Second-generation Yemeni entrepreneurs in Brooklyn want to reclaim their role as the purveyors of the original specialty coffee.
Hakim Sulaimani remembers exactly where he was when he first heard that his homeland, the poorest country in the Middle East, had invented one of the most popular drinks in the world.
He was sitting in the living room (which was also his bedroom) in his family’s apartment in Brooklyn, watching a children’s show on public television. When someone on the show said that coffee came from Yemen, Hakim was stunned. He had never heard anyone outside his community say anything about Yemen before, let alone something that made him proud. “I was super-hyped,” he recently recalled. “Super-giddy.”
Hakim was 7. He did not drink coffee, but he knew what it was. His father sold cup after cup of it at his bodega, and Hakim had noticed that it seemed to have a magical effect on people.
Two decades later, he went into the coffee business himself. Today, Hakim Sulaimani is the owner of Yafa Cafe in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Along with za’atar-sprinkled avocado toast and vegan blueberry muffins, he sells coffee made from beans grown on the terraced flanks of Yemen’s rugged Yafa’a mountains.
The storefront sits just down the street from the bodega where his father still works seven days a week, 12 hours a day, but there are big differences between the specialty product that the younger Sulaimani serves in delicate glasses and the regular joe that his dad still pours into those classic Greek-themed paper cups. For one thing, a 12-ounce serving of Yafa’s coffee costs $7. When customers ask why it’s so expensive, Sulaimani is happy to explain. The price, he says, reflects the cost of growing the plants in accordance with the natural methods that Yemeni farmers have employed for centuries, of compensating those farmers fairly for their labor, of navigating the challenges of importing the beans from a country mired in a civil war, and of securing the documents needed to prove that their money is really being used for all of the above.
Also, the coffee is extremely good. “The taste is complex and a little funky,” Mr. Sulaimani noted the other day, spooning precisely 20 grams of his latest blend into a ceramic pour-over device. “Sometimes you can literally taste the dirt and the air.”
Mr. Sulaimani is one of a growing number of Yemeni entrepreneurs in Brooklyn trying to claim a share of the vast profits generated by specialty coffee in recent years. In a borough full of people who will gladly pay $24 for, say, a 12-ounce bag of Kenya Gatamboya with the crop year and elevation printed on the label, they see an opportunity to make a living while honoring their heritage and contributing to Yemen’s struggling economy…
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