of what we do. We give 5% of our profits to organisations that support at-risk youth.”
Pulling together their savings, the two former schoolmates bought a coffee roaster, and started production in Pernell’s garage.
“It was a lot of hours in the garage, burning beans, having the neighbours call my wife to let her know that the garage might be on fire,” says Pernell. “It was a lot of trial and error that came with that.”
The friends then attended 14 trade shows within eight months of launching the brand, and slowly built up a loyal client base.
“We are self-funded, bootstrapped and profitable,” says Pernell.
Selling direct to consumers from their website from day one, Pernell’s previous career in retail was a big help in securing the deals with supermarkets, and especially Target, his former employer.
The company then got a massive promotional boost in April this year, when US singer Kelly Rowland offered her fans free Blk & Bold samples. In a Facebook post in support of her single Coffee, she enthused about the business.
Pernell says the death of George Floyd in May, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, then gave further exposure to black-owned businesses like theirs.
“From our vantage point we have had a lot of jolts throughout the past few months,” says Pernell. “Individuals saying, ‘You know what? That’s an outlet that we can get behind.’
“And we saw significant amounts of support for us, being the only nationally distributed, black-owned coffee brand. And individuals discovering us through that unfortunate event (the death of Mr Floyd).”
The firm says that sales from its website in the second quarter of the year were almost 40 times higher than they were in the first quarter, and that it was a number one bestseller on Amazon in the US.
At the start of September the business was given a further boost when it won the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award from black-owned business directory Official Black Wall Street in recognition of its charity donations.
Victoria Ho, a Los Angeles-based consumer products brand expert, says that Blk & Bold’s commitment to social justice means it connects with younger customers.
“They get an emotional and intellectual satisfaction from supporting this brand,” she says.
“When they see a purpose-driven brand, that almost as a bonus is offering a product that they enjoy in their personal lifestyle, they get nourished in both ways.”
Rod says that the name Blk & Bold is intended to underline the company’s purpose. “It serves as a double entendre that speaks to, on the surface, our products – black coffee and tea with bold taste,” he says.
“But it also describes us as men, entrepreneurs, and our approach to life. We are, and have always, embraced being both black and bold, our company is now an extension of that disposition.”
To keep up with demand, the two friends recently moved into a new 10,000 sq ft (900 sq m) facility in Des Moines that will enable them to quadruple production.
“Pernell and I have known each other almost two decades now,” says Rod. “Every time I say it, it still is a little unfathomable that I’ve known, and had such a deep relationship with, someone for so long. That’s why we work well together.
“It has been a great journey so far, and I’m really looking forward to what comes down in perpetuity.”
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