Is $16 a Fair Price for a Cup of Coffee?
One Yemeni-American entrepreneur makes the case that it is in a new Dave Eggers book
When most of us think of Yemen (if we think of it at all), we think of its ongoing civil war. But to Yemeni-American coffee entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the arab country is a capital of the coffee world that’s overdue for some recognition. In fact, he’s willing to bet you’ll pay up to $16 just to get a taste of what they have to offer.
Recently, GQsat down with Alkhanshali and author Dave Eggers to discuss the latter’s new book, The Monk of Mokha. Starting with Alkhanshali’s awakening upon seeing a statue of a Yemeni man drinking coffee, the novel chronicles his hands-on efforts to restore the country’s coffee culture to its former prominence. Armed with quality beans and an intimate understanding of coffee’s supply chain, Alkhanshali sold his first batch to high-end third-wave coffee roaster Blue Bottle, who offered it to customers for $16 a cup. It sold out in a matter of days.
That price point probably sounds ridiculous to the average consumer. But as you might expect from someone who’s had to drive through a civil war’s gunfire to get coffee beans to a trade show in the US, Alkhanshali has a much more intimate understanding of coffee’s value— and the needs of those who helped bring it to your barista—than the rest of us.
While Alkhanshali says that “the cost of production, where it's coming from, [and] the scarcity of that coffee” all go into the calculation of a hypothetical ‘fair’ price, the relationship between producers and what ends up in your cup is worth considering as well. “With coffee there's a really incredible opportunity for you to have a direct impact on somebody by paying a little bit more and it's really wonderful to be able to do that,” he told GQ.
From a practical point of view, the coffee entrepreneur asserts that making sure you’re ethically sourcing your next cup and getting your money’s worth is as simple as asking where it’s from. “If [a coffee shop] can’t tell you where it’s from— its country and how it’s grown— those are red flags,” Alkhanshali said, “the more intimate the person can speak on the coffee, the more you can tell this is ethically-sourced coffee.”
And for those who’d still scoff at the idea of a $16 cup, Alkhanshali’s story of a man who somewhat begrudgingly bought one from Blue Bottle’s Rockefeller Center location might change your mind: “The guy went, ‘$16 for a cup of coffee? That's ridiculous.’ He gets really mad then he noticed people were looking at him, so he says, ‘I'll pay for it, I'll pay for it.’... I find out later from the barista that he actually comes into Blue Bottle after work and he apologizes and he says, ‘This was the best coffee I ever had.’”