Is the Black Rifle Coffee Company also getting woke and going broke?
Like most Americans, Evan Hafer experienced the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol from a distance, watching it unfold on his television and his iPhone from Salt Lake City. What he saw did not surprise him. Hafer, who is 44, voted for Donald Trump. He was even open at first to the possibility that Trump’s claims of sweeping voter fraud were legitimate, until William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, declared in early December that he could find no evidence that such fraud occurred. Still, Hafer told me recently, “you’re told by the commander in chief for months that the election was stolen, so you’re going to have a group of people that are really pissed.” While he disapproved of those who stormed the Capitol, he didn’t believe that they or their actions constituted a real threat to the republic. “I’ve seen an insurrection,” said Hafer, a former Green Beret and C.I.A. contractor who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I know what that looks like.”
But Hafer’s distance from the incident collapsed that same afternoon, when he was alerted to a picture taken by a Getty photographer in the Senate chamber that immediately went viral. The photo showed a masked man vaulting over a banister holding several sets of plastic restraints, an apparent sign that the insurrectionists planned to take lawmakers hostage. The unidentified man, soon dubbed “zip-tie guy,” was dressed in a tactical vest, carried a Taser and wore a baseball hat with an image of an assault rifle silhouetted against an American flag — a design sold by the Black Rifle Coffee Company, of which Hafer is the chief executive. “I was like, Oh, [expletive],” he recalled. “Here we go again.”
Black Rifle was founded in 2014 by Hafer and two fellow veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and who were enthusiastic enlistees in America’s culture wars too. The company billed itself as pro-military, pro-law enforcement and “anti-hipster.” Early customers could download a shooting target from the company’s Facebook page that featured a bowtied man with a handlebar mustache. Its early coffees included the Silencer Smooth roast and the AK-47 Espresso blend. During Trump’s presidency, Black Rifle’s gleeful provocations grew more directly political. It endorsed Trump’s Muslim ban and bought Google ads based on searches for “Covfefe.” (“They should be running Trump’s comms shop,” the alt-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec wrote in a tweet praising the Google maneuver.) Before long, Black Rifle became the unofficial coffee of the MAGA universe, winning public endorsements from Sean Hannity and Donald Trump Jr.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, noted that Black Rifle apparel was a recurring feature in footage of last summer’s anti-lockdown and anti-Black Lives Matter demonstrations in various states. When Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager who is charged in the fatal shootings of two people at a B.L.M. protest last August in Kenosha, Wis., was released on $2 million bail in November, his first post-jail photo showed him wearing a Black Rifle T-shirt. (Rittenhouse used a black Smith & Wesson AR-15-style rifle in the shootings.) Elijah Schaffer, a reporter and host for Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media, whose “Slightly Offensive” podcast was sponsored at the time by Black Rifle, tweeted the picture with the message “Kyle Rittenhouse drinks the best coffee in America” and a promotional code for Black Rifle’s website.
In this context, the appearance of Black Rifle merchandise at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was not exactly shocking. Nevertheless, Mat Best, the company’s 34-year-old executive vice president, insists that Black Rifle was singled out unfairly. “Every brand, name the brand, it was probably there: Walmart jeans, Nike shoes,” he said. “And then it’s like one patch from our company. There’s certain terrorist organizations that wear American brands when they go behead Americans. Do you think they want to be a part of that? And I’m not drawing a parallel between the two. I’m just simply saying there are things in business, when you grow, that are completely outside your control.”
It was several months after Jan. 6, and Best and Hafer were revisiting the episode in Black Rifle’s offices in Salt Lake City — a converted warehouse with a lot of black metal and reclaimed wood, as well as concrete floors stained in a swirly light-brown pattern that Hafer calls “spilt latte.” Best, a former Army Ranger who stands over six feet and has the physique of an Ultimate Fighting Championship contender, recalled the initial internet rumors that he himself was “zip-tie guy,” who was later identified as a considerably smaller man named Eric Munchel, a 30-year-old Tennessean recently employed by a Kid Rock-themed bar and restaurant in Nashville. “I was like, ‘That guy’s a buck forty and five-seven!’” Best said in mock umbrage.