We spoke to Evan Hafer, the coffee roaster who pledged to hire 10,000 veterans in response to Starbucks' pledge to hire 10,000 immigrants.
Photo via Flickr user kris krüg
This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2017.
In the two weeks since President Donald Trump hastily autographed the most controversial executive order since Franklin Roosevelt signed off on detaining 110,000 Japanese-Americans, activists, legal analysts and CNN's Breaking News banner have all been working overtime. The not-even-thinly veiled travel ban (AKA Muslim ban) attracted criticism even before Trump managed to get the cap back on his pen, and its opponents rallied against it from one of the most historically appropriate places: the coffee shop.
It has been said that the OG American Revolution began at a table at colonial Boston's Green Dragon coffee house, and its current counterparts did what they could to step up against Trump. More than 850 coffee shops held a nationwide fundraiser for the ACLU last weekend, raising more than $423,000 for the cause. And, most notably, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz declared that his company would hire more than 10,000 refugees over the next five years.
But because this is America in 2017, Schultz' announcement seemed to be more problematic than Trump's. A Twitter-fueled backlash started with a hashtag, and a guy you went to high school with loudly announced that he'd be deleting the Starbucks app immediately. And that's where Black Rifle Coffee Company came in. The independent roast-to-order coffee company jumped in and announced that it would hire 10,000 veterans over the next six years. "[Schultz] went on to talk about how Hipsterbucks will not 'Stand by or stand silent' and stated that with Trump's order 'we' are sounding an 'alarm' to Starbucks that civility and human rights are being taken for granted," Black Rifle wrote on its blog. "Is Starbucks so narcissistic to think that they are somehow an authority that people other than their hipster customer base will actually sound an alarm?!"
So let's be clear: Black Rifle probably thinks you're a snowflake. It is owned by veteran and Green Beret Evan Hafer, and its coffees have names like the AK-47 Espresso Blend, the Silencer Smooth Blend and Fuck Hipster Coffee (OK, that one we can get behind). The company wears its military machismo on its tight sleeve and it is as outspoken and unapologetic about its conservative politics as it can get. In under three years, it has developed a loyal (and unsurprising) following among veterans, active-duty military and law enforcement officers and, in the weeks since announcing its hiring initiatives, its brand awareness has blown up like one of the incendiary devices printed on its packaging.
MUNCHIES talked to Hafer about coffee, about fuckin' hipsters and about why he's so sure he can hire all of those vets.
MUNCHIES: First of all, thank you for your service. What was your background in the military? Evan Hafer: I was an infantryman first and then I was a special-forces soldier, so I was a Green Beret. And then I spent the later half of the war as a contractor overseas. I have close to 40 deployments overseas and had about three and a half years on the ground in Iraq.
So how did you make the transition from Green Beret to coffee roaster? I started roasting coffee about 10 years ago in a little one-pound roaster for me and my buddies who were deploying overseas. I was pulling shots and developing roasts, and that's where I combined the two things that I enjoyed doing and the things I carried when I was in the military, meaning the black rifle and coffee. I was looking for a profession outside of carrying a gun for a living and really enjoyed roasting coffee so it seemed like a natural progression.
From the pictures on your website, it looks like you still carry a gun. You may be the only armed barista in the country. Yeah, I I could be. I would imagine I'm pretty dang close.
When did you launch the site and start selling Black Rifle online? December 2014. I didn't make my first sale until January of 2015, though.
How quickly did sales start to pick up for the company? Right away, actually. I couldn't roast enough coffee, and that was exactly what I wanted. I dedicated most of my time to learning how to market the company more effectively. It's grown to a point now where I have 74 people that work for the company today. That's one to 74 in two years, and I've never taken out a loan on the company. It's all natural, organic growth. Just me and my buddies.
We take this just as seriously as the artisans do, but we're not taking ourselves that seriously. You're not going to walk into our place and see a guy who looks like he should be working on a bicycle in 1846.
And that seems to have given you the freedom to market the company exactly how you want. Yes, we market the company in the way that we chose, to our specific demographic. We put the message out and if people don't like it, that's fine. We're OK with that. I'm not saying that to be flippant, but there are plenty of other options out there. But, if you like us, we hope we'll get your vote with your dollar.
What percentage of your employees are veterans? We're at 70 percent now.
And do you know what percentage of your customer demographic are veterans, active duty, or law enforcement? There's no way for me to really know that, and I would be remiss if I put a number on it. I'm not even catering to a specific demographic. We're just open with our non-PC environment, to a degree that's just not palatable for most people. We're fine with guns, tattoos, and loud music, and we're fine with being what we call "the warrior philosophers." We encourage strength and honor and those things that are almost dying within our society. And we do celebrate masculinity, not in a chauvinistic way, but it's just who we are. We're male American military veterans who have spent most of our time in combat, in special operations. It's a celebration of our own subculture.
We're not condemning society, we're just making fun of it. We're actually making fun of ourselves more than anything.
I noticed that the company is very anti-hipster, which is cool with me. Hipsters are why there's an $18 cup of coffee in Brooklyn now. The hipster culture, in reference to coffee, I think they feel like they have some kind of monopoly on it. I'm not trying to incite riots with hipsters—it wouldn't work out well for them anyway. I'm a coffeehead and I take coffee very, very seriously. I've been to the most high-end coffee shops and have had $18 coffees in Seattle and Portland. We take this just as seriously as the artisans do, but we're not taking ourselves that seriously. You're not going to walk into our place and see a guy who looks like he should be working on a bicycle in 1846. That's just not us.
So what would your description of a hipster be? A hipster is somebody that is conforming to an urban subculture, specifically around a style. And that style is the urban environment around a specific product: bicycles or coffee or other specific products. The funny thing is that we're the same over here. We understand that. We have our own uniforms and our own way to look and feel. We're really similar, we just like different things. I'm not going to be banging out a haiku on a typewriter anytime soon just because my friends think it's cool. No Polaroids, no taking a picture of a picture of a picture with a cat wearing a derby hat. We are artists and creatives, and truly enjoy building, designing ,and implementing. Our biggest thing is that we try to entertain and try to create content and value through humor. Our marketing is based on humor, on making fun of our culture.
How obvious do you think that is to your customers? That's hard to tell. Most guys, I think, know that it's impossible to be that cool. You can't even say you're that cool. We don't really take helicopters to lunch.
That ruins the entire interview. Humor has been such a prominent fixture in our lives for so long that all we're doing is marketing the company through our sense of humor. We're not condemning society, we're just making fun of it. We're actually making fun of ourselves more than anything.
That said, are you serious with your pledge to hire 10,000 veterans? Absolutely. Here's the deal with us: I've answered a lot of questions and everyone has been telling us for the longest time that we can't do things, but when people say that to me, all it does is infuriate me. I just have to say "OK, well, watch me." I laid out a very specific six-year plan based on a challenge. The American veteran, beyond being my family, they have a definitive need for inspiration, and I'm not saying that I'm the only guy that needs to do it, but I'm saying that we have to prove to one another that nothing is impossible. If we don't try to challenge ourselves and our community, we will continue to have higher unemployment rates and higher suicide rates. We saw this was an opportunity. Instead of trying to get wrapped around this conversation of refugees, let's bring the conversation back to hiring veterans.
What does your six-year hiring plan look like? I've already picked 50 franchise options and we'll announce those in July. We'll open 50 in 2017 and my plan is to double that every year.
I would love to go on record and say that Starbucks has said they're speeding up their process to hire 10,000 vets. I want all of the competitive coffee companies to pick up this challenge. I commend them for any veteran hiring processes they have.
So those are brick and mortar stores? It's a combination. We've teamed up with a number of [gun] ranges nationally, and we're putting coffee shops in ranges. We've also teamed up with 5.11 Tactical and they're putting in 24 stores nationally, so this is a real, no-shit plan. My board of advisors for this includes a three-star general—a real no shit dude—and Tom Davin, the former CEO of Panda Express. He managed their expansion and he's telling me that I can do it. (Ed. Note: Davin is also the current CEO of 5.11 Tactical). And if we get to the end of this six years, and I haven't done it, and I've only hired 9,000 veterans, does anybody really lose?
Was that kind of opportunity, for employment and for support, something you felt was missing when you returned from your own military service? Absolutely. My job to own Black Rifle Coffee is to inspire and motivate veteran entrepreneurs in order to emancipate themselves from government service. Because you were a servant, but when I franchise these coffee shops [to veterans], they're going to own it. Of course there's a franchise fee, because it can't be free, but they're going to own it. They're going to have the opportunity to create their own destiny and that's incredible.
Are you surprised by how polarizing this challenge has been? This isn't going to be some hatchet job is it? Because I'm aware of the narrative. What people need to understand is that this isn't about Evan being an asshole; this is about Evan's drive to help my own community. This is about turning the issue back to the fact that we've been at war for 16 years. Millions of veterans – the post 9/11 veterans – are underemployed. We owe these men and women a great debt, because we voted these Congressional leaders and executive authorities that have pushed these men and women into harm's way for a decade. People have forgotten that we're still at war and that America is still ethically responsible for the mental health of these men and women. We don't need a handout, we need an opportunity.
And you don't see them getting those opportunities from, say, Starbucks? I would love to go on record and say that Starbucks has said they're speeding up their process to hire 10,000 vets. I want all of the competitive coffee companies to pick up this challenge. I commend them for any veteran hiring processes they have. I want every company to take this on, to take on a challenge. Maybe it's 10,000 veterans or 10,000 women, I don't know. I want to wash all of the negative rhetoric out of this. This is a positive, inspiring thing. It can't be negative, because it detracts from what we've accomplished. It's a process, but we're going to try. If people condemn us for trying, I'm not sure exactly what we can do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.