Whenever you grind coffee beans, set up the pour-over, steam milk to a perfect froth, and finally take that first caffeinated sip, you're joining countless others in a daily ritual—in the U.S. alone, 64% of adults drink a cup of coffee daily.
Rod Johnson and Pernell Cezar, founders of BLK & Bold, started their entrepreneurial journey by asking how the shared experience of enjoying a morning coffee could awaken more than a person's physical senses. In pursuit of that vision, the duo launched BLK & Bold as a direct-to-consumer and wholesale brand that pledges 5% of profits to support youth programs.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Rod about the journey of building a social impact-driven business, the intricacies of retail relationships, and the importance of representation.
Driving change through a repetitive ritual
Childhood friends Rod Johnson and Pernell Cezar spent over a decade in the corporate world, where Rod worked in post-secondary fundraising and Pernell worked in retail merchandising. Despite their separate career paths, the two would-be founders felt a common calling to support their community through commerce.
Growing up in the “Rust Belt'' of the United States, Rod and Pernell were intimately familiar with the bleak effects of unemployment and poverty. Their childhood experiences compelled them to find ways to create opportunities for young people who faced similar hurdles. “We both felt that there was a void in the business world, and wanted to ensure people in our own backyards were given equal access and resources in exchange for their patronage,” Rod says.
Dreaming up new ventures had always been a cornerstone of Rod and Pernell's lifelong friendship, a routine often accompanied by another: drinking coffee and tea. “The light bulb went off one day that we should marry our passion with our affinity for both coffee and tea,” Rod says.
At first the duo thought about opening a cafe, but felt the limitations of a location wouldn’t be as impactful. The decision to launch BLK & Bold in 2017 selling direct to consumer and wholesale was made with the pair's mission in mind—and the need to scale in order to achieve it. “We were deliberate about being location agnostic for a few reasons,” Rod says. “Our business model gives us the opportunity to allow anyone to participate in that social impact model by doing something that they do every day.”
Building an impactful model from personal experience
Rod and Pernell built BLK & Bold with a founding pledge to donate 5% of profits toward youth programs, a cause close to their hearts. “We're very intentional about selecting that vulnerable demographic because of our own upbringing,” Rod says.
Rod and Pernell grew up in poverty in a rough neighborhood of Gary, Indiana. In the 1960s, the once prosperous steel town experienced significant population loss and unemployment due to local manufacturing shifting overseas. “We're fortunate to have a support system around us that allowed us to overcome the obstacles we initially faced,” Rod says. “We recognize not everyone is in similar positions. So, if we can build our business as a pathway, as a means for resources and visibility to a better life for this vulnerable demographic, that's something we're very gratified by.”
BLK & Bold’s financial pledge goes towards various organizations that focus on enhancing workforce development, reducing youth homelessness, and classes for urban farming or coding. By supporting these programs, Rod and Pernell are hoping to break cycles of poverty and offer a viable path for young people who aspire for entrepreneurship—or simply more than their current circumstances allow.
Self-taught, self-made—starting a business without industry experience
Lacking textbook industry experience, Rod and Pernell approached the business, and product sourcing, by honing in on their personal interests and tastes—quite literally. “We deliberately sought out coffees we thought would appeal to people who had similar tastes to our own,” Rod says. Because coffee is a harvest crop and takes on the flavor profile of other crops grown in proximity, their methodical taste tests played an essential role in curating and sourcing beans for each of their blends.
Even with distinct tastes, finding the right suppliers to partner with proved to be a challenge. “Up until that point, our knowledge of coffee and tea was just by way of our overenthusiastic consumption,” Rod says. “So the learning curve was very steep, at least when it came to product sourcing and other aspects of the business.”
Through many online searches—and a "degree from YouTube University,” as Rod calls it—the brewers-in-making started their business by roasting their own coffee beans. “We started very small with a sample roaster in my friend's garage, just to understand the process of bringing this harvested crop to an actual finished product,” Rod says.
After building that initial know-how, Rod and Pernell went on to search for businesses that could serve as partners, in addition to being suppliers. “Those conversations were very organic and we ultimately found those who wanted to be more than just suppliers but act like strategic partners because they had similar aspirations of resourcing the communities of their consumers,” Rod says. Their supply chain consists of businesses that have scalable logistics, support their social impact pledges, and operate with the environment and greater society in mind.
Two key changes that led to nationwide retail distribution
Pernell’s merchandising experience within the retail world laid a solid foundation for the team to expand into wholesale. “We’d always wanted to branch out to retail distribution because that gave us the largest opportunity to allow people to participate in our social impact model,” Rod says.
To help build these early, crucial relationships, the BLK & Bold team participated in sourcing open calls held by major retailers in the form of pop-up events. The duo attended over 20 events to showcase their brand to buyers.
Once Rod and Pernell piqued the interest of retailers like Target and Whole Foods, the team had to work on two major areas of their business to secure their first orders. First, they had to update their packaging to attract a wider range of consumers. “To stand out among those legacy brands, it was imperative that our packaging kept an aesthetic appeal while being compact enough to actually fit on the shelves,” Rod says.
Second, they had to ensure their operations could successfully scale to meet their growing number of wholesale orders. “We had to go back to the drawing board a couple of times and map out what it would take to get our operations to the point that we'd be able to meet the demand of retail partnerships.”
The strategic partnerships with suppliers played a big role in BLK & Bold’s scaling. By forming partnerships with small-batch suppliers who were able to scale with them made handling the nationwide retail contracts less stressful.
Representation for Black-owned businesses and impactful practices
As our society grows more aware of systemic barriers, many consumers are now urging major retailers to carry more Black-owned brands. As a result, BLK & Bold has been put into a spotlight that they view as a privilege—one they take seriously. “Although it is humbling to serve and be in that position, it also makes us wonder why are we the first?” Rod says. “It also compels us to do right by this opportunity. We want to ensure that those who have invested in us feel represented, and know that our commitment to our purpose is authentic.”
Purpose is BLK & Bold's north star. In addition to the company's support of youth programs, Rod and Pernell are working to ensure that every business decision aligns to their values. Next up, BLK & Bold plans to share the spotlight in a campaign featuring their suppliers as a means to be transparent about their supply chain. The team wants to show consumers how their coffee arrives from farm to cup by showcasing their suppliers’ dedication to fair trade and sustainable farming practices.
BLK & Bold is a team infused with energy and enthusiasm; a feeling inherent to their products and one they strive to share through every facet of their business. This dedication to being responsible in each decision is at the heart of why Rod and Pernell started BLK & Bold. Through a simple tick off of the grocery list, BLK & Bold is creating a butterfly effect with their social impact pledge and transparency in business operations. Starting the day with a cup of BLK & Bold does more than a simple caffeine jolt. From independent farmers to underprivileged youths, BLK & Bold also fills people's cups with purpose.