It’s pretty common today for coffee to be treated as much as a specialist’s realm as wine — with regional demarcations and geological tasting notes — but in New York, while Ethiopian and Brazilian are commonly cited, Yemeni coffee isn’t as popular even to coffee enthusiasts, let alone the mainstream coffee-drinker. Most people know it for famously costing as much as $16 a cup.
At the new Yafa Cafe in Sunset Park, Ali Suliman and Hakim Sulaimani are trying to change that. Not only are they spotlighting Yemeni coffee and charging just $7, the cousins aim to showcase other aspects of Yemeni culture, including with a food menu with their version of dishes that rarely leave the Yemeni home kitchen in New York. Now, the 40-seat cafe at 4415 Fourth Avenue has become a quiet force in Yemeni representation in New York City.
The cousins, who were both born in Yemen and grew up in south Brooklyn, saw the coffee renaissance play out in New York, and when they decided to open their own cafe, they knew they wanted two things: to take ownership and celebrate Yemeni coffee and culture, and to do so in Sunset Park, where they live.
Many cite Ethiopia as the birthplace of coffee, but the story of coffee really materialized once coffee plants were imported from Ethiopia to Yemen. It became regionally known through Sufism, then globally known in the 16th century through the Ottoman empire, colonial companies, and other tradeways. At one point, the majority of the world’s coffee was Yemeni. However, the ever-relentless Dutch East India Company got their hands on coffee plants from Yemen and repurposed them elsewhere in the world. The coffee became known as mokha, named after the port where the plants departed from. As a result of the Dutch East India company’s actions, Yemen lost its monopoly and its international coffee trade faded.
As it faded, international regional coffee started booming, and if Yemeni coffee was sold globally at all, it became rare — with factors like civil war, famine, and drought impacting farming in the country. Yemeni coffee is now famously expensive; when Blue Bottle partnered with Port of Mokha, it made headlines for the $16 cups.
But the cousins say that though Yemeni coffee is expensive, cafes shouldn’t be selling the coffee for prices as high as that. It ends up “alienating” customers and “exotify”-ing the product, Sulaimani says. At Yafa, a Yemeni pour-over costs $7. They take “somewhat of a hit” by selling it at that price, he adds, but they think it’s worth it to make Yemeni coffee more accessible to a wider audience.
“The demand is there. The supply is unfortunately limited,” Sulaimani says. “It’s not limited to the point where you have to charge $16 a cup.”
Still, their mission hasn’t been easy. Due to the lack of trade, the farmer-to-cafe journey isn’t as well-oiled as other countries and prone to exploitation at almost every step. Finding a company that aligned with their fair-pay principles and receiving the coffee beans alone has taken them nine months. The cafe features Yemeni mokhas processed by Sabcomeed, a transparent UAE-Yemeni based organization focused on the ethical trade and production of Yemeni coffee.
Now, they are currently roasting single lots of Yemeni mokha with chocolate-raisin notes grown in Ibb, Yemen from farmer Ahmed Mohammed Al Ghowaidi, as well as coffee from the Wadi Qibal producer collective, which makes a floral aromatic lightly roasted coffee, grown in Dhamar, Yemen. All the coffee is grown and processed in Yemen, and roasted a few blocks from Yafa in Sunset Park in partnership with City League Coffee. A lower-cost drip coffee, which starts at $2.25, comes from local roaster East One Coffee.
Initially, they weren’t planning to do food, but once they started adding items, the menu grew — transforming into a “big outlet” for the cafe to talk about Yemeni culture, Sulaimani says. Their menu currently lists 13 items, five of which are only available after 10 a.m.
Tipping their hat to traditional Yemeni restaurants like Yemen Cafe, the cousins wanted to showcase food that spoke to the intersection of their upbringing as Yemeni Brooklynites, like turkey bacon, egg, and cheese samboosas (a triangle-shaped stuffed pastry), foul (mashed fava beans) with eggs and Abu Walad cheese (spreadable Swiss cheese), hawajj-seasoned fried chicken sandwich, and lamb haneeth stew between two pieces of sourdough bread. It’s a new and rare addition of Yemeni cuisine to New York’s tight list of options.
Latte-slinging cafes are a sign of change for many neighborhoods in New York, but for the cousins who grew up in the neighborhood, the business venture needs to make a concerted effort toward being part of the community. They’re familiar with this stretch of Fourth Avenue; Sulaimani’s father owns and operates the Yafa Deli & Grill three doors down from them, and he helped his father manage the store for five years before joining Suliman, who quit the media industry for Yafa Cafe.
“We’ve been in the community long enough to know those that are old and new to the neighborhood,” says Sulaimani. “It’s important that we’re from here and people enjoy that because it brings everybody together and allows for dialogue to happen.”
The cafe’s space has already been used to help grassroots movements against Industry City rezoning and street vendor rights, and they hope to facilitate more events for the community, in addition to making Yemeni coffee more accessible and experimenting with their menu.
“Gentrification is a real thing and a lot of the people that we’re serving are a part of what is currently happening,” says Suliman. “But at the same time, it allows us to be here for the other part of the neighborhood that has always lived here. We have a responsibility to do that.”
Pelin Keskin is a video producer at Eater.