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EPISODE 69

From D2C to entering the Shelves of Target and Whole Foods: The Story of BLK & Bold

With Pernell Cezar, the co-founder of BLK & Bold Specialty Beverages

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Access to goods is still an issue for millions of people around the world, but recently, ecommerce has been leveling the playing field. With so many direct-to-consumer operations in business today, the average consumer has more choice and therefore more access than ever before. But there’s one industry that stands out as lagging behind this trend: Coffee. That’s one of the reasons that Pernell Cezar co-founded BLK & Bold Specialty Beverages. Pernell is a long-time coffee lover and saw an opportunity to turn that passion into a business that could also make a big social impact. Historically, coffee has been hyperlocal, but he envisioned a business model that democratized access and brought specialty coffee to everyone. The only problem was that neither Pernell nor his co-founder had any experience in the coffee business other than as consumers. 

On this episode of Up Next in Commerce, Pernell reveals how they were able to turn BLK & Bold into a nationally-distributed product, including how they turned a mission-driven ecommerce business into a retail one by securing partnerships with places like Whole Foods and Target. Plus, he explains the importance of giving potential customers multiple ways to find your product, and the value of finding mentors to help you fill in your blindspots.

Main Takeaways:

  • Stick To The Plan: Entering retail can be an exciting milestone for your business, but it’s important not to rush the process. You should have a checklist of things you want/need to accomplish in order to set yourself up for success. Whether it’s with your packaging, other partnership, or logistics, be patient and get them done because a failed retail launch is hard to come back from. 
  • The Way In: Having multiple ways and messaging for potential customers to find and want to engage with you is a great way to build a base. But when one of those ways is through a social impact mission, you have to also be sure the product quality and experience delivers. Tune in to hear how Pernell thought about striking this balance.
  • Share With The Class: When you’re just starting out, be open about what you are doing and on the lookout for anyone who might be able to help or mentor you. Small conversations can lead to critical connections that can propel you further than you’d be able to get on your own. You will have blindspots, and addressing them sooner means saving more time and money in the long run.

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

“After so much ideation around our ritualistic beverages and coffee and tea, we really decided to focus on connecting everyday consumers back to their community by way of turning those beverages into vehicles for impact.”

“The initial shock was just how massive and complex the coffee manufacturing side is. Whether you’re talking about the sourcing of beans, but also literally the manufacturing piece of it. The diversity of equipment needed, the diversity of capabilities — there’s just a ton of science that goes into the process of turning a crop, which is coffee coming from the pit of a coffee cherry plant, or a fruit from a coffee cherry plant, and turning that into this fine, ground product that you are brewing and drinking. And the nuances in between that to uphold the integrity of that is the really enjoyable part of the science that you don’t know until you peek behind the curtain, fall down the rabbit hole and the learning process begins from there.”

“When you look at part of the reason why coffee hadn’t been accessible so much in more conventional spaces, ecoms, is because of how hyper-local the product is, and the hold coffee shop culture has on people’s behaviors and what their preference is. For us, it was a matter of looking to shift the economics of how currency impacts domestic youth. And in order to do that in the commodity category, you have to be able to scale it. And if we go into shops, the margin is much tighter where it’s harder to make a sustainable contribution. But if we manufacture and we wholesale, it gives us more room to make the contribution more sustainable. And by way of that, we need to make more access and scalable environments such as retailer distribution and/or ecom. And so in thinking of that and understanding that, but knowing that we’re going after this with little to no resources, self-funded, and with our own validation and learning curves to go from that. And so we for sure launched with ecom as our fastest point of entry, but also a place to validate the concept.”

“We want consumers to still consume coffee, consume specialty coffee, but we want them to know that brand B versus their brand A actually has a different value proposition that allows you to extend your impact without really changing your behavior. And that allows us to actually become considered a lot earlier than going at it in a more conventional way. And so that was very much key for us in the sense of how do we make it easy for people to extend an impact without having to change their behavior, which allows us to then get them on board, allows us to get retailers on board, allows us to get businesses on board, all around shifting the commerce to be able to scale the impact domestically.”

“It definitely gives us a much more scalable share of voice that people can discover us a lot faster given the sensorial experience that most people usually choose coffee for.”

“[Being on Amazon] is very key to being an awareness play for us, but then we have to also come back to the reality of consumer dynamics. What does the social landscape look like? What does the economical landscape look like that’s impacting those consumers? And the focus on supporting small businesses, supporting black-owned businesses, and then the accessibility of specialty coffee. People are much more intentional about whether they want to save a dollar for Amazon or shave two days off Amazon versus support individuals that are trying to build their businesses and support them where margin is much more supportive and favorable. And we’ve seen the incrementality on both sides from consumers that are more mature on Amazon and those that are really looking to put their dollar further into the business to support the businesses during these times.”

“I think the most important piece of this is no doubt customer service and experience. What we don’t want to be is a one-trick pony in the sense of, hey, we can do these two things really well because coffee is very vast, so we don’t want to be too linear to offering only certain flavor profiles… For us, it’s a matter of continuing to diversify, evolve what the experience and options are on our platform in particular and try to drive our email list and drive as many people to our site, so we can capture and engage with them so we can continue to evolve with them on their coffee journey and make sure that our offering is healthy enough, that we can do that without gridlocking our operations and our other distribution priorities.”

“Our journey throughout 2018 and 2019 was operations, learning curve and validation of consumer marketing. We did a ton of road shows, consumer shows engaging them on the product. And the aha moments for most of them were the 5% for our youth model that we have, it wasn’t where they were introduced to us, it was supplementary validation for them. And so continuing to drive that part. But then also just understanding that there’s different engagement points.” 

“We had our first, let’s call it national launch or a major launch was with Target Corporation, at the beginning of this year in about 300 or 350 stores across the major markets within the US. The conversation and the process of having that launch was about a nine-month process from introduction to essentially the product arriving on the shelf….That nine-month journey was really about understanding the strategic vision and values and knowing that with accomplishing that, we can have a solid start together to go push it through.”

“One of the things that was hugely helpful early on as we were initially launching with literally our hearts on our shoulder was sharing what we were looking to build with some other professionals, just more mentor related people in the network. And as our informal mentors, that fortunately connected in to a formal mentor that was previously executive within the industry and just gave me a history download on how coffee and the industry came to be. And that in itself, just broadened our context more so to why you’re crossing Ts and dotting Is at every single step of the process. But to have that broader context of how the industry around you got to its point just fast-forwarded that blind spot for sure….[But] it’s important to have a broad lens on what’s working across different industries in digital in particular. And so if you rely on someone that’s hyper-focused on a particular industry, then it may mitigate you from having your antennas up to learn about other things that are working elsewhere.”

 

Mentions:

Bio:

Pernell Cezar Jr is the co-founder and CEO of BLK and Bold Specialty Beverages, an Iowa-based coffee roastery and national wholesaler of specialty coffee and loose-leaf tea-based beverages.The company was launched in 2018 with the mission to make a fundamental shift in the choices of coffee and tea consumers. To do so, BLK & Bold provides a range of innovative product options at mass retail/grocery that also extend the consumer’s social impact footprint.

Up Next in Commerce is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Respond quickly to changing customer needs with flexible Ecommerce connected to marketing, sales, and service. Deliver intelligent commerce experiences your customers can trust, across every channel. Together, we’re ready for what’s next in commerce. Learn more at salesforce.com/commerce

Transcript:

Stephanie:

Hey everyone, and welcome back. This is Stephanie Postles, and you’re listening to Up Next in Commerce. Today on the show we have Pernell Cezar. He’s the co-founder and the CEO of BLK & Bold Specialty Beverages. Pernell, welcome.

Pernell:

Thank you for having me.

Stephanie:

I’m excited to have you on the show. I actually just saw some of your coffees in a Whole Foods around here. I was like, “Hey, he’s joining us.” It was perfect timing.

Pernell:

[crosstalk 00:00:30]. I love it.

Stephanie:

I’d love to hear a little bit about BLK & Bold, what is it? And let’s dive right into your founding story because I know you have a good one.

Pernell:

Sure thing. BLK & Bold, we are a coffee roastery out of Des Moines, Iowa, founded about two and a half years ago really from the length of conversations that my childhood best friend, who’s actually my co-founder, his name is Rod. I’ll likely reference him a few times here. Him and I had just in teenagers, talking about whatever to being professionals and being time strapped and wanting to make sure that we were spending our dollars more consciously to support initiatives that we really felt we didn’t have a lot of time to put into like we wanted to.

Pernell:

After so much ideation around our ritualistic beverages and coffee and tea, we really decided to focus on connecting everyday consumers back to their community by way of turning those beverages into vehicles for impact, and in which we launched BLK & Bold with the initiative to tangibly give back to disadvantage youth by way of giving 5% of our profits back to initiatives across the US that service specifically that demographic, but then also making specialty coffee and the delicacy of coffee and tea more accessible in conventional spaces where people shop already and not have it be confined to the independent shops that exist in neighborhoods across the US.

Stephanie:

Very cool. How did you decide to start with coffee? Because I read you didn’t really have a background in that, and I was watching your video where you guys were starting it, I think, in your garage and you were trying to figure out what buttons to press and it was really fun just seeing how you really didn’t know what you were doing. How did you land on that idea and decide like, this is the one.

Pernell:

Professionally, I didn’t come from the coffee industry per se. However, as a consumer, I have user experience as a consumer. And going-

Stephanie:

You’re a pro.

Pernell:

Yeah, exactly. Going across that journey, I always call it the coffee spectrum in the sense of what you like and what you don’t like. And that’s really where the curiosity book hit us where just traveling so much professionally in one state of my career and I just became immersed with the coffee shop culture. Visiting city A, city B, city C and falling in love with these different shops but they all have different menus. And so you learn to appreciate the different tiers of coffee, especially the specialty coffee, the more premium side of things, and really enjoyed that.

Pernell:

But again, the accessibility of these different experiences or product experience that we learned was hard to consistently access. And it then became a matter of like, “Okay, well, what is this? And why is this?” And from there, it was a matter of, “Okay, well, let me see if I can make this.” And that hints the sample roaster journey back in our garage with me really just wanting to see how is this made, and the complexity of it went down the rabbit hole from there. So I always equate it to people that have heard someone’s craft brewing story and starting that journey in their basement with a few tools here and there. It’s pretty much the same approach from just a coffee junkie and wanting to learn more about it, but also have access to the different things that I was learning. So just kind of taking in our own hands.

Stephanie:

I love that. What were some of the biggest surprises when you were trying to find the beans and the equipment and all that? What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered when starting out?

Pernell:

I would say, the initial shock was just how massive, complex, the coffee manufacturing side is, whether you’re talking about the sourcing of beans, which was part of your question, but also literally the manufacturing piece of it. The diversity of equipment needed, the diversity of capabilities, there’s just a ton of science that goes into the process of turning a crop, which is coffee coming from the pit of a coffee cherry plant, or a fruit from a coffee cherry plant and turning that into this fine, ground product that you are brewing and drinking. And the nuances in between that to uphold integrity of that is really the really enjoyable part of the science that just, you don’t know until you peek behind the curtain, fall down the rabbit hole and the learning process begins from there. So it’s not as difficult to fall in love with if you’re curious, because of just the many nuances in ways it becomes an art after you get going.

Stephanie:

That’s very cool. And did you guys launch ecommerce first or were you also exploring retail as well? How did you think about that launch?

Pernell:

Sure thing. Obviously our go-to-market strategies much more cemented in our ideation of building the brand upfront. And so to make more sense out of that, for us, looking at building a brand in coffee in the modern day coffee climate, mind you pre-COVID, for modern day coffee climate where you have independent shops and then you have of course the conventional grocery isles and the lack of accessibility, but you also have ecom continuing to be ingrained in people’s lifestyle in purchasing habits every single day. But when you look at part of the reason why coffee hadn’t been accessible so much in more conventional spaces, ecoms, is because of how hyper-local the product is, and the hold coffee shop culture has on people’s behaviors and what their preference is.

Pernell:

For us, it was a matter of, well, we are looking to shift the economics of how currency impacts domestic youth. And in order to do that in the commodity category, you have to be able to scale it. And if we go into shops, the margin is much tighter where we it’s harder to make a sustainable contribution. But if we manufacture and we wholesale, it gives us more room to make the contribution more sustainable. And by way of that, we need to make more access and scalable environments such as retailer distribution and/or ecom. And so in thinking of that and understanding that, but knowing that, all right, we’re going after this with little to no resources self-funded and with our own validation and learning curves to go from that. And so we for sure launched with ecom as our fastest point of entry, but also a place where has to validate the concept.

Pernell:

And so our ecommerce platform as well as social media, the idea of … well, there’s tons of micro roasters that pop up every day, but to pop up, but also with a very different rhetoric on being this domestic impact model, we needed to find validation that consumers were interested in that as well. And so very long-winded answer to, yes, ecom was the way we started, very much part of our DNA in the sense of being ready to own our message and also provide accessibility for people given that we don’t have our own storefront.

Stephanie:

I love you started with the social impact model to derive results you wanted. How much did that really push you to think bigger and be like, “I’m not just going to go to one of the coffee shops and sell to them. We need big results with our model and to do that, we need the wholesale model. We need retailers, we need ecommerce we need like everything.”

Pernell:

Yeah, for sure. We have to believe upfront, and building a hypothesis for a business that the sediments that resonated with us on there being a void of values and tangible values that were relevant for us, that other people, if that opportunity existed, we’d align to that as well. And I guess because of that, that allowed us to really focus upfront on what channels make the most sense, I guess. And so the shift in consumer behavior and the validation from consumers shifting their behavior, I want to back up and say, not behavior more so than mindset. We want consumers to still consume coffee, consume especially coffee, but we want them to know that brand B versus their brand A actually has a different value proposition that allows you to extend your impact without really changing your behavior. And that allows us to actually become considered a lot earlier than going at it in a more conventional way.

Pernell:

And so that was very much key for us in the sense of how do we make it easy for people to extend an impact without having to change their behavior, which allows us to then get them on board, allows us to get retailers on board, allows us to get businesses on board, all around shifting the commerce to be able to scale the impact domestically. So it’s a little much of a lift for everyday people, but to have a much more relevant tangible sustained impact.

Stephanie:

Got it. And it seems like that story in that messaging definitely helped put you guys on the radar of a lot of new customers. Was that one of the key ways that you acquire new customers and they found out about you was getting that messaging out there and getting that PR out there for like what you guys stood for to then bring in new clients, or were there other tactics you used to bring in your first customer?

Pernell:

Yeah, no doubt. There’s a fine balance because for us, we look at multiple entry points or propositions for where we can be in someone’s consideration set. And then as they enter into understanding our brand and they learn more about what we stand for and ideally one if not all of them, resonate as well. And that strengthens the loyalty of if they have loyalty to the product, if they entered us through the product proposition, and/or from a brand values, and then they also love the product. And so the storyline no doubt allows for accessibility when we are introduced to someone in a non-tangible space. And so we can scale our story to impact this is normal that we’re looking to bring in the sense of domestic social impact versus someone is shopping in the coffee aisle and so forth. So it definitely gives us a much more scalable share of voice that people can discover us a lot faster given the sensorial experience that most people usually choose coffee for.

Stephanie:

Got it. And at what point did you launch on Amazon? Because I saw you guys are listed there. When did you decide it was the right time to sit on Amazon?

Pernell:

Amazon was always part of our model as well. It was a matter of the prioritization of the learning curve. We launched June 1st of 2018. We had our core coffee items that Q4 of 2018 set up. And it was really a matter of just having them active so we can learn, and kick the wheels and make sure that we’re not doing more harm being on Amazon and not for Amazon’s sake but for, again, the learning curve. And then again, transitioning into, let’s see, throughout 2019, the trial and error of learning that. But then with 2020 and prior … let’s call it, this 2019 was a matter of being digitally native, but ramping up and preparing to launch in brick and mortar.

Pernell:

And so once we got past that milestone at the beginning of 2020, of course, fast forward COVID, being on Amazon allowed us to pivot more fully into maturing, what that experience, that digital experience on Amazon looked like. And so while we were on Amazon, let’s call it about 15 months prior to launching our formal storefront. When we launched our foremost storefront in early April this year, that’s where we really were able to drive people to who we were, what we represented in a way that it was much more convertible given that people were … this shift of coffee and consumerism and accessibility changed completely of course because of COVID.

Stephanie:

Yep. So essentially you were shifting over to retail and then COVID hit, and then you were like, okay, now back to Amazon, back to our platform and you had to quickly change once the world started changing.

Pernell:

For sure. I think the benefit was that we were already digitally native and our site being the hero experience, having an extension by way of Amazon and the size of traffic and consumers they have. But no doubt when it became time to diversify our revenue streams, fortunately, we were much further ahead of the Amazon experience look like then more of the, it’s called the indie boutique micro roasters that relied on shops and didn’t have a digital experience. They had to then began the learning process as well.

Stephanie:

You were already ahead of the game.

Pernell:

Fortunately. The case study for us was a matter of, can we accelerate our awareness curve of what we stand for in order to convert enough people at a healthy enough rate that without having a shop, we can convince those consumers to purchase more coffee for home or those that were buying coffee at conventional grocery areas that the quality and the value proposition of a slightly higher price point is still worth it for them at least to get them bought in? And so the shift of COVID and the states closing and all the shops being closed, it’s completely changed the necessity of everyday people to have to purchase more for home and we were fortunate on the front end of that just from a digital standpoint. Brick and mortar as well, because of the timing of us launching was just ahead of the pandemic really showing his face, but the digital pieces was definitely huge.

Stephanie:

Yeah. Before we get into brick and mortar, I want to dive a bit more into how you sell on Amazon. How does it differ when you sell an Amazon or what are you seeing right now versus your customers that maybe buy from your website or customers that even buy from target.com or something? Do you have different messaging or what kind of things are you seeing behind the scenes?

Pernell:

We offer a singles as well as a bundles, two packs. And just from a sheer economic standpoint one of the old challenges from being a omni-channel brand that also lives on is retail price and the disruption of an everyday price with the retailer versus what he shows up on Amazon. For us, we worked through Amazon’s fulfillment centers and allows us to control the price, but from a bundle standpoint, it allows us to ensure that we have the same product proposition, but in no way shape or form any pricing activity would disrupt because they are from a item count standpoint, different experiences. And so that was a core piece of how we stood up our business initially, and some of our bundle items do better than our singles. The ones that don’t do better do about just as strong.

Pernell:

And so seeing people go on Amazon really as a basket builder, it has been huge. And even from an awareness play on the amount of users that Amazon has, we focus specifically our consumer acquisition on Amazon platform. So we don’t really focus on driving people to Amazon because there’s so much space to play and win within Amazon as we’re still early on as well. To the other pieces, as our site continue to build, we have seen pure incrementality from the Amazon platform where we don’t see the shift of trading one consumer from one to the other. It’s very key to being an awareness play for us, but then just, we have to also come back to the reality of consumer dynamics. And what does the social landscape look like? What does the economical landscape look like that’s impacting those consumers? And the focus on supporting small businesses, supporting black-owned businesses, and then the accessibility of specialty coffee.

Pernell:

People are much more intentional about whether they want to save a dollar for Amazon or shave two days off Amazon versus support individuals that are trying to build their businesses and support them where margin is much more supportive and favorable. And we’ve seen the incrementality on both sides from consumers that are more mature on Amazon and those that are really looking to put their dollar further into the business to support the businesses during these times.

Stephanie:

Yep. That’s great. Your users on Amazon, do they seem stickier? Because I often think about like, when I’m checking out whether it’s through using Whole foods or whatever on Amazon, they always give me the recommendations or they’re like, “You’ll just buy this again.” And I’m very quick to be like, “Okay, sure.” And it seems like I’m a very sticky user when it comes to reorders. How does that customer profile from your Amazon customers seem to differ from people who are maybe just going direct to your website because they want to make sure to support the business and the message and they understand that by going there directly, it’s probably going to help margins and the story behind it.

Pernell:

To a certain degree, our engagement is really high on our platform and with our community and our email list as well as on social. And so we get a lot of stickiness from our existing community and bringing them in. And so from an anecdotal read, there’s just a significant amount of loyalty, not just to what we’re doing, but what we’re offering. And our subscription business is really strong on our site. When we do drop new launches, we also see a quick adoption on those as well, and so we have much more flexibility on those. Just launched a limited edition collection just ahead of the holiday season. We’re able to fluidly do that where in Amazon, while it’s not a brick and mortar, you still have to have much more lead time built into that versus being nimble as a small business.

Pernell:

And so even in putting something else that adds a little bit more complexity, it’s incremental from a experience, from a product standpoint. Our consumers also still highly converted on that even though we have a strong subscription business. The Amazon piece is, what we see is also very sticky, but we still have much more conventional tactics on whether it’s a prize promotion here or there or the affiliate programs that come from press that are driving the Amazon. We see those strong conversion pickups as well. But I would say again from an incrementality, we are pleased with the learnings that we have right now from the stickiness of it, but at the end of the day, we still from the recording of today, we are still, in this pandemic and trying to navigate life through it and the loyalty from coffee isn’t going away anytime soon. And so I think people, wherever they’re most comfortable with shopping are still highly susceptible to converting because they know that they need that fuel.

Stephanie:

Yeah. I think that’s smart as you were mentioning to develop a different kind of experience on your website, not only with subscriptions, but also limited edition drops. So you get early access to and developing that community seems key. How do you go about, not only curating and developing a community, but also keeping them engaged for that longterm?

Pernell:

Yep. No doubt. I think the most important piece of this is no doubt customer service and experience. What we don’t want to be is a one trick pony in the sense of, hey, we can do these two things really well because coffee is very vast. And as I mentioned earlier, the spectrum of coffee is really wide. And so we don’t want to be too linear to offering only certain flavor profiles whereas as people either discover new brands or their options of how they safely access their daily fix of coffee or caffeine, that we then follow it lower in the consideration, or we just have to lean on whatever consumer habits that they had in the current, but we’ll then be in the past.

Pernell:

And so for us, it’s a matter of continuing to diversify, evolve what the experience and options are on our platform in particular and try to drive our email list and drive as many people to our site, so we can capture and engage with them so we can continue to evolve with them on their coffee journey and make sure that our offering is healthy enough, that we can do that without gridlocking our operations and our other distribution priorities.

Stephanie:

Let’s talk a bit about retail. You’re in some good stores. I saw you’re in Whole Foods, Target, and I was reading a bit about how you got in front of these retailers. I think you were going to sourcing call events where they had like pop-up events. And I was wondering, how did you get in front of these retailers? How did you peak their interest and what was that process like?

Pernell:

For sure. A big piece of BLK & Bold and my co-founder and I bringing this to life was our formal background prior to. We launched this in our 30s, our early 30s and Rod’s background being in philanthropy and fundraising with higher education healthcare, and mine being in corporate merchandising, brand business development around packaged goods. And so the lens that we took to the white space of coffee was a by-product of what lanes exists within coffee. And the understanding that the accessibility gap was huge when you stepped out of a premium specialty coffee shop that’s in neighborhood A somewhere, and trying to carry that across the country. And so, understanding that we know where the opportunity is, which again, ecom retailer shelves, now we have to build something viable enough that allows for them to consider us from whatever the right starting point is and from the way those retailers test or minimally launch.

Pernell:

And so our journey throughout 2018 and 2019 was operations, learning curve and validation of consumer marketing. We did a ton of road shows, just consumer shows engaging them on the product. And the aha moments for most of them were the 5% for our youth model that we have. It wasn’t where they were introduced to us. It was supplementary validation for them. And so continuing to drive that part. But then also just from formal background within retail, understanding that there’s different engagement points. We are a certified minority business enterprise, which is a national certification organizations out like that, where they have shows and tons of industries that attend these to meet diverse or minority owned businesses. And fortunately for us, we have visibility to select retailers that attended these as well.

Pernell:

In addition to digital platforms, there’s one called a RangeMe for those that are not familiar, that is a virtual marketplace for all packaged goods brands and merchants, which is hyper dependent in today’s climate, where corporate is not allowing people to travel. And so knowing where to start and having something viable was number one. Number two is being a student of those retailers isles. Understanding who was in the competitive space, how long they were there, what a swarm in they were there for so you can understand what their core consumer was, but then what value proposition do we incrementally bring for that merchant? What problem are we solving for that merchant? And so that was a big piece of when we had our opportunity to engage with these different retailers. Target, for an example, we understood what value proposition we were looking to bring to them. The conversation from there became a matter of readiness operationally, organizationally, to be able to launch and sustainably start with intention, of course, sustainably growing.

Stephanie:

And was there a bit of back and forth with the retailers when they were like, “We’re interested, we love your model, the coffee is great.” Were they giving you any guidance on, here’s what we think will do well on the shelves or here’s how to set yourself apart, or was that really all on you guys to do the research, figure it out and present, here’s some maybe new packaging that we think will do well at Whole Foods?

Pernell:

Yup. For sure. It definitely, it can be either way. We had our first, let’s call it national launch or a major launch was with Target Corporation, at the beginning of this year on about 300 … it was 350 stores across the major markets within the US. The conversation and the process of having that launch was about a nine month process from introduction to essentially the product arriving on the shelf. And this was from our social media engagement and fortunately word of mouth being passed on to Target for a show that they were having, we received an invite and we were fortunate to have an introduction with the coffee buyer and allowed us to further the conversation, this is not only our business model, but our case, the consumer that we’re looking to capture and the incrementality of that consumer to retail.

Pernell:

But then, thereby also helped us understand where our strategic priorities were in a sense of how this space is set up and where there may be room to identify the incrementality if it’s really there. And so the feedback on just the core consumer that we’re going after and aligning on that was very real. And quite honestly, for us, while we had that opportunity to have the connection and the conversation, we knew we weren’t ready because where our packaging was, we had a checklist of key things that we wanted to accomplish before we entered onto a shelf, so we can have our best foot forward, and we were halfway through that checklist. And so the merchant said, “Hey, well, when do you think you’re ready? Well, here’s the key things that we need to accomplish.”

Pernell:

B Corp certification was one, which was, we hadn’t got through the finish line on it yet, and the rebrand on packaging and also some of our operational scalability. And so that nine month journey was really with, understand the strategic vision values and knowing that with accomplishing that, we can have a solid start together to go push it through. In January with that launch then gave us the opportunity to credibly approach other merchants with some understanding that we were already vetted and well equipped to enter into their shelves as well if we had the same alignment on the value proposition. So the Whole Foods conversation was a lot more in the sense of, “Hey, we see what you’re doing here. Here’s some of the assortment that you have that we think will work really well is some feedback on what may not be yet, but let’s get started and let’s find out together.”

Pernell:

And so it was much more collaborative in the starting point and from my experience, that’s exactly what you want. If you’re pitching to retailers with the hope that they will take whatever you’re pitching, I made the perfect vision, they didn’t ask me a question, they’re going to take it. Where the risk is that they don’t understand enough of where your blind spots may be, and you’re all going to find out-

Stephanie:

Yeah, you want to partner.

Pernell:

Yeah. You all are going to find out together and that’s the last thing, because it’s really expensive to back out of distribution. So any who.

Stephanie:

That’s so smart. I love the idea that you had the checklist going into it and you were open with Target, like, here’s the things that we need to knock out. Tell me a bit more about what else was on that checklist and why were they important? Like why were you looking to have that B Corp certification and what else was on the checklist on top of that?

Pernell:

Sure thing. The B Corp I would say is a major one. I have to remember some of the smaller ones, but the B Corp was a major one mainly from being in retail. And once you learn about B Corp, it’s hard to unsee it. But it being a … it’s essentially a independent organization that certifies businesses, those that value stakeholders equivalent with shareholders. And so being for-purpose being equally as important as for-profit and you have organizations like Ben & Jerry’s, Tom Shoes, Warby Parker, Patagonia, these major organizations that are all at B Corp, they continue to move into improving society while again, building sustainable businesses.

Pernell:

And for us with, having this domestic social impact focus, the model doesn’t exist. It’s unfortunate it doesn’t, but that’s also a core reason of why we decided to go into this space. And knowing that, given that it doesn’t exist and at the scale that we have to start at, we want it to be taken serious to our consumers and our stakeholders on the intention of where we’re going while we work on getting there. And so with the launch into retail and being on the national stage, we took it various cities to make sure that we have third party validation vetted out already for us, for people that can engage with the brand.

Stephanie:

I don’t know much about court structures. Are there also benefits that come with being a B Corp?

Pernell:

Yep. There’s different tiers of … you can incorporate it as a B Corp if your state has that as a legal option. And that I think there’s definitely a different tax implications for being a legal B Corporation. And then there for states that don’t, and this is the way that it was initially set up is that there’s a certification and you’re certified by, it’s called B Labs, which is the umbrella organization. So you’re certified by B Labs. And then as they continue to build momentum and further penetrate their models where the states began to allow it to be a legal entity structure.

Stephanie:

Got it. And then tell me a bit about, so you’re getting into these new retail locations and you’re working on your packaging and getting certifications. Tell me about how you guys are preparing for the orders. What were you doing behind the scenes with distribution and logistics and setting up partnerships? What did that look like?

Pernell:

Chaos.

Stephanie:

Craziness to say the least.

Pernell:

Yep. Chaos. Again, self-funded bootstrap and never want to put the cart before the horse was really a matter of trusting our forecast and building enough bandwidth to at least get through the initial hump of a national launch. And so then instead of today, we do everything in-house. We source and we work with our importers. They move the goods right with export departments, but we are identifying what origins we want to source through. We’re doing all of the testing cupping and validating the integrity of what we’re putting into our product. We micro roast in-house, we package in-house and we work we shipping partners to get goods out the door.

Pernell:

And so at the time, we had graduated from the garage and in to a shared production space with a local brewery. That’s where we had our commercial roaster and we essentially had to tighten up our ship, bring onboard a few individuals that had coffee background in roasting and packaging to help us get the Target launch out of the door. And so that was a mad hustle because again, it was, here’s what we are, here’s the bandwidth we have, we’re going a 100% capacity, sometimes a little bit more than that to get the launch out of the door with the intention of sourcing a new location that we can grow into. And so, fast forwarding that story, we had identified a location and we’re closing the deal in March. And of course pandemic changed all of that. And so we found ourselves still running idol in that location for a while, but it wasn’t with a bevy of orders and things until we started getting further into the summer. And that’s when we got flooded in that space with orders go on and so forth.

Stephanie:

If you were to look back and change anything, what things would you have done different if you were to start again? And it can’t be everything. You just got to pick me like, there’s this one thing when I was setting up my partners or distribution or with the retailers I would’ve maybe done this differently.

Pernell:

It’s tough because there’s been too many reasons because there’s so many learnings and it sounds so cliche, and that’s why I was trying to prevent it sounds so cliche, but there are so many learnings that if I didn’t learn them then I’m going to have to learn them later and I just don’t know it yet. Because we are continuously learning and it’s not just about coffee, but it’s about, you’re in a space where we are looking to win over over the longterm consumers into not only what product was selling, but the impact that we’re selling and there’s so many curves along the way. And so I am happy to have the learnings that we do have in the bank checked off. I think more so it’s a matter of how do we continue to broaden our view to mitigate blind spots?

Pernell:

What I would say is one of the things that was hugely helpful early on as we were initially launching with literally our hearts on our shoulder was sharing what we were looking to build with some other professionals, just more mentor related people in the network. And as our informal mentors, that fortunately connected in to a formal mentor that was previously executive within the industry and just gave me a history download on how coffee and the industry came to be. And that in itself, just broadened context more so than why you have to, you’re crossing Ts and dotting Is and every single step of the process. But to have that broader context of how the industry around you got to its point just fast forwarded that blind spot for sure. I would just try to color it all in.

Stephanie:

Do you have other mentors right now that you rely on or that help when it comes to guidance or showcasing what else is happening in the industry or ecommerce as a whole that you lean on?

Pernell:

Yes and no. Informal, for sure. Students of work, without a doubt. I think it’s important to have a broad lens on what’s working across different industries in digital in particular. And so if you rely on someone that’s hyper-focused on a particular industry, then it may mitigate you from having your antennas up to learn about other things that are working elsewhere. But I’d say informal, yes. But tapping into what’s working for them and learning from there, it’s really hard. This may be a me statement, but I’m sure it may resonate with someone else out there. It’s really hard to move at the speed of entrepreneurship and startup, and to have someone that isn’t as intimate with your business to give you specific guidance on building the business more so than giving you more visibility to things that work and that exist. So it allows you to be able to align closer and jumping into rabbit holes further that you know may be in the path where you’re going. So much work is done offline that having visibility of things allow you to dive into it without having to bottleneck someone else’s time and do it.

Stephanie:

I think that’s really good advice. And a mentor might fail to give you a higher ideas or industry level things or maybe connections but I think it’s the same thing when it comes to investors, the second someone starts giving you like really nitty-gritty advice on what you should do, you might want to be a little wary of that because you know your business best and you know where you’re headed. What’s next for BLK & Bold. Where are you guys headed? What are you betting on right now?

Pernell:

Sure. We’re still young and awareness is still important, accessibility is still important. The more traction we get, the more we can further cement our contribution model. Now that we’ve kept the door open, even minimally in the product assortment that we do exist in, the more immediate is to continue to round out our accessibility, but with our key partners that have strategic alignment with us. And so we have retailers that we’re on board with today, Target, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee in the Midwest and we’re rounding out a few more that have shown very important strategic alignment with us. But then we’re also looking to diversify outside of just retail shelves and moving into food service that allows us to have more B2B contracts that are now consumer adoption, but also businesses to help further the impact which ultimately helps drive consumer awareness as well.

Pernell:

And so from a ecom standpoint, home base is home base. And so we’re going to continue to pour into our website to be more proactive in how we drive engagement, but also acquisition. And also, we’re selling a tangible good. And so while that’s key and that’s great, we also have to look at supply chain, all the efficiencies, but innovation that’s out there to allow for us to continue to connect and win with convenience and accessibility from what that means from a D2C space as well. We got some ideas under our belt on some strategic partnerships that can allow us to further that. But without a doubt, continuing to further develop our D2C. And the more important pieces that help our community better be more transparent with how we are building and continue to support from an impact model, but also to build more loyalty for that come in to see it in action.

Stephanie:

That’s awesome. I’m excited to see, especially that B2B piece too. I think that could be such a strong partnership. I used to work at Google and I think about the road shows they would do and having companies come and all the employees would test out the coffees and the chocolate and all that. And that could be huge and very smart partnership to have that B2B angle in there.

Pernell:

No doubt.

Stephanie:

All right. We have a couple minutes left. Let’s move over to the lightning round, brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. This is where I’m going to send a question your way and you have a minute or less to answer. Are you ready for now?

Pernell:

We’ll find out. Let’s do it.

Stephanie:

All right. What’s up next on your Netflix queue.

Pernell:

Gosh, I just googled this yesterday. The Undoing. I think that’s what it’s called. We just ran through all the Schitt’s Creek. So TBD on Netflix.

Stephanie:

All right, there you go. And I’ve got Hilary in this document say, “It’s amazing, and it’s on HBO.” So that works.

Pernell:

Love it.

Stephanie:

All right. What’s next on your reading list?

Pernell:

Oh my gosh. Besides emails?

Stephanie:

Yes. Besides emails. It doesn’t count.

Pernell:

Oh man. It’s a great question. I digest so much content through just online, but if I’m looking at something tangible, it might literally be a roasters magazine.

Stephanie:

That’s great. We have not had anyone say a roasters magazine.

Pernell:

Yeah. In the anecdotal know of what’s going on.

Stephanie:

That was perfect. If you were to have a podcast, what would it be about, and who would your first guest be?

Pernell:

Oh, goodness. First guest would be Rod, my partner. What it would be about? I don’t know, the random things we come up with throughout a day, which is a plenty, and most people don’t get to see or experience. You’re building something with a best friend you have for over 20 years. You can only imagine the randomness that comes about within a day.

Stephanie:

Oh my gosh. I love that. I could see that being really fun. Pernell and Rod’s musings.

Pernell:

Love it. Love it.

Stephanie:

That’s great. What topic or trend or theme do you not understand today that you wish you did?

Pernell:

That I don’t, that I wish. Oh my gosh. This sounds terrible, but Twitter. I tried to figure out my Twitter game early on when everyone else was, and I was just too loyal to Facebook. And now here I am still trying to figure out how to not tweet on the wrong thing or something.

Stephanie:

Me too. Well, what’s your Twitter handle? We’ll get you some followers there.

Pernell:

It’s Pernell Cezar. [crosstalk] name.

Stephanie:

Oh my gosh, you don’t even know.

Pernell:

Yeah, I don’t.

Stephanie:

Well, that’s the problem Pernell, you don’t even know your handle. I actually don’t know if I know mine either. We’ll link it up in the show notes. There you go.

Pernell:

Okay. Appreciate it.

Stephanie:

All right. Then the last one, what one thing will have the biggest impact on ecommerce in the next year? And it can’t be COVID.

Pernell:

I know that’s right. That’s a good point. From a good standpoint, I do think supply chain, speed of delivery on native sites and not having to be relying on third party commerce platforms. We know the behemoths, they in-house a lot of that and they have major contracts that do that. But the comeback of boutique independence and owning their future I think really be a by-product of independent supply chain companies doing the same thing. So again, from a packaged goods or a tangible product lens, but I think BLK & Bold can deliver something in a matter of hours and not having to rely on Amazon, that just drives that much more engagement and loyalty for the longterm.

Stephanie:

That’s great. Cool, great answer. All right. Pernell, well, I’ve had a blast talking to you on here. Where can people try out some BLK & Bold and learn more about you other than Twitter? They shouldn’t go there right now.

Pernell:

Yeah, don’t go there. But on social media platforms, BLK & Bold, spelled B-L-K and Bold, and then our website, blkandbold.com.

Stephanie:

Awesome. Thanks so much Pernell. It was a blast.

Pernell:

Yeah, same here. Thank you.

 

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