A progressive black-owned coffee company gets caught in the crosshairs when mistaken for a GOP-centric, white-owned company relinquishing its allegiance to violent, right-wing groups.
A regular, midsummer busy day in 2021 turned into a slight dance with digital chaos for the owners of The Black Coffee Company. Like any other afternoon, their new, Atlanta-based brick-and-mortar buzzed with activity. Between coffee pours and processing online orders, the communications arm of the venture, Jamin Butler, noticed an uptick in messages. Rather than warm and fuzzy love correspondences, the notes flooding their social media were hyper-specific, they were filled with hostility.
“We got a message from a guy . . . he just started cussing us out [saying] ‘you guys are traitors . . . you’re loving BLM now and you’re woke all of a sudden,” Butler told Ark Republic when he discovered in the cables that something was not quite right.
The accusation of being pro-Black Lives Matter caught Butler off guard because the five-man owned startup has been brazen and quite explicit in their support of the campaign. To amplify his confusion, one of the company’s top selling coffee accessories is the “woke” mug. Yet and still, something else caught Butler’s attention. “We ignored it until the same message came from someone else, then another one, and another . . . then we received a dissertation spewing hate.”
Butler said he wanted to make a strong response to the vitriol coming from the keyboard gangsters. However, his worry was that the same violence shown at the January 6 attempted coup at the nation’s Capitol would find its way to the Black-owned business.
“One of my biggest fears when we opened Black Coffee ATL was that we would have an incident [where] someone would see us as a focal point to take out their anger,” said Butler. “So I’m not surprised [at the hate messages, but] it’s scary. But, it’s a part of doing business and I cannot stop being Black. We’re welcoming to all people, but [at the end of the day] it’s sad.”
Initially, the deluge of allegations were a conundrum for Butler. He had not posted one of his social justice-infused blogs. Nor had he sent out a message supporting some activist organization or another. Soon, he realized that the commentators confused The Black Coffee Company with Trump supporting, right-wing, San-Antonio-based java business, The Black Rifle Coffee Company.
“Sure enough, The Black Rifle Coffee Company sat down with the New York Times and denounced [the insurrectionist movement supporting] Donald Trump and the Proud Boys,” Butler recounted.
The Black Rifle Coffee Company did more than just denounce violent far-right groups. One of its co-founders, Evan Hafer said he would “pay them to leave my customer base.” Hafer did not back down. “I would gladly chop all of those people out of my fucking customer database and pay them to get the fuck out.”
Before the interview, The Black Rifle Coffee Company banked on far right members and supporters, way to the right. A pro-military, hella Republican, pro-gun rights, veteran-owned business servicing those who served in the armed forces, Hafer had a built-in base as loyal as 700 Club members. To sweeten the coffee pot, the shop owner offered veterans business opportunities to sell the small batch caffeine.
While Hafer frequently expressed his unyielding backing of law enforcement, he took a hard stance against any support towards Kyle Rittenhouse. Recently, the 17-year-old teen was on trial for killing two people and wounding another by gunfire during an August 2020 night demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When Rittenhouse was arrested, a photo showing him wearing a Black Rifle Coffee Company tee went viral. Ultimately, Rittenhouse was found not guilty in November.
Hafer released a statement after a podcaster boasted his support of Rittenhouse while wearing one of The Black Rifle Coffee Company tee shirts himself. “We do not support legal advocacy efforts. We do not sponsor nor do we have a relationship with the 17-year-old facing charges . . . We believe in the integrity of the legal justice system, and support law enforcement officials.”
Not your average coffee companies
Months following the January 6, 2021 insurrection, a Times interview with Hafer and the store’s other co-founders—Mat Best and Jarred Taylor—dropped. The interview caused a conservative meltdown. All of which landed on the digital doors of The Black Coffee Company.
The reason the African American-owned business received a flood of vitriol is in the incomprehensible formula of online algorithms. Apparently, there is some type of intermingling or overlapping in internet searches for The Black Rifle Coffee Company and The Black Coffee Company. In their irateness, right wingers did not verify their steered rage in the wrong direction after a simple Google search.
The irony of the companies is that they epitomize polar opposites. One venture stands behind Black Lives Matter. The other espouses Blue Lives Matter. The Atlanta-based coffee company offers financial literacy to communities of color, while the San Antonio-based venture advocates for financial freedom to mostly white veterans. Ironically, the two share the strategy of using “stay woke” for a double meaning, but for drastically different reasons.
In fact, The Black Coffee Company is so left of woke that they were awarded a grant by the Beygood initiative given by artist Beyonce Knowles-Carter in conjunction with the NAACP in 2020. After years of intersecting business with advocacy, their efforts were acknowledged in the height of the George Floyd protests for making substantial change.
Nonetheless, both enterprises are social-entrepreneurs fusing their politics with capital. In fact, receiving harsh criticism or even facing online attacks was not novel for The Black Coffee Company. While they enjoy a supportive online base between their 3,000-plus member newsletter and almost 2,000 member private Facebook group, they learned early on to vet potential members.
“We always got people trying to join that we didn’t recognize,” said Butler about their Facebook group. “Their Facebook profiles were all very telling of their political ideologies. Their [avatars] would be an American flag or an eagle or a guy with sunglasses and a trucker hat. [In the about them section] when you talk about their views, all far right extremists, the keywords they’d use were far-right terminology. I never let them into the community because I felt that these were disruptors.”
It was not until the January 6 [attempted coup] that Butler grew concerned about the direction of the politics of the far-right, Trump stans. “I didn’t think this was any big movement until things started to transpire up until we had this insurrection, and I was like wow, this looks like the same group of folks who tried to get into our community.”
The climate of toxic partisan politics is the order of the day, so the crew of accomplished Black men did what they always do: remained focused on what mattered—their work from the coffee store to investments and giving back. “At a certain point, it becomes white noise in the background, so you ignore it,” said Butler.
. . . .
Seven months later, the philanthropic collective consisting of Branden Cole, Leonard E. Lightfoot, Gino Jones, and Christopher J. Bolden, along with Butler, announced another initiative, the Black Coffee Company Fest. A two-day event in April themed “Empowering Entrepreneurs,” will open up the store to vendors and business owners to feature their products. Since the company was in its embryonic stage, the band of friends emphasized promoting other endeavors as a way to form an ecosystem that nourishes each other.
“You can’t pass down a [job] position, but you can pass down a business,” explained Bolden about providing a space for rising entrepreneurs to showcase their wares and work at the festival.
Bolden’s philosophy is an extension of the venture’s roots. Some of the members have been friends since middle school, but all convened and clicked at Xavier University, a historically black college in New Orleans. While there, they became the Backpack Crew.
Their relationship continued after college where all received either some type of graduate or professional degrees, yet maintained a tight-knit brotherhood. Through their friendship, they traveled the world, and learned about various industries; all the while, helped each other grow in their respective careers. It was on a visit to Detroit when one of the partners’ youngest brothers was receiving his Ph.D. that they got the idea to form an investment firm.
While visiting Motown Museum, they were inspired by the Motown Records’ legacy which started with Berry Gordy. The music mogul came from a family that “set up their own savings and loan program for anyone in the family to start a business or work on a project,” Butler told.
The in-family investment funds came from the history of the lack of banks supporting African American businesses, or even providing mortgages to potential home buyers. As well, it is related to the abysmal trust between African Americans and banking systems that have gutted the accounts of Black businesses and personal savings in the past. Like the Freedmen’s Bank, forced to close down in 1874 after the federal government extracted all the money from its coffers. Moreover, the Gordy family story inspired the group to start their own investment collective called Backpack Investments. With it, they had so much success, they agreed to expand their efforts by starting a full-scale business.
The challenge was that they were located across the U.S. So they used the virtual space to plan. Already, they met weekly for their investment club. It was at one of these brainstorming sessions they had a revelation. While balancing the different time zones, and now families and side-hustles including their jobs, they all drank coffee. Thus, they decided to start a company using the octane mud, but with a twist–incorporating financial literacy.
“We looked across our peers and we realized we knew some of the most educated, the most credentialed, the most well-experienced folks, but no one was really in a position to create opportunities for others and that’s what we felt was the power of the platform we were building,” Butler said.
Since their 2018 launch, the business has grown exponentially. Much like The Black Rifle Coffee Company, The Black Coffee Company offers satellite set ups for its members to sell their products ranging from coffee to merchandise. Added to their growth, the Beygood grant served as seed money for a building in Atlanta.
Included in their work is their annual fundraising for their alma mater, as well as donating to various organizations and small businesses they “feel are doing the good work.” Like their supporter, Beyonce, they too learned to turn lemons in lemonade.
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