Yemen is known to coffee growers as the birthplace of the blessed brown stuff, but it wasn’t until San Francisco native Mokhtar Al-Khanshali visited his parents’ homeland and braved war and cultural displacement that coffee drinkers in the US were given a taste of the old-school brew. Al-Khanshali’s career as a budding coffee expert and entrepreneur got an extra jolt when bestselling author Dave Eggers told his story in last year’s gripping book The Monk of Mokha. With Yemeni coffee experiencing a resurgence through Al-Khanshali’s subscription-based Port of Mokha purveyor, and at high-end retailers for $13 a cup, we talk with the young empresario and philanthropist about his two homelands, his passions, and the drink that makes the world go round.
Al-Khanshali: I had gone when I was in middle school, after eighth grade. I grew up in an area of San Francisco called the Tenderloin, and there ain’t nothing tender about that place. It’s a rough neighborhood, so growing up there, my parents were really worried that I was going down the wrong path in life and so they took me to Yemen when was I was a teenager—I was 13—for a year. And that was my first real experience in Yemen. With a lot of sons and daughters of immigrants, you sometimes find yourself in between two worlds. Sometimes, you don’t fit in in any. So when I went back to Yemen the first time, in my mind, I thought, “Okay, you know, now I’m going back home, to my family’s home where I belong.” And I got there and I just felt really awkward. I didn’t speak the right way, the right Arabic. I didn’t walk the walk. It took a long time to do that. But ultimately, going to Yemen the first time, and the second time with my grandparents, helped me years later, because when I did go back with the coffee project, it was much easier for me to assimilate into Yemeni culture and fit in, quote-unquote. So I went in middle school, then I went after high school for a year.
Coffee came into the picture…growing up in the Bay Area, it’s hard not to meet somebody who cares about social impact and somebody who’s a foodie. There’s an incredible food culture here, so even though I was poor, I was still around food. I would eat in incredible restaurants, and a lot of my friends were foodies, and part of the environment that I grew up in was this incredibly emerging single origin coffee scene, with roasters like Blue Bottle and Four Barrel and lots of other companies, so I fell in love with coffee through that, and that’s when I first found something that connected to my family homeland and my American homeland.
No, I didn’t. Very early on, when I was younger, maybe I had an idea of being a businessman or something like that, but as I grew up, I really got more into civil rights and I was going to become a lawyer. That was the plan. My parents loved that idea, of course. So I was a paralegal for a nonprofit and I got to work with organizations like the ACLU, and I was going to become a lawyer. Coffee was the detour that I never came back from.
But all great stories have their ups and downs. I didn’t expect to wake up one day and hear all these explosions and shooting and not knowing if you’re going to see your mother again. You know, having to message my parents not knowing if I’m sending them the last message; that happened a couple times. It was very difficult living through a war, and all I knew about war was what I saw on TV and in books. Like, being kidnapped and taking a small boat across the Red Sea to Djibouti. These things make for a great story, but I feel like I’m lucky enough to be alive and I don’t think I’ve really earned all that extra credit. But it’s a journey a lot of people take to get to this country. I’m not trying to do anything other than build bridges and make an impact on both sides.
Particularly as consumers, we can always be more conscious of where we buy our things, how we consume our things. With coffee, it’s really, really an incredible journey. It crosses borders and cultures and political hardships to make its way to our cup. From farm to cup, our coffee has been touched by 20 men, and each person has a story. And we look at it and see it as a simple product that pops out of a machine at Starbucks. My story talks about that journey and why we need to be more aware it.
I got really lucky with Dave, I would say. For a while, I didn’t want to do this book; I didn’t know what he’d write about. To be able to tour around the world and go and give talks about the story of coffee; You know, the seed that comes out of this tree and has cherries…most people don’t even know there’s beans and a cherry. No one knows that it’s handpicked. So I’d just go around the world and kind of talk about that journey more. I’ve also talked to a number of people who are trying to find their way in life. Society keeps telling them that whoever has the most money, whoever has the most toys, wins. I try to tell people that you should find what fulfills you, find something that you think would benefit the world. The money will come eventually. To be honest, if money were the main factor, I would not have lasted a single day. You have to have passion.
I believe that my project will outlast these bombs and this war. If you look at a place like Rwanda, how coffee, post-genocide, really helped rebuild the country. I believe that social entrepreneurship contributes to renewing these societies. In the case of Yemen, I’ve been helping start a project to help more farmers and to serve more people. So that’s my hope moving forward, is for this to continue.
I’d say I wouldn’t change anything. I think in life, you grow up with different obstacles and moments that define you and give you character. Everyone has their ups and downs. My dad was a bus driver. We grew up with seven children in a small, one-bedroom apartment. And that helps me appreciate, much more, the privilege I have.
I think, in my late teens and early 20s, there was a period when I tried to grow up, just finish college and get a job and work in the corporate hierarchy. I would tell that version of myself to be a kid again. I think passion and creativity are very powerful, and I think those are the things we lose when we try to grow up too fast.