When Mokhtar Alkhanshali first dreamed of reviving the glorious coffee heritage of Yemen, he had never sipped a cup of the fancy joe that baristas pour.
The 24-year-old was working as a doorman at a San Francisco luxury apartment building, pondering how to cover his debts and move forward. But, incredibly, within a few years he brought that dream to life, overcoming one onrushing obstacle after another, including being taken into custody at gunpoint multiple times.
There’s a long list of people for whom I would enthusiastically recommend Dave Eggers’ “The Monk of Mokha,” his nonfiction chronicle of Mokhtar’s success: people who love coffee, because the book is filled with fascinating details on the subject; people from Yemen; fans of Eggers’ writing, of course; and in particular, anyone who has ever dreamed of starting a business, especially an international one.
While this may not be how they teach it at Harvard Business School, “The Monk of Mokha” is one of the most exciting business case studies I have ever read. Mokhtar draws on every bit of past experience, including lessons learned and people met in his teen years, in his pursuit of serving Yemeni coffee to American sippers.
Born into a family of immigrants, Mokhtar grew up poor in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. He was a restless kid who preferred minor mischief to school, but he loved to read (Eggers titles one chapter “The Kid Who Stole Books”). Mokhtar had teen successes selling Banana Republic clothes, women’s shoes and Honda cars, but painful reverses left him grateful for the doorman gig.
Then one day, Mokhtar’s friend Miriam drew his attention to something across the street from the luxury tower: “There’s a statue of a Yemeni dude drinking a big cup of coffee,” she texted him. It was in the courtyard of a building that had been built by the Hills Bros. coffee company, whose innovations in vacuum packing helped make coffee popular in this country.
Mokthar dug into the history and lore of coffee, including the legend that a Sufi holy man in Mokha, a Yemen port city, was the first person to brew coffee.
“I will resurrect the art of Yemeni coffee and restore it to prominence throughout the world,” he told Miriam. After working up an enthusiastic mission statement and strategy, he showed it to a savvy mentor. “Mokhtar, I have to be honest with you,” the mentor told him. “This is ghettoest business plan I’ve ever seen.”
But Mokhtar kept going. He apprenticed with coffee experts and, on his second attempt, earned his Q Grading qualification, the first person of Yemeni heritage to do so.
His plan depended on quality: Mokhtar had to source highly graded coffee from Yemen that could be sold at premium outlets in the United States. He traveled across Yemen, persuading farmers to grow coffee instead of qat, boosting pay and bettering working conditions for women who painstakingly sorted coffee fruit.
Many things went wrong: For example, an old farmer who made some of the best coffee Mokhtar ever found died unexpectedly. “Too many of his best ideas occurred far after they would have been the most useful,” Mokhtar laments, though Eggers’ account reveals Mokhtar to be quick-witted and resourceful.
In the story’s climactic pages, Mokhtar has to find his way out of war-ravaged Yemen with precious coffee samples destined for a trade show that could make or break his financing. He barely avoids air strikes, is captured and released several times by violent militias (i.e., “Six Armed Men at the Foot of the Bed”), and survives other harrowing experiences, including crossing the strait between Yemen and Djibouti in a tiny, flat-hulled boat.
Incredibly, Mokhtar, with help he acknowledges from so many people, made his dream reality. His company, Port of Mokha, imports and sells some of the most expensive and highest-rated coffee in the world.
“Monk of Mokha”
By Dave Eggers
Knopf. 352 pages. $28.95.