It’s International Coffee Day—does your favorite grind make an impact? No, we’re not talking about that anticipatory jolt of caffeine, though if you’re anything like most of the members of The Root crew, you may be on your third or fourth cup while reading this (so, no judgments)—or perhaps your chosen pick-me-up is a cup of tea? Either way, Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson have you covered with BLK & Bold, a specialty drink company with an even more special mission: a commitment to our communities.
Founded in 2018, BLK & Bold has accomplished the enviable feat of disrupting the coffee and tea market with their highly curated and delicious yet accessibly priced blends—while simultaneously reinvesting in Black and Brown communities, well before it was fashionable. Since its inception, the brand has donated 5 percent of its profits to nonprofit organizations that support at-risk youth; as the childhood friends turned business partners told The Root this spring, both their products and their philanthropy are passion projects.
“Pernell is a coffee enthusiast—and myself, drinking tea for a variety of reasons, it just made sense to align that with our passion to be entrepreneurs,” Johnson explained. “The great thing about it is it also fulfills our need of giving back to the community, considering that there is a social impact model embedded in what we do. So ultimately, it’s a culmination of many of our passions and aspirations.”
Cezar and Johnson grew up on the same street in Gary, Ind., seeing firsthand the amount of untapped potential that exists in underserved communities. “We were disadvantaged youths,” Cezar told The Root earlier this year, speaking on the inspiration behind BLK & Bold’s community initiatives. Both he and Johnson would defy the odds, attending the University of Northern Iowa and Indiana University, respectively. Johnson would eventually become an academic fundraiser, while Cezar would go into corporate retail merchandising, spending years at Target’s headquarters in Minneapolis. Both skillsets would come in handy in launching BLK & Bold—and now, their products are on Target’s shelves, as well as being offered at Whole Foods and Amazon, where BLK & Bold was declared the bestselling coffee brand this June (h/t Modern Retail). As the brand told The Root, they experienced a 1400 percent sales surge that same month.
Obviously, thriving in a pandemic is no small feat, especially for Black businesses, which, like our communities at large, have taken a disproportionate hit from the effects of COVID-19 upon our economy. Neither Johnson nor Cezar take their success for granted; speaking with them as we settled into the new normal of lockdowns this spring, BLK & Bold had already contributed over seven hundred units of its individual coffees to different hospitals in major markets that were hotbeds during that time, a gesture they told us they planned to continue through a donation-with-every purchase of their Steeped Coffee packs.
“So the community purchases one of those products and then we’ll continue to deploy them to various hospitals, first responders,” Johnson shared. “Those who are under that umbrella are putting their lives on the line, so even though we are, quote-unquote, just the coffee and tea brand, we want to continue to work very hard, at the forefront of our minds, to support those that are supporting us.”
“You know, we’re a coffee and tea brand, but at the end of the day, we’re in a pandemic, right?” Cezar added. “So we have to kind of take a step back and accept that we’re all humans—and of course, we’re all in this together. And think about how can we as a coffee and tea business, provide some sensible support in doing so?”
Headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa (where Cezar is also based; Johnson resides in the Sacramento area of Northern California), BLK & Bold is equally committed to addressing the ongoing non-pandemic related disparities affecting our communities, even explaining how Iowa is a surprisingly ideal place for basing a Black-owned business.
“It really made even more sense as we kind of pulled back the curtain on Des Moines and the state of Iowa, [which] have some of the biggest disparities when it comes to African-American vs. general market or Caucasians on incarceration, employment, entrepreneurship,” Cezar explained. “And so for us, never waiting for validation for someone that’d allow us to pursue our dreams here...it’s even more important to do it in a place that we don’t have to feel like we’re getting approval to do it.”
Fittingly, BLK & Bold’s signature hashtag is #MoreThanCoffee. (Bonus: you can order the coffee, which comes in varietals from light to dark roast, as whole bean or have it ground-to-order via their site, while the teas are loose leaf and robust—trust us, we’re very satisfied samplers of the goods.) But in addition to producing a high-quality product line with a focus on notes and elements akin to a sommelier’s approach to wine, Cezar and Johnson’s approach to philanthropy has been equally strategic, as Johnson explains.
“A great thing about what we do is that we’ve been able to tap into some of our professional expertise,” he said. “As a career professional academic fundraiser, I got a chance to see behind the curtain on how the impact of philanthropy can really make a difference...having the opportunity to invest in that community was something we were very intentional about including in what we do.”
“We have this lifestyle of conscious consumerism; but how is that mainstreamed across the tangible products we actually purchase?” Cezar added. “That was a gap for us as fans of the products, but also the impact that was not being had to the communities that we so closely resonate with. And so the five percent was a matter of building sustainable impact to that legacy of supporting youths while they’re at their impressionable stages—by way of everyday products. And there’s no better way to build that than to think about that as you’re building the foundation of a business.”
“It’s evergreen, it’s authentic, and it’s not something that can just be retrofitted into because of a moment in time,” he continued, giving a not-so-subtle nod to those who’ve recently made a trend of investing in Black lives. “Which is very much critical to why we have to double down and sustain throughout this time. If we’re a social impact brand that focuses on how massive of a need our youth are going through—just for the fact of finding food—it makes us have to work even harder during this time. And it’s all relative for us, but harder than what we did the day before.”