A Bay Area entrepreneur whose efforts to revitalize Yemeni coffee production are the subject of Dave Eggers’ recent bestseller The Monk of Mokha might not be so holy as he seems, or so a lawsuit filed by former colleagues suggests. While Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s celebrated coffee company Port of Mokha commands up to $16 a cup at shops like Blue Bottle, Alkhanshali’s colleagues at his original coffee company, Mocha Mill, allege that their former CEO used a pattern of racketeering, including fraud, extortion, and money laundering, to supplant their company with his own.
The civil lawsuit was filed by former Assistant US Attorneys Yasin M. Almadani and Terrence M. Jones under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) on behalf of Mocha Mill’s team, including Alkhanshali’s uncle. It names Port of Mokha, Blue Bottle Coffee Co, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, and several others as defendants, seeking compensatory damages and the restructuring of Alkhanshali’s now successful operation, Port of Mokha.
Dave Eggers literary nonfiction account of Alkhanshali’s life traces the coffee entrepreneur’s journey from his native San Francisco to Yemen, from which his parents had emigrated to the US. Though it was the original cultivator and trader of coffee, Yemen had fallen behind competitors like Ethiopia, and with a mind to change that, Alkhanshali flew to Yemen, connected with extended family (including his uncle), and met with farmers across the country. While working to bring beans from Mocha Mill to market, in 2015, Alkhanshali narrowly escaped from Yemen’s violent civil war, fleeing (with two briefcases of coffee) by fishing boat. The incident captured media attention, and lead, eventually, to Eggers’ book.
But according to Alkhanshali’s uncle and his original Mocha Mill coworkers, that narrative left them out of the story, even as their investment covered Alkhanshali’s and Eggers’ book-related expenses.
“At Mokhtar [Alkhanshali’s] direction, Eggers wrote a false narrative concealing [his] questionable business dealings and schemes. Just as Mokhtar had directed, Eggers wrote Mocha Mill and the victim partners (Plaintiffs) completely out of the story. Instead, Eggers highlighted Port of Mokha along with Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and other distributors and retailers with whom Mocha Mill was looking to develop relationships.
As the book neared publication, Alkhanshali left his position as Mocha Mill CEO, forming Port of Mokha — and, according to the lawsuit, taking Mocha Mill’s contacts, suppliers, and his buyers like Blue Bottle with him. To do so, Alkhanshali seems to have successfully convinced Mocha Mill that its coffee was no longer desirable to high-end distributors. According to the lawsuit, Alkhanshali even convinced Blue Bottle’s CEO, James Freeman, to show a lack of interest in Mocha Mill — promising Blue Bottle it would receive the same coffee from Port of Mokha instead.
To obtain that coffee, Alkhanshali allegedly created a new shell of an importing company, T& H Imports. Mocha Mill, eager to unload its coffee supply, says it sold its beans to T&H for $58 per kilogram. From there, according to the lawsuit, T&H sold the offee to the new company, Port of Mokha, which sold it to Blue Bottle and other high-end distributors for $135 per kilogram.
Apparently fooled, it wasn’t until the plaintiffs saw Port of Mokha coffee at retailers like Blue Bottle that they realized what happened, they claim in the lawsuit.
The suit demands a jury trial, and if a RICO violation is proven, triple damages plus attorney’s fees would be awarded. But for plaintiffs in such cases, which were once used mostly to prosecute long-running criminal organizations like the mafia, there are “onerous requirements for the complaint to show that there is enough evidence to allow the lawsuit to move forward as a RICO case,” the New York Times explained in January,
Meanwhile, the civil suit casts the bestselling Monk of Mokha in a different light. As an author, Eggers has been celebrated for his ambition to tell compelling stories relating to immigration. But his “old-fashioned” story “chiefly about the American Dream,” as he writes in The Monk of Mokha, is a narrative that might come at a cost, a New York Times review of the book suggests, glossing over unflattering, or even troubling details regarding its subject. In another instance, Eggers’ protagonist Abdulrahman Zeitoun of Zeitoun (2009), which told the real life story of a Syrian-American man navigating Hurricane Katrina by canoe, was later charged with attempting to murder his wife. He was exonerated.