Evan Hafer, CEO of Black Rifle Coffee, Shares His Story of Success
If you’re looking for a rainbow colored drink named after a unicorn, Black Rifle Coffee Company is not for you. With names like Silencer Smooth, AK-47 and Murdered Out, the brews this Salt Lake City coffee company makes strike right at the heart of pumpkin spice, hipster culture.
It’s not a gimmick either. Black Rifle Coffee Company was founded by Army infantry and Special Forces veteran Evan Hafer who first started roasting coffee on a firing range between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is his story and, unlike a unicorn, it’s all real.
Planting: the early years
“I always wanted to have some type of military service,” said Hafer, when Valor Magazine sat down to talk to him in Salt Lake City earlier this month. “I grew up playing solider. It wasn’t cowboys and Indians for me, it was ‘How do I play commando?’”
As the grandson of a World War II veteran and nephew of a Vietnam vet, Hafer knew from a young age he wanted to serve our country too. He’d hike the ridgelines of Northern Idaho, look over the vast, beautiful wilderness and think about our country. He’d think about the need for men and women to step up and protect it and of the bravery of its first leader (his idol) President George Washington.
After graduation Hafer joined the Army National Guard.
“When I joined I didn’t expect to be good at what I was doing,” said Hafer, who was just a regular-guy in high school; a bit of a trouble maker, a class clown and not an outstanding athlete.
In basic training he realized he wasn’t just a regular-guy anymore.
“I realized early on I was pretty good at this,” said Hafer, who was made platoon guide and became a distinguished honor graduate of his basic training class. “I could run really fast and shoot a rifle well. I remember thinking, ‘I can do this and I am pretty good at it.’”
Grinding: the combat years
Iraq was exactly where Hafer wanted to be and that’s where he went – many times.
“War is an experience I don’t think anyone can say doesn’t define the rest of their life,” Hafer said. “It reformatted my DNA for the rest of my life.”
While fully committed to war, Hafer experienced the lowest of lows and highest of highs, but he always tried to ride the highs and create them whenever possible.
“One great thing about the military and war is that there are so many opportunities to take low points and turn them into high points,” said Hafer, who was known to play practical jokes and wear a white baseball cap in country that said “Hang Loose.”
He was always among soldiers he truly admired, loved and respected and drew great strength – and laughter – from them.
“War is not something you can take lightly, but you shouldn’t change your whole demeanor,” Hafer said. “Life’s too short not to laugh. You have to have fun while you’re there. If you don’t enjoy it you really shouldn’t be there.”
Roasting: the early coffee years
During the time between deployments Hafer spent time pursuing his two passions: shooting and coffee.
“I was pulling shots and developing roasts,” said Hafer, who began roasting coffee to take back to Iraq and Afghanistan for himself and his buddies about a decade ago in a little one-pound roaster he bought.
The roaster was cheaper and much more appealing to him than continually paying $20 a bag for a pound of trendy grinds he didn’t even enjoy drinking.
As he immersed himself in roast profiles, he shared the brews he developed with his buddies on the range and they’d give him honest feedback.
“These roasts were developed literally on the range with a one pound roaster with a bunch of my guys I was teaching tactical pistol and carbine CQB,” Hafer said. “I’d fill up the roaster, roast something and put it through the drip machine and guys would be like, ‘This is good, ‘This is bad,’ ‘I don’t like this.’”
Like his experience in basic training, when it came to starting out in coffee, Hafer quickly realized he was pretty good at roasting.
“I had always been interested in coffee,” Hafer said. “However, being a coffee shop owner at that time in my life was not an option because I needed to serve my country. So I put my love of coffee on the back burner.”
There it sat and percolated until Hafer was ready to hang up his boots.
Brewing: the Black Rifle Coffee Company years
By 2013 Hafer was ready to stop deploying. He had spent a significant amount of time overseas and was burnt out. He was married and a father.
“The psychological effect of being in and out of combat constantly weights not only on you, but family,” Hafer said. “My tools of the trade were rifles and pistols, but I also knew that I wanted a more sustainable life.”
In January of 2015 he left active duty and made his first Black Rifle Coffee Company sale online.
“I went chips in,” Hafer said. “I knew I could roast coffee, but I didn’t know I could sell it. Once I knew I could sell it I knew I wasn’t going back.”
Black Rifle is unlike any coffee company out there not only in its roots, but where it’s headed. Run by a veteran and comprised of a staff of seventy-four (70% of whom are veterans) the company strives not only to support vets at every turn, but to emancipate fellow conservative Americans from corporate coffee.
The Black Rifle culture espouses hard work, grit and honoring those who protect, defend, and support our communities and our country (including first responders).
Their marketing doesn’t shy away from memes, videos and advertisements that may offend some coffee drinkers (think guns, big vehicles and more guns). For that, Hafer has no apologies.
“We’ve built an ecosystem around the fact we’re like-minded people,” said Hafer, of his staff and customers.
In the next five years, Hafer hopes to see 300-500 Black Rifle franchises worldwide employing 10,000 or more veterans.
“We want to grow the company to be the world’s premiere veteran owned coffee company,” Hafer said. “This isn’t about me, this company is for everyone.”
Sharing: for fellow vets
Hafer doesn’t believe in luck – he believes in hard work and that’s a big part of the reason Black Rifle has achieved such immense success in such a short time.
To other veterans thinking of starting their own businesses, Hafer has simple, but solid advice: “Number one, don’t quit. Number two, embrace the suck.”
Embracing the suck means doing what he did in the early days of Black Rifle.
“For a year and a half I didn’t sleep, I didn’t work out,” Hafer said. “I packed boxes, folded shirts, did design work, answered phones and emails, customer service. I did everything in the company. I had to do everything in the company to understand how to run the company effectively.”
Along every step of his entrepreneurship journey he has adapted and translated the skills he learned in the Army and put them to use at Black Rifle; skills like triaging time, negotiating, managing people, and taking things across line.
Above all, though, Hafer encourages his fellow vets to keep on grinding.
“You can’t quit,” Hafer said. “If you have a dream and you want to do something you have to embrace it. If you can dedicate every fiber of your DNA to something you’ll see success.”