Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson are definitely enthusiasts. The co-founders of specialty coffee and tea brand BLK & Bold, the childhood friends launched their company in 2018 in Cezar’s garage in Iowa. While their business has certainly outgrown its first space, the reason Cezar and Johnson were inspired to devote their careers to coffee and tea has stayed the same: community.
“The role that coffee and tea play in building community is what drew us to it,” Cezar says. To his point, whether you’re getting together with your family or your chosen family, coffee or tea is almost always part of the scene. It’s one of the reasons serving the larger community was built into BLK & Bold’s mission; five percent of its profits are donated to projects supporting youth programming, job creation, and eradicating youth homelessness.
Below, Cezar and Johnson share more about their mission, friendship, and the growth of their business.
Shop now: Blk & Bold Rise & Grind Medium Roast Coffee Beans, $14
Well+Good: You guys have been in business together for a few years, but you’ve actually been friends for much longer.
Rod Johnson: We’ve been friends for over 20 years. I moved to Pernell’s block when I was 13 years old. He was basically the mayor of the block.
Pernell Cezar: Rod was this super smart, super athletic kid. It wasn’t hard for us to take to each other. We played basketball together after school.
RJ: Being friends for so long has worked to our advantage as business partners. We know each other’s personalities and have an easy camaraderie that allows us to hone in on the task at hand.
PC: It also has provided a level of trust. We’re a good team and we’re invested in each other just as much as the business.
Well+Good: How did you go from friends to business partners?
PC: That evolution came from conversations we had over time as we moved through different stages in our lives. We went from being school kids to young professionals and family men. The wins, the losses, the progress, it was all shared with each other over time. We talked a lot with each other about what was really meaningful to us and how we could use our time to give back to the things we cared about. We came from the same neighborhood, so it was humbling for us to look back together and see how we made it this far. It got to the point where we started ideating what a partnership could look like and how we could use it to make an impact.
Well+Good: You were both the first in your families to graduate from college. What did that mean to you and your families?
RJ: I’m the oldest of four siblings and the oldest of my maternal grandmother’s grandchildren. Growing up, it was expected of me to go to college. When I graduated college, I felt like I was fulfilling what I was supposed to do. At the time, I didn’t really contextualize that concept of being the first. But over time, I realized the inspiration it serves to my siblings, cousins, and anyone in my inner circle. It’s not something I take lightly. For the people who saw me do something that may have been out of the norm for what their reality was, I hope it normalizes [graduating from college] for them going forward.
PC: For me growing up, the idea of going to college wasn’t really a thing. It wasn’t something I started thinking about until high school was almost over. I had good grades and it was something other people at my school with good grades were going to do, so I started looking into it. I visited a college campus where I felt the people there had a vested interest in my personal development, so I went. I have an older sister who wasn’t able to attend college right after high school because she became a mother to my two nephews and had to focus on raising them. But when I was a senior in college, she enrolled as a freshman and later graduated from the same college. And next year, my nephew will be enrolling in the same college.
Well+Good: Being in the coffee and tea business, what was the very first cup of coffee or tea you ever had?
RJ: My grandparents were both big coffee drinkers and I spent a lot of time with them. They had a big plastic tub of instant coffee. I think the first time I had coffee was at their house when I was six or seven. I just wanted to mimic them, so I made a cup and remember immediately spitting it out. It was awful. As for my first cup of tea, both my mom and grandmother were big tea drinkers—and still are. I think my first tea was with them, an ice-cold fruity, herbal tea.
PC: My first experience with coffee was similar. My grandmother was part of that plastic coffee container club, too. I used to make her coffee with cream and one day I tried it for myself. I hated it! I didn’t really try coffee again until years later when I was interning one summer and struggling to stay awake. That’s when I really hopped on the coffee wagon. With tea, I had a similar experience as Rod. My first tea had to have been an ice-cold glass of sweet tea with my mom. As an adult, I became really immersed in tea because of the health benefits and wide varieties. I just got so into it.
Well+Good: What drew you to coffee and tea so much that you wanted to start a business devoted to it?
RJ: For me, it was the health benefits, which both coffee and tea have. I really wanted to share that with others. Also, Pernell’s passion for it is really contagious. He can talk about all the nuances of the coffee plant and gets really into it. So just by being friends with him, I myself got even more interested in it.
PC: I love the role coffee and tea play in community. Whenever I visit somewhere new, I like to visit the local coffee and tea shops to get an idea of the local neighborhood culture and vibe—because it always extends to the coffee shop. Also, the more I learned about coffee and tea, the more I wanted to learn. Coffee and tea consumption is so high, but education about it is so low. The more I learn about it, the more I want to learn even more and share that knowledge with others.
Well+Good: For someone trying to decide what BLK & Bold products to try, how do they know what they might like?
PC: With the coffee, my advice is to start with what you know your current preference is. All of our coffee is roasted in-house with a lot of integrity, so whether you go for a light, medium, or dark roast, you’re going to get a really strong experience. If you’re a light roast drinker, we have a couple of single-origin options. If you want to jazz it up, we have a natural process Ethiopian light roast ($14). For those who are used to breakfast blends or just looking for a middle-of-the-road blend, our top seller is the medium roast rise-and-grind blend ($14).
RJ: For tea, as Pernell mentioned, one of the benefits beyond the taste is the health benefits. All tea has antioxidants, but some herbal teas can help with sleep, some can help with digestion…So one way to choose the tea you want is by the benefit you want it to serve. If you’re a new tea drinker, I think herbal teas are a great place to start because they’re a bit friendlier and palatable.
Well+Good: Five percent of BLK & Bold’s profits support community youth programs. Why is that important to you?
RJ: As you mentioned, we devote 5 percent of our profits to various nonprofits across the nation. These nonprofits span different missions, such as No Kid Hungry and their goal of eradicating food insecurity. Other nonprofits we support [teache youth] necessary skills so they can be successful in the future. Another organization is By Degrees, which supports youth local to us in Des Moines, Iowa.
PC: We currently have 15 partners. We’re still a startup, but our goal is to grow our contribution scale as we grow over time. The more our business grows, the more we want to be able to elevate vulnerable demographics and disadvantaged youth in America. We want to shift the mindset to conscious consumerism.
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