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Black Rifle COO Toby Johnson’s Journey From Apache Pilot to America’s Coffee Company

Full disclosure: This article was written by Hannah Ray Lambert, of Coffee or Die. In case you didn't know, Coffee or Die is wholly owned by Black Rifle Coffee Company.


Toby Johnson jolted awake in time to see the turret of a tank pass the aperture of her Humvee window. 


We should not be driving with the tanks, the AH-64 Apache pilot thought to herself, but in the race to Baghdad in March 2003, everyone was hauling ass. She remembers it as the “Mad Max” trip — hours of driving without sleep, nothing but sand and unknowns in every direction.


Photo courtesy of Toby Johnson/Black Rifle Coffee Company.


Johnson has come a long way since that first deployment during the invasion of Iraq, rising through the ranks at major food companies before taking on a new role in August as Black Rifle Coffee Company’s chief operating officer. Her military experience, however, is key to her success and leadership style.


Although Johnson’s father was drafted and briefly stationed at West Point in the 1940s, military culture was not a feature of her childhood, and Johnson never dreamed of joining the armed forces.


Photo courtesy of Toby Johnson/Black Rifle Coffee Company.


“Especially as a woman, there's not a lot of examples of where you would look to someone and say, ‘Wow, I could be like her some day,’” she told the Black Rifle Coffee Company blog over video chat from her office in BRCC’s Salt Lake City headquarters. Dressed casually in a dark T-shirt and with her blonde hair hanging in a neat bob, Johnson exudes warmth and thoughtfulness as she recounts the moments that set her career path in motion.  


She played a lot of sports during high school in Syracuse, New York, but soccer was her true love. When West Point sought to recruit her, Johnson’s dad said, “Toby, you’re gonna love it. It’s such a great place.”


“Dad, put it out of your head,” she replied. “It’s not gonna happen.”


But she visited the campus and was struck by the combination of physical rigor, leadership, and great academics.


Photo courtesy of Toby Johnson/Black Rifle Coffee Company.


“The challenge of it was really interesting,” she said. “There's a few fork-in-the-road decisions in life that really are quite meaningful. Going to West Point was definitely one of those.”


Choosing to go into aviation was another fork-in-the-road decision. As a cadet, Johnson went on a trip to the Sinai Peninsula, which included a flight in a Huey. As she looked down at the white sand and crystal blue water, she mused that if she needed to give time back to Uncle Sam, flying would be a pretty cool way to do it. So after she graduated in 1998, Johnson headed to Enterprise, Alabama for flight school. She learned how to fly an Apache Longbow, another goal she hadn’t known to aspire to as a young girl.


Photo courtesy of Toby Johnson/Black Rifle Coffee Company.


But when Johnson deployed in January 2003 with the 3rd Infantry Division, most travel happened on the ground rather than in the skies. After landing in Kuwait, her unit raced up to Iraq. A big red circle was drawn around Baghdad on their maps, and the unit had been told Saddam Hussein would likely use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons against them if they crossed the line, Johnson said.


“The scariest parts were just a lot of the unknowns,” she said. “Everything was new. The smells, the sounds of small arms fire.”


3rd ID were the first conventional forces to reach Baghdad in early April 2003. Within days, Baghdad officially fell to US soldiers, Hussein fled, and the city was left decimated.


Looking back, Johnson is struck by how much the other pilots and soldiers in her unit meant to her, and how grateful she is that they were able to bring everyone home safely from that deployment.


Photo courtesy of Toby Johnson/Black Rifle Coffee Company.


“I loved serving in the military,” she said. “But I remember being in Iraq and looking at my battalion commander at the time, and I thought, ‘Okay, if I do everything right, 12 years from now I could be him.’”


Johnson would have been proud to serve in that capacity, but she thought about her unit of 360 soldiers and wondered what path might allow her to make a bigger mark on the world.


“Having an impact for me is one of my driving motivations,” she said. “Having as big of a positive impact as I can on people around me.”


Photo courtesy of Toby Johnson/Black Rifle Coffee Company.


So after completing the Captain’s Career Course and serving with the 21st Cavalry in Texas, Johnson transitioned out of the military in 2007, heading straight for Harvard Business School.


She dove headfirst into the world of business at PepsiCo, working her way up over 13 years and leading a team of 3,500 people as a regional vice president in the Frito Lay division. A year-long stint at Campbell’s $4 billion snacks division followed. Then another one of those fork-in-the-road moments presented itself: a chance to become chief operating officer for Black Rifle Coffee, where she already served on the board of directors.


“You don't get opportunities to work on things that you have such a passion for in life, very often,” she said, pointing to the fun, fresh approach BRCC’s founders have taken. “Evan, Matt, and JT are really savvy business people. You may not know that when you see the videos and see them having fun, but they built this out of their garages seven years ago and are charting the course into exciting new areas.”


Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.


BRCC founder and CEO Evan Hafer praised the “incredible level of agility and sophistication” Johnson brings to the COO role.


“She understands what it takes not just to build a great company, but also to serve the service community and continue to build a culture at BRCC that prioritizes veteran hiring and veteran health,” Black Rifle CEO Evan Hafer said. “She gets BRCC’s service-before-self mission because she’s been living it since her days as a cadet at West Point. We’re proud to have her on board.”


As she sets out to remove obstacles and increase efficiency, Johnson says she couldn’t have gotten this far without the “education in people” she received from the military.


“You can't underestimate the leadership experience and the amount of responsibility that you have no matter what your role has been in the military,” Johnson said. “It's so much different than just reading about leadership in a book.”


And of course, she’s enjoying a steady supply of coffee, which she drinks black. Johnson wouldn’t name a favorite blend, but said she does prefer the darker roasts.


“I haven't had a bad cup of coffee since I've joined the company,” she said, smiling.