Black Rifle Coffee Co. supports veterans, military spouses, first responders in Niceville

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NICEVILLE — Black Rifle Coffee Co. opened at a time when ‘Help Wanted’ signs were posted in every storefront.

It still managed to hire 40 people in the span of two weeks, said Charlie Keebaugh, the franchise co-owner. It isn’t because coffee shops are immune to the employee shortage, but because almost 100% of the baristas pouring the coffee, preparing the food and stocking the popular apparel and merchandise are military veterans or military spouses.

Keebaugh is one of them, having served in the Air Force for 10 years and stationed at Hurlburt Field from 2003 to 2005. He has known Black Rifle Coffee Co. founder and CEO Evan Hafer since the company was in his garage. Hafer served 20 years in the Army as an infantryman, a Special Forces soldier and a CIA contractor.

“A couple of years ago, Starbucks said they were going to hire 10,000 immigrants, and (Hafer) went on Fox News and said, ‘Well, I'm gonna hire 10,000 veterans,’ ” Keebaugh said. “One of the goals is to employ veterans and their families … just so they have a place where they feel at home. They're around people that have similar values, similar experiences, a comfortable environment and good coffee and good food.”

The veteran-owned, military-themed Black Rifle Coffee Co. opened in September on John Sims Parkway in Niceville.
The veteran-owned, military-themed Black Rifle Coffee Co. opened in September on John Sims Parkway in Niceville.

With so many military bases in close proximity, Keebaugh could hardly think of a better place to open than in Niceville. He opened Black Rifle Coffee Co. on Sept. 27 at 510 W. John Sims Parkway.

Hours are 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

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Keebaugh didn’t embark on the endeavor alone.

He met co-founder Jarret Johnson at Bluewater Fitness. Johnson is a retired NFL player who moved to Niceville after playing college football at the University of Alabama and professionally for the Baltimore Ravens for nine years and the San Diego Chargers for three.

Jarret Johnson (right) and Charlie Keebaugh talk about their Black Rifle Coffee Co. in Niceville. The business opened in September on John Sims Parkway and carries a wide variety of coffees, accessories and clothing.
Jarret Johnson (right) and Charlie Keebaugh talk about their Black Rifle Coffee Co. in Niceville. The business opened in September on John Sims Parkway and carries a wide variety of coffees, accessories and clothing.

“I was at the gym one day and somebody told me that (Johnson) wanted to open a restaurant, so I walked up to him and said, ‘How about a coffee shop?’ ” Keebaugh said. “And he looked at me like I was crazy and then continued on with his workout.”

A week later, Johnson stumbled across a podcast episode of "The Joe Rogan Experience," featuring Black Rifle Coffee Co. founders Hafer and Mat Best. Since retiring, Johnson had listened to countless business proposals; this one intrigued him.

“The way he talked about his company was just very inspiring,” Johnson said. “I probably had two military buddies before moving here. Now all my friends are military. Their outlook on life, outlook on fitness, on pushing yourself, I just felt a really quick connection to the community. I've done a million different things; it's the first thing I've done that really fueled me.”

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Johnson didn’t fully realize the impact of the brand until they started interviewing employees.

“A couple people came in and said, ‘My husband was on some crappy farm in the middle of nowhere and the only thing he had to keep him entertained was good coffee and funny videos, and he told me that I have to come work for this company,’” Johnson said.

Many of the coffees at Black Rifle Coffee Co. draw their inspiration from the company’s military roots. The veteran-owned coffee store opened in September on John Sims Parkway in Niceville.
Many of the coffees at Black Rifle Coffee Co. draw their inspiration from the company’s military roots. The veteran-owned coffee store opened in September on John Sims Parkway in Niceville.

It reminds Johnson of the company’s roots when Hafer would sell coffee to his friends on deployments. The name originates from Hafer’s time in the CIA carrying a black rifle.

Niceville is one of only six approved franchises out of more than 20,000 applications, Keebaugh said. He spent three years campaigning for the franchise and 16 hours a day for weeks to transform the space into what it is today.

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“It's been a dream to get this going,” Keebaugh said. “When we cut the ribbon out here, it was a super emotional day. It was pretty awesome to get that far. … Now, it's turned into this amazing environment where the people love coming to work. People love coming in here and just hanging out, doing their own work.”

Now, Keebaugh washes down his breakfast burrito with a honey latte there every morning.

Johnson said he leans toward traditional drinks such as lattes and cortados, although he has developed a taste for cold brew since starting the shop. Black Rifle Coffee Co. leans toward more traditional, gourmet coffee, he said.

“The focus is on just the quality of the bean,” Johnson said. “Our espresso shots are two ounces, which is double what most coffee shops serve, so our shop is going to be way more coffee forward. We tend to be more of a darker roast, so it's a little more of a robust bean. But we do have a lot of the things that our culture has become accustomed to, the blended drinks, the syrups. … we're gonna give you a little bit, but even like our white mocha and caramel, they're just hints of the flavor.”

The third member of their leadership team, and one of the staff members who embodies what Black Rifle Coffee Co. stands for is the general manager, Johnson said. Aaron Peck served almost 15 years in the Army Special Forces.

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A photo of Peck’s friend who died in the line of duty is printed across the wall at Black Rifle Coffee Co.

“It’s just a daily reminder of what you have in life when you come in here and see some of the sacrifices on the wall,” Peck said. “It's that daily reminder of, ‘You're still here. You're still able to come get coffee every day, where a lot of people have made that ultimate sacrifice,’ and then their families can still come here and feel appreciated and feel that they're not forgotten.”

Christina Heard and Beth Hanning enjoy some coffee as they do some work at the Black Rifle Coffee Co. in Niceville. The veteran-owned, military-themed coffee shop opened in September.
Christina Heard and Beth Hanning enjoy some coffee as they do some work at the Black Rifle Coffee Co. in Niceville. The veteran-owned, military-themed coffee shop opened in September.

A bookshelf on the wall holds prosthetic legs, a piece of the Pentagon, service coins, a firefighter helmet and a slew of other mementos that honor service men and women, law officers and first responders.

“These shelves are just anybody in this community that wants to come through and if you want to put your patch down from your unit, if you want to put a memorial bracelet down, if you want to bring a picture in or a hat or whatever, just to either memorialize or just show your support, that's what it's for,” Peck said.

Peck laughs about working there now, because he went from stress coupled with adrenaline in the combat environment to stress without adrenaline in the coffee environment, he said.

“It feels great to be out, but I'm definitely very grateful to these two,” Peck said. “A lot of people that get out have a hard time moving on and finding another path in life. They brought me under their wing and we have a great relationship, the three of us. We’ve got some other retired 7th Group dudes, some retired Ranger guys. It's a really good environment.”

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Black Rifle Coffee Co. opens in Niceville; supports veterans, families

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