At first glance, Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s story is a special one. The entrepreneur worked tirelessly to bring Yemen’s finest coffee to the world, eventually risking his life to smuggle beans out of the war-torn country in two briefcases. And while that tale is dutifully captured in David Eggers’ newest bestselling novel The Monk of Mokha, a civil lawsuit brought against Alkhanshali on behalf of his former business partners suggests another side to the story that’s more insidious than inspiring.
Filed on behalf of Mocha Mill employees by former US Attorneys Yasin M. Almadani and Terrence M. Jones, the lawsuit seeks to prosecute Mokhtar Alkhanshali, his company Port of Mokha, and Blue Bottle Coffee Co under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The suit doesn’t claim that Alkhanshali’s exploits as described in The Monk of Mokha are false, but that key members of his team were left out of the story— and cut out of the profits from their work.
After his daring escape from Yemen, Alkhanshali left his role as Mocha Mill CEO, allegedly telling his former coworkers (with support from Blue Bottle) that the coffee they worked to cultivate simply wasn’t viable to major distributors in the US market. From there, Alkhanshali purportedly started his own import company, which snatched up Mocha Mill’s beans at a discounted rate of $58 per kilogram. The suit says that Alkhanshali then turned around and “sold” that coffee to his new spinoff company, Port of Mokha. In turn, Almandi and Jones claim Alkhanshali used the contacts and buyers he acquired through Mocha Mill to sell his beans to Blue Bottle and others for $135 per kilogram, resulting in the (in)famous $16 cup of coffee.
The suit subsequently alleges that Eggers’ heartwarming work of smuggling coffee glosses over the shady practices that Alkhanshali relied on to find success. “Just as Mokhtar had directed, Eggers wrote Mocha Mill and the victim partners (Plaintiffs) completely out of the story,” the text of the lawsuit filed in the Northern District of California court system says. “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.”
While it sounds like there’s a fair amount of evidence if what the suit alleges is true, it’s hard to say what happens next. RICO cases, which are usually initiated against organized criminal networks, require a significant preponderance of evidence to proceed as a jury trial. But even if Mocha Mill doesn’t get its day in court, the fact that prosecutors think they have a chance to extract damages from Alkhanshali suggests the story Eggers set out to write isn’t as over as we thought.