Is Black Rifle Coffee About to Throw Its Customer Base Under the Bus for Fun and Profit?

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In the words of social and political philosopher Eric Hofer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and turns into a racket.” So when I read this tweet by Andy Ngo, I was intrigued.

Was Black Rifle Coffee unfairly maligned, or was it on the glideslope to becoming just another grift aimed at conservatives, like anything associated with Ali (Akbar) Alexander or with “Patriots” in its sales literature?

Black Rifle Coffee burst on the scene in 2014. It was founded in Utah…not the place you associate with any caffeinated beverage, by three veterans

It marketed heavily to a pro-gun, pro-police, pro-America, anti-political correctness demographic with ads like:

The company management supported President Trump. It was unapologetic in its ethos (this is one of my favorites).

And they succeeded. The company’s 2015 revenue was $1 million. In 2020, it earned $163 million, and it is projecting 2021 sales of $240 million.

At first blush, the New York Times Magazine article seems to have the odor of corporate damage control and the initial signs that not getting invited to the right parties is taking its toll.

There is angst over some guy wearing a Black Rifle Coffee hat while taking an ad hoc tour of the US Capitol on January 6.

Like most Americans, Evan Hafer experienced the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol from a distance, watching it unfold on his television and his iPhone from Salt Lake City. What he saw did not surprise him. Hafer, who is 44, voted for Donald Trump. He was even open at first to the possibility that Trump’s claims of sweeping voter fraud were legitimate until William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, declared in early December that he could find no evidence that such fraud occurred. Still, Hafer told me recently, “you’re told by the commander in chief for months that the election was stolen, so you’re going to have a group of people that are really pissed.” While he disapproved of those who stormed the Capitol, he didn’t believe that they or their actions constituted a real threat to the republic. “I’ve seen an insurrection,” said Hafer, a former Green Beret and C.I.A. contractor who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I know what that looks like.”

But Hafer’s distance from the incident collapsed that same afternoon when he was alerted to a picture taken by a Getty photographer in the Senate chamber that immediately went viral. The photo showed a masked man vaulting over a banister holding several sets of plastic restraints, an apparent sign that the insurrectionists planned to take lawmakers hostage. The unidentified man, soon dubbed “zip-tie guy,” was dressed in a tactical vest, carried a Taser and wore a baseball hat with an image of an assault rifle silhouetted against an American flag — a design sold by the Black Rifle Coffee Company, of which Hafer is the chief executive. “I was like, Oh, [expletive],” he recalled. “Here we go again.”

When teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, the victim of an Antifa mob was released from jail after defending himself, his benefactors tricked him out in a Black Rifle Coffee t-shirt (he improved the Wisconsin gene pool using a Smith & Wesson M&P-15…a black rifle, get it?) This led the company founder to cut this rather craven video disavowing any connection with Rittenhouse.

My gut feeling is that the company management is making a move to moderate its image before going public. Black Rifle Coffee has transitioned from a subscription-based coffee company to one that has a brick-and-mortar presence; however, to really make that move work, it will require a volume of cash that can’t be generated via increasing sales or borrowing.

For most of its existence, Black Rifle has been a “direct to consumer” operation, selling its coffee and merchandise primarily through its website. The company opened its first brick-and-mortar store in San Antonio last fall; others are open or under construction in Montana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, with plans to have 15 in operation by the end of this year and 35 by the end of 2022. Black Rifle has also struck a deal with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s — which already sell Black Rifle coffee beans and merchandise — to operate Black Rifle cafes in some of their stores. (“Their brand is very popular with our customers,” a Bass Pro Shops spokeswoman said.)

Tom Davin, a former executive at Taco Bell and Panda Express who two years ago became Black Rifle’s co-chief executive, says: “Our customer is driving a tricked-out Ford F-150. It’s blue-collar, above-average income, some college-educated, some self-made-type people. It’s people who shop at Walmart rather than Target.” Hafer put it more bluntly in a 2017 interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business: “Progressives hate me, and conservatives love me.”

In fairness, I think the Andy Ngo tweet takes a quote out of context or seems to add a context to it that doesn’t appear to be there.

“You can’t let sections of your customers hijack your brand and say, ‘This is who you are,’” Best told me. “It’s like, no, no, we define that.” The Rittenhouse episode may have cost the company thousands of customers, but, Hafer believed, it also allowed Black Rifle to draw a line in the sand. “It’s such a repugnant group of people,” Hafer said. “It’s like the worst of American society, and I got to flush the toilet of some of those people that kind of hijacked portions of the brand.” Then again, what Hafer insisted was a “superclear delineation” was not too clear to everyone, as Munchel’s choice of headgear vividly demonstrated.

“The racism [expletive] really pisses me off,” Hafer said. “I hate racist, Proud Boy-ish people. Like, I’ll pay them to leave my customer base. I would gladly chop all of those people out of my [expletive] customer database and pay them to get the [expletive] out.” If that was the case, I asked, had Black Rifle — which sells a Thin Blue Line coffee — considered changing the name of its Beyond Black coffee, a dark roast it has sold for years, to Beyond Black Lives Matter? Surely that would alienate the racists polluting its customer base.

Hafer began to laugh. “You wouldn’t do that,” I ventured.

“I would never do that,” Hafer replied. “We’re trying to be us.”

Absent the tape, we don’t know if the “repugnant people” were people who yelled at Hafer on Twitter over his decision, or if they are people who supported Rittenhouse, or if it refers to the “racist, Proud Boy-ish people.” But it does seem as though the Rittenhouse video was much more a function of being scared of the left’s disapproval hurting business (all those Antifa guys love Black Rifle Coffee, ya know) than any other motivation.

We also learn that a coffee that was to be named after St. Michael the Archangel was scrubbed out of corporate fear:

Hafer and Best were talking in a glorified supply closet in the Salt Lake City offices, where potential designs for new coffee bags were hanging on the wall. One of them featured a Renaissance-style rendering of St. Michael the Archangel, a patron saint of military personnel, shooting a short-barreled rifle. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Hafer knew a number of squad mates who had a St. Michael tattoo; for a time, he wore into battle a St. Michael pendant that a Catholic friend gave him. But while the St. Michael design was being mocked up, Hafer said he learned from a friend at the Pentagon that an image of St. Michael trampling on Satan had been embraced by white supremacists because it was reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd. Now any plans for the coffee bag had been scrapped. “This won’t see the light of day,” Hafer said.

Wall Street doesn’t like conservative companies, especially ones with a political face. The mopes that will flock to Black Rifle’s board of directors will be left-leaning types who won’t like the way it is run and its zero-f***s-left-to-give attitude. If the company does go public, then Hafer will be dancing to the tune of a bunch of gutless wonders who are afraid to offend anyone.

Going back to Hofer’s aphorism, I’d like to add Robert Conquest’s Second Law of Politics, that is, “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” (Check out the conservative media landscape and look at the outlets and think tanks that were doctrinaire conservatives a decade ago but today are defending Joe Biden and who tried to defeat President Trump twice.)

Just as Black Rifle Coffee is on the cusp of changing its financial structure, it is also arriving at a philosophical decision point. Will it stay conservative and cater to the people that made it successful? Will it go “woke”? Will it complete the transition from a cause to a grift? Unfortunately, the signs aren’t all that great.