Des Moines-based BLK & Bold coffee collabs with Marvel Studios, Target on ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ packaging

BLK & Bold coffee on sale at Target — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Black coffee just got Blacker with a promotional partnership alongside one of the biggest movie releases of the year.

Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever product collection features Des Moines’ own BLK & Bold coffee, founded by Rod Johnson and Parnell Cezar — two best friends from Gary, Indiana who moved to Des Moines to grow their business.

BLK & Bold says they are “proud to be a licensed partner for Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” For the collection, the Black-owned coffee company offers special edition Wakanda Forever-themed packaging on three products: Smoove Operator, Rise & GRND, and Rise & GRND Keurig K-Cups.

Wakanda Forever is a sequel to 2018’s Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 18th entry and first film with a Black writer-director, Black lead and predominately Black cast. The film was a commercial and critical success, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and becoming the ninth highest-grossing film of all time.

Ryan Coogler returned to write and direct the sequel, but the Black Panther himself could not. Celebrated T’Challa actor Chadwick Boseman died in August 2020 after a four-year battle with colon cancer. Rather than recast the iconic hero, Wakanda Forever sees T’Challa’s loved ones and allies — Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Ramonda (Angela Bassett), M’Baku (Winston Duke) and other new and returning characters — fight to protect Wakanda in the wake of their king’s death.

Right on Target

BLK & Bold’s path to becoming a licensed partner with Marvel Studios began with Target. BLK & Bold minted a retail partnership with Target in early 2020; Cezar said the company has been “very intentional about how we grow together.” BLK & Bold coffee is now available at Target stores nationwide, a monumental turning point for their brand, Johnson told Little Village.

“That was a moment that was like, this is real! We talked about how long these deals are in the works, at least a year in most cases, and then for it to finally manifest … There is a little bit of fatigue that happens but … this was worth it. It has culminated to exactly what we envisioned.”

Target had their own promotional partnership with Marvel Studios, and introduced BLK & Bold to Marvel Studios a year ago as part of their storewide Wakanda Forever product collaboration.

To impress Marvel, Johnson and Cezar said made sure they dotted their Is and crossed their Ts.

“We’ve had some fun, very game-changing, but also high-workload partnerships. This might be the highest just because you’re working with Marvel, and Marvel’s a subsidiary of Disney, and the level of global reach they have, and compliance required,” Johnson said.

“Just knowing the weight of this property, we were very hopeful that we can be qualified from our capabilities enough to pursue that opportunity,” Cezar said. “And every key milestone that we hit, we know shit is getting more real. Like, we actually might be able to pull this thing off!”

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“It’s awesome,” Johnson added, “We are working with Marvel, we have an opportunity to help promote and collaborate with the movie that has meant so much to us personally, to the culture.”

The experience of seeing Black Panther in 2018 with other Black moviegoers was communal and joyful, Johnson said, making their role in promoting the sequel “bittersweet.”

“We showed up and showed out for that. So, you definitely rejoice in knowing that you’re going to be a part of that legacy. But then on the back end, what is it going to take to make sure we do right by the opportunity?”

Co-founders of BLK & Bold and also best friends Parnell Cezar and Rod Johnson taken by photographer Tobias “Borg” Tyler, courtesy of BLK & Bold

Cezar took inspiration from the words of a Black Panther star.

“Winston Duke had mentioned that the movie gave them the freedom to just be as a Black people, and reimagine what life could have been like in a society that fully empowers Black people and is centered around Black people. His point is like, what’s more liberating than freedom? And I think it’s a great correlation to, I’d say, the role that we have in any partnership that we bring to market.”

“But in particular, with this one, I think it really hit home for us,” he continued. “A lot is the ability to allow other people to imagine what partnerships could be and bigger partnerships could be with Black businesses — for Black businesses and the Black community to imagine what they want to see out of other businesses, but also for their businesses.”

BLK & Bold’s origins

The two didn’t necessarily start out wanting to be coffee purveyors. Johnson didn’t even drink coffee before co-founding a business around it, looking distastefully upon the Starbucks-centric industry.

“You go to your normal coffee shop and it’s like, ‘Hey, can I have some coffee with my whipped cream and my caramel’ and all those other things. So, my starting point was much further than where P’s was,” said Johnson, who, it should be noted, was drinking a cup of BLK & Bold coffee during his interview with Little Village.

“I just didn’t think about coffee in the purest way. But kudos to P for having the curiosity to find and build upon that.”

Cezar felt pulled towards coffee after visiting a coffee shop in California so regularly that he was offered a job. Like Johnson, he prefers a well-made cup of black coffee.

“The notes of black coffee, if it’s fresh, you can taste it as it cools down and it has its own personality to it, its own taste personality to it.”

Cezar loves the whole experience of coffee, including studying the maturity of the coffee beans, bean DNA and the roasting process.

BLK & Bold coffee beans inside of the warehouse — Courtney Guein/Little Village

While Cezar loves the journey to making a great bag of coffee, Johnson is more drawn to the product itself.

“My favorite part of roasting is not going to be on the actual cooking of the beans,” he said. “I enjoy the finished product because that’s where I feel like I add the most value. I think that people add a different perspective in the tasting process so, it’s just very nuanced.”

An assortment of BLK & Bold coffee — Courtney Guein/Little Village

With Cezar’s curiosity and Johnson’s taste buds, the pair worked to create both obsessive drinkers and coffee skeptics can appreciate.

“For us, we just look to make sure that we build an offering of coffee that welcomes everybody. We always try to move people a little bit further from where they are to service you where you are and allow you to grow on the spectrum if you so choose,” Cezar said.

A super friendship

The more than 20-year friendship between Cezar and Johnson formed the basis of their current success.

“It is that friendship that our business has been built upon … that’s the beauty of being in this business, is that you have somebody who you have a background where you have inside jokes with you just have a sense of camaraderie. And I think that lends itself to the success that we’ve been able to amass to this point,” Johnson said.

Cezar adds that their strong friendship began in their hometown of Gary, Indiana.

“We realize that when you move from Gary, which a lot of people have not been fortunate to, how fortunate we were, and then to have our career journeys. To Rod’s point, it’s always been at the foundation of our relationship. Our conversations as we grew up more as adults, and our daily frustrations that any typical adult friendship is based on … We’ll be sharing frustrations, and then us knowing each other for so long, we also have high level accountability to each other.”

Johnson credits Cezar for their move to Des Moines.

Cezar attended the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, where he met his wife. “As we started raising our family, we had our first kiddo, we found ourselves back in Iowa. It’s the plight of many people, especially spouses that transplant to Iowa, is that they have a significant other that has roots in the state.”

That wasn’t Cezar’s only reasoning for creating a home in Iowa, though. He, like others, saw what was possible in Des Moines for future endeavors.

“When you’re talking about just domestication, it’s a great place to be able to have more control of the external variables. And that also gave the liberty to focus more on entrepreneurship because we have more control of time, resources, and it’s less of a crowded competitive environment than the other major markets that coffees’ in,” he explained.

Johnson says the move was smart for business, though, “I’m not going to lie to you and say I was looking to move here.”

Being able to collaborate with his best friend in person, instead of a phone call or plane ride away, has been crucial, he said.

BLK & Bold’s co-founders Rod Johnson and Parnell Cezar photographed by Tobias “Borg” Tyler, courtesy of BLK & Bold

“It’s helped deepen our relationship as friends and that’s really the core of what this business has been built upon. So, while it wasn’t my first, second or third choice to be here, I’m here. I am grateful that of what has come. There’s value in me being here, and the community has really wrapped its arms around our story and being able to feel that is something that you can’t replicate.”

Johnson smiles remembering times patrons told him they’re inspired by him, or feel pride in the fact BLK & Bold is local yet nationally known.

“That’s just invigorating, right! It’s hella motivating to have people really come and tell you that you touched them in a way that motivates them,” he said.

Looking at BLK & Bold’s success, Des Moines seems to be a great pick after some trial and error in other places. “We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of manifestation from staying true to who we are and standards of brands. And truly what it is from a value standpoint,” Cezar said.

Beyond the beans

A part of Cezar’s and Johnson’s mission is helping at-risk youth. BLK & Bold donates 5 percent of their profits to about 15 organizations across America that are focused on supporting youth, including college, health, mentorship and more.

“The goal was to pour into the demographic that is most vulnerable, and not be so narrowly focused on one thing over the other,” Johnson said.

In Des Moines, they support the By Degrees Foundation to strengthen the pipeline from high school to college. “Anybody that participates in their program, they can unlock funds that make going to college a reality,” Johnson said.

“Since our inception, we have donated over $100,000 to those respective organizations and we’ll continue to double down on that pledge,” he continued. “So we were very intentional about making sure that our social impact was correlated with the growth of the company. Rather than another model, there’s a percentage of our profits so as BLK & Bold grows, so does the impact that we have.”

BLK & Bold donates 5% of their proceeds to at risk youth throughout the country — Courtney Guein/Little Village

With the business going nowhere but up, Johnson said it’s important to stop and smell the coffee and celebrate their Marvel-lous new collaboration.

“You definitely rejoice in knowing that you’re going to be a part of that legacy,” he said. “I think it’ll be impactful in all the positive ways. People will be able to find a sense of pride. There’ll be some level of identification with that collaboration. I hear anecdotally from people that I’ve run into how meaningful it is for them. So, I think that it’s something that I’m hoping continues. I’m not saying that were the first, but I damn sure hope that was not the last collaboration or partnership of that kind.”

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever hit theaters nationwide on Nov. 11. Black Panther special edition BLK & Bold specialty coffee is available on their website and at Target, online and in-store.