Yemenis in Brooklyn Reclaim High-End Coffee

Second-generation Yemeni entrepreneurs in Brooklyn want to reclaim their role as the purveyors of the original specialty coffee.,

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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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Coffee is Yemen’s “contribution to civilization dating back hundreds of years.”Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

At Qahwah House, in Williamsburg, you can sip coffee grown on a Yemeni farm that has been in the proprietor’s family for eight generations. At Asal, in Bay Ridge, you can order a cappuccino with a Yemeni honeycomb pattern inscribed in the foam. And at Diwan, in Cobble Hill, you can enjoy ancient blends spiced with cardamom and ginger in a meticulously designed space where the neo-soul vibes of Erykah Badu flow from the speakers and $90 jars of a rare Yemeni honey sit high on the shelves.

Most of the proprietors are in their 20s or 30s, and all of their businesses opened within the last few years. “After the war began, many young Yemeni-American merchants felt like they needed to help shine a light on Yemen,” Debbie Almontaser, a prominent Yemeni activist and educator from Brooklyn, said. “The best and most informative way is through coffee, our contribution to civilization dating back hundreds of years.”

The coffee plant, Coffea arabica, first bloomed in the highlands of Ethiopia, but by the 15th century, according to early European and Arab sources, it had crossed the Bab-el-Mandeb strait to Yemen, where Sufi monks transmuted the plant’s red cherries into the drink we know today. Traders spread the pips, or “beans,” throughout the Ottoman Empire and beyond, introducing them to Istanbul and Cairo, and then to Vienna and Venice and Paris.

Those bitter seeds made Yemen rich, but by the 18th century, Europeans had begun smuggling them out of the country, transporting them to colonies like Martinique and Java, where workers were forced to grow them on plantations for little or no pay. Cheap coffee flooded the market, and the Yemen coffee trade withered. By 1800, Yemen accounted for just 6 percent of the global product.

What didn’t wither was Yemen’s entrepreneurial spirit. “One thing I love about my people is that they’re determined,” said Ms. Almontaser, who helped establish a trade organization called the Yemeni American Merchants Association in 2017, a direct response to President Donald J. Trump’s crackdown on Muslim immigrants. “They come to the United States, not speaking a word of English, and put themselves in a bodega, and apprentice themselves for a minimum wage salary, and learn the business, and save their money, and start a business of their own.”

Like caffeine, she said, “entrepreneurialism is in our blood.”

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Wisam Alghuzi, left, and Jab Zanta at Diwan, their cafe on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Jab Zanta, who owns Diwan on Atlantic Avenue with his cousin Wisam Alghuzi, is exactly the kind of person Ms. Almontaser is talking about. He opened the cafe in March, when he was 30. It was possibly the worst time in the 21st century to start a business. During the bleakest days of the pandemic, he spent hours on the phone, chasing down importers, builders, plumbers, electricians, real-estate managers, customs agents and inspectors.

Some of his relatives told him that the business was sure to fail even if it survived the lockdown — there was a trendy cafe half a block away and a Starbucks around the corner. But Mr. Zanta stuck to his plan. “I had to keep going,” he said. “I wasn’t looking to lose.”

Three decades earlier, when his uncle opened a restaurant in Brooklyn serving authentic Yemeni food, people told him he would fail, too. Today the restaurant, Yemen Cafe, is something of a Brooklyn institution. It offers haneeth, a dish of slow-roasted lamb, and fahsah, a meat and vegetable stew that arrives at the table in a bubbling clay pot. What it does not offer, despite its name, is coffee. In the past, customers had to settle for tea. Now they can go next door to Diwan, where Mr. Zanta and his cousin roast coffee in the distinctive style of their ancestral village and serve it with honey-drizzled pastries baked at home by Mr. Zanta’s aunt.

Mr. Zanta, who was born in Yemen, admires what his uncle’s generation has built in Brooklyn, but he has always wanted more. In addition to the cafe, he runs a printing business that designs and produces signs for bodegas throughout the city, along with a line of popular T-shirts that say “New York” and “Brooklyn” in Arabic. He has also recorded a rap record, dabbled in film production and written a manuscript for a novel that reads something like a treatment for a mob movie about the exploits of Yemeni-American entrepreneurs who smuggle untaxed cigarettes into New York. (Parts of the story are based on his adolescent experiences; which parts, he’d rather not say.)

He has been profiting from his hustle since he was 8. His parents couldn’t afford to get him Nikes, so he drew pictures of the sneakers that he wanted and sold them to his classmates for a few dollars a piece, until he’d raised enough cash to buy the actual kicks. He has happy memories of his childhood, but when he was 10, a sort of shadow fell over his life, he said. That was the year that everything changed for the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.

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At Diwan, $90 jars of a rare Yemeni honey sit high on the shelves. Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

After Sept. 11, 2001, Yemeni-Americans throughout the city found themselves under threat. One night, someone threw a brick through a window of Hakim Sulaimani’s home; another time, a woman on the train tore off his sister’s hijab and slapped her. His parents reinforced the front door of their apartment in a metal frame and hung American flags outside. They dropped the “al” from their last name so it would sound less “terroristy,” he said.

Then, in 2017, Mr. Trump announced that he was banning the citizens of Yemen and six other Muslim countries from entering the United States. Until then, Yemeni-Americans tended to keep low profiles. As Ms. Almontaser put it, “They just did their jobs at their bodegas, went home to be with their families, sent money back to Yemen, and that was it.”

That changed on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, when more than 1,000 Yemeni New Yorkers participated in a one-day strike organized by Ms. Almontaser. All over the city, hundreds of Yemeni bodegas and restaurants and newsstands closed their doors. Mr. Zanta, Mr. Sulaimani and Mr. Sulaimani’s father were among the thousands who gathered outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall to protest the Muslim ban. Mr. Zanta recalls looking around at the sea of people waving Yemeni and American flags and thinking, “Yo, there’s something more we can do in this city besides run bodegas.”

A year later, a nonfiction best seller by Dave Eggers indicated what that something might be. “The Monk of Mokha” told the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a San Francisco doorman who made a harrowing trip back to Yemen to pursue his dream of reviving its coffee trade. As American-backed Saudi forces dropped bombs on the country, Mr. Alkhanshali escaped on a 20-foot skiff, carrying two briefcases stuffed with his homeland’s fragrant treasures. Blue Bottle, the coffee purveyor based in Oakland, Calif., later went into business with him, selling six-ounce bags of his haul for $65 each — nearly $150 a pound.

It was an amazing tale, but there were complications. After the book came out, several Yemeni-American investors sued Mr. Alkhanshali in federal court, claiming that he had cut them out of the business after taking their money. Still, his story spread across America, pollinating the imaginations of entrepreneurs like Mr. Zanta, who would later hang a framed print of Mr. Alkhanshali on the wall of Diwan. (A judge dismissed the lawsuit against Mr. Alkhanshali in 2019, writing that the case fell outside of the court’s jurisdiction.)

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A traditional Yemeni coffee pot in the window at Diwan.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Mr. Zanta and Mr. Sulaimani each hope that a day will come when Americans associate their country not with suffering and violence but with coffee and, no less important, hospitality. Although America has not always extended a warm welcome to the Yemeni people, hospitality has long been a pillar of Yemeni identity. “My grandfather’s generation won’t eat until you’re full,” Mr. Alghuzi said.

Once, when Mr. Zanta was in Yemen, a homeless woman knocked on his grandfather’s door, asking for help. Mr. Zanta watched his grandfather take her into the living room, feed her fahsah and bread, and serve her coffee. “In New York City,” Mr. Zanta pointed out with a laugh, “you ain’t doing none of that.”

Mr. Zanta and his cousin named Diwan after the guest room that can be found in every Yemeni house. Although it’s not yet clear whether their gamble will succeed in the long run, people from all backgrounds have begun making themselves at home there.

One day last month a group of regulars sat on the Yemeni-style couch that wraps around the front of the shop. Danny Meyer, a white saxophonist originally from Colorado, had just performed at an event sponsored by Diwan at the Atlantic Antic, the popular fall street fair along Atlantic Avenue’s Middle Eastern strip. “The only problem with this place is that I can never get any work done,” Mr. Meyer said as he and his wife, who is Japanese, watched Mr. Alghuzi’s wedding videos. “I always end up talking to the staff for an hour.”

A few minutes later, Frankie Light, a Black YouTube sensation known for ordering Chinese food in fluent Mandarin, walked through the door. Mr. Light had been trying to learn the Yemeni dialect of Arabic and had been going to Diwan to practice. “It’s really hard,” he said, and then he proceeded to order a pot of “qahwa” — the ancient Arabic root of the English word “coffee.”

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