"Brewing Community, Prosperity and Entrepreneurship — Black Coffee Company Celebrates 5 Years in Business" by Donney Rose (CreActiv)
There’s an age-old ideology that suggests that mixing friendships with business is often a recipe for disaster for either the friendship, the business, or both. But Black Coffee Company's principal co-founders, Jamin Butler, and Leonard Lightfoot credit the trust that comes from decades of friendship as a critical component to the soaring growth of their business.
“There are risks involved just like with any other partnership [or] marriage,” Lightfoot asserted. “You decide to come together and build together, but you don't know a hundred percent certainty that it's going to work.”
The high school friends have not only been able to make a novice idea that came from a small-scale investment group they and other friends started together work, but their collective effort, love of community, and passion for shepherding future generations of Black entrepreneurs have been the driving forces behind Black Coffee Company.
Since 2018, Black Coffee Company has expanded from an online distributor of coffee beans to a brick-and-mortar storefront in Atlanta and has even inspired an annual festival. Today, the company celebrates its fifth anniversary, and Butler and Lightfoot can only envision continuous growth in the future.
“There wasn't a handbook or an easy replica replicated model that we could follow. We created it,” Butler said of their unlikely venture into the coffee industry as Black owners. “My hope is that we build and scale out this model that we are creating [for] business owners around the country.”
Butler and Lightfoot, along with fellow co-founders Chris Bolden, Gino Jones, and Branden Cole, have been in partnership for decades. The larger unit includes partner spouses and family members. It is a dynamic rooted in Lightfoot and Butler’s ethos of incorporating family as a support system and powered by the ideals of cooperative economics.
“Me and Leonard, we come from South Central, Los Angeles, where our parents are all working-class and instilled in us the value of hard work and education,” Butler said. “And we followed the path they set before us, and we achieved the goals that had been placed for us.”
“But those were individual successes. And what we were trying to build as a collective was a family. And we wanted to bring in our little brothers, our little sisters, our cousins, those who had not experienced or had that education.”
The blueprint for what would eventually become Black Coffee Company began in 2016 when the collective started an investment group called the Backpack Investments Club. Inspired by a 2015 visit to the Motown Museum in Detroit, the crew learned how Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, pooled resources from his personal circles to start the label and decided that they would invest in their dreams by contributing small sums of money to Backpack monthly.
“We [had] been friends for 10 plus years, [and] at that time we pulled our resources to get into a club to buy a bottle, but we never pulled our resources together to invest in the invest and grow capital,” Lightfoot said. “So from there, we just started light. We just did a call to our family and friends like, “Hey, we think about pulling our resources together.”
Lightfoot had just begun to get familiar with the inner workings of the stock market as a means of wealth generation. The group was eager to learn more about how the market worked and how they could invest in it in hopes of gaining returns. What began as a larger group of friends and associates, whittled to the core five that would form an LLC for the Backpack Investments Club.
“We started really small; we [were] all working, managing families, [and] whatnot. Still not too sure how this is going to work out. We decided to create monthly dues, $50 a month, put it into the pot, and meet every two weeks [to] talk about a variety of different stocks in the stock market. Just learning how to invest and how to read a stock chart.”
By the second year of the Backpack Investments Club, its member-friends upped their monthly contributions from $50 to $100 a month and were looking to zero in on a solid industry to pour their capital in. The revelation of investing in the coffee roasting business was an organic one sparked by a morning Zoom call.
“On one of those calls, we were beating our heads up against the wall,” Butler emphasized. “What business are we going to get into? And Leonard pointed out that even though I was in Los Angeles, he was in Ohio, Chris was in Atlanta, Brandon was in Seattle, and Gina was also in Los Angeles, most of us were doing the same thing at the same time on those conference calls — early Saturday mornings we were drinking coffee.”
“And so at that moment, Leonard said, ‘well, hey, we're going to start a business, why don't we invest in something that we use, and we spend our money into?’ ‘Why don't we get into coffee? I was like, ‘What do I look like selling coffee? Come on, bro.’ Little did I know, though, after doing some research, that coffee actually starts with us.”
What the group’s research showed them was two critical pieces of information that would ultimately move them in the direction of investing in the coffee industry: 1.) that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, behind oil, and 2.) that coffee plants originated in Ethiopia.
“Not only did it originate in Ethiopia, but the plant was actually transplanted across the world and grown in different regions to provide different flavor profiles,” Lightfoot added. “But the original coffee plant was in Africa, and just Jamin would like to say just [like] Black people, we originated in Africa, but we're actually across the globe, and we take on the different cultures and flavors of different regions.”
In an industry where Black coffee bean distributors roughly account for only 6% of all distributors and in a country where Black coffee shop owners are largely underrepresented, the group’s decision to pursue the coffee business could have been a dicey one. They ultimately decided to dive further into the business model they learned from studying Berry Gordy and engaged a host of family and friends to invest with the promise of getting their money back with interest.
“Let's go to our family and friends and ask for money but also provide interest,” Lightfoot said about their initial plan to generate capital. “We're not just asking for a donation, but we want to show the value in pulling your resources together [so] that you can gain a financial return from your investment.”
The first outreach effort to family and friends was met with a considerable amount of ‘no’ replies, but the future owners of Black Coffee Company persisted. By the end of their first full round of investments, the group was able to generate $15,000 in seed money, a feat that is often difficult for Black startup companies where the founders come from modest backgrounds.
“Jamin had the bright idea to just continue to document this journey over and over through the advertising, through the newsletters. Gradually people were going along this journey, understanding what we were trying to do.”
Black Coffee Company saw its annual revenue increase from just over $7000 in 2018, its founding year, to just over $18,000 the following year. However, it was the ballooning of revenue from 2019 to 2020 that proved that the founders had struck something of a goldmine, as the company generated a nearly five-times increase in earnings amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The key to success in a period of business closings and widespread layoffs? Preparation.
“We started in 2018 just strictly online selling coffee beans or providing coffee beans online. And a lot of businesses weren't online at that moment. We were an early adopter to doing e-commerce, figuring out the logistics of moving coffee beans from point A to point B efficiently,” Lightfoot said.
As with all businesses at the beginning of the pandemic, Black Coffee Company had to weather the rockiness of a suddenly closed world. What they had to their advantage was a product that most people need to start their day
“Everybody just kind of froze, but after a week or two, people realized, ‘Oh, I need coffee. I can't go to the cafe. I can't go to 7-Eleven. I need to start making this at home.’ So we doubled down. We started creating content on how to brew the perfect coffee cup at home. And gradually, week over week, sales started to pick up.”
However, it was a chance opportunity at a 2020 Juneteenth celebration in Atlanta during the peak of COVID-19 transmission and amid a climate of protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which would provide the founders of Black Coffee Company the possibility of opening a physical location.
When Bolden was presented with the opportunity to do a pop-up shop at famed Atlanta rapper/entrepreneur Michael “Killer Mike” Render’s S.W.A.G. barbershop for Juneteenth, he was understandably uneasy, given the health climate when the event occurred. But the partners had the foresight that something big could come out of the opportunity, and urged him to pursue the offer.
“We were like, you got to do it for the culture, man. You got to do it for the team. Go out there. This is a good opportunity,” Butler said. “So he took the risk to go do a popup in the middle of the pandemic on Juneteenth at the S.W.A.G. shop.”
The risk-taking paid off as an area developer would later send a direct message to Black Coffee Company’s Instagram page with an offer to open a shop in Atlanta. Killer Mike additionally quelled any skepticism Black Coffee’s founders had by verifying that the person that reached out to them was a friend of his and, indeed, a developer.
Within months, Butler would travel from Los Angeles to Atlanta, mainly at the counsel of his wife, Ayron. In 2021, the Black Coffee Company coffee shop opened for business in Atlanta.
“When your family is behind you, you can accomplish anything. But you have to be willing to take risks,” Butler affirmed. Black Coffee’s matriculation to a brick-and-mortar business, however, was not just predicated on blind faith. The partners were aware of where their online sales were trending.
“We were able to look at the data on our site to say, ‘OK, Atlanta is our number three metro, and Los Angeles is number one, but the cost of doing business in L.A. is too cumbersome.’ But right now, during this pandemic, rents are depressed in Atlanta. And we, Chris [with] boots on the ground doing popups, building up a market, building up an audience.”
The transition to a physical location paired with their online store proved to be exceptionally lucrative for Black Coffee Company, ushering in the opportunity to produce the inaugural Black Coffee Fest in 2022, an event that brought out powerful keynote speakers but, perhaps most importantly, gave the proprietors of Black Coffee Company an additional outlet to offer to budding Black entrepreneurs.
“I used to throw parties back in the day,” Butler noted. “That was kind of one of my forays into entrepreneurship [as a] club promoter. So the way we went about it was like we took this back to the fundamentals, we printed up flyers, and we’re going to every event across the city, handing out flyers, we're going to pull up to every opportunity to let them know that we're doing a festival based around entrepreneurship, financial freedom, and community empowerment.”
The festival produced an audience of more than 500 attendees and over 50 vendors eager to fellowship and learn. For Butler, the festival's success was based on the team approaching it with the same degree of intentionality as they applied to their online store and the brick-and-mortar location.
For Butler and Lightfoot, the future of Black Coffee Company is largely based on its expansion as a hub for economic empowerment and entrepreneurial development. And though Lightfoot would love to see more major metropolitan cities be host sites for Black Coffee Company physical locations, it is Butler’s sentiments on his hopes for their legacy that echo the collective’s true assessment of future growth and impact.
“I would love to see the staff members create their own businesses,” Butler said. “We have so many. [It’s] one of the things we attract as entrepreneurs; I think everybody on our staff has their own side business, and I think that's beautiful.”
“Anything that they can take from us, I hope that they do.”
CreActiv PR & Storytelling is a boutique communications firm founded by journalist and comms strategist Leslie D. Rose. The firm specializes in writing, consulting, storytelling, and creative activism initiatives/education tools. Leslie shares consultancy responsibilities with multi-genre writer, strategist, and organizer Donney Rose.
Leslie D. Rose https://www.lesliedrose.com
Donney Rose https://donneyrose.info