Starting last month, visitors to Sextant Coffee, located on Folsom and 10th streets, had their drink of choice brewed by someone other than owner Kinani Ahmed. After carrying out all the tasks himself for a year and a half, Ahmed is rebuilding the team he lost at the start of the public health crisis.
An energetic man in his forties, Ahmed’s easy smile belies an intensity and focus that got his business through the COVID-19 pandemic. He founded Sextant Coffee in 2014, after spending 15 years running two cafes. Originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Ahmed began working in biotechnology at the University of California, San Francisco, but has missed the rituals and culture of drinking coffee since childhood. Opening a cafÃ© as a side project was a way to share this philosophy with its neighbors.
âI grew up around coffee,â he explains. “I have always been surrounded by people who grow coffee or export coffee.”
He particularly missed the warmth of his grandmother’s daily coffee ritual. âEvery day she would take the green beans, wash them and roast them in a cast iron skillet over charcoal,â he said. âYou roast the fresh beans every time you want to drink coffee. It is quite elaborate. Almost all households start their day this way.
Given his intimate relationship with coffee, Ahmed quickly found that just running a cafÃ© was unsatisfying. âI understood that I had to control the whole production, and then later I expanded even more into sourcing,â he said.
He quit his job at UCSF and immersed himself in coffee full time.
According to Ahmed, coffee was first domesticated in the region around modern Ethiopia centuries before a few varieties were taken elsewhere to become foundational crops for the types that now dominate the global market. Ethiopian growers continue to produce the original variety. As a result, crops grown on small farms, like the one owned by Ahmed’s family near Addis Ababa, exhibit genetic characteristics not found anywhere else.
Thanks to his family ties, Ahmed started importing beans from Ethiopia and roasting them himself. Thus was born Sextant Coffee, which also offers coffee from Colombia and Brazil.
Although Ethiopia is currently embroiled in civil war and emerging famine, Ahmed said the conflict is mostly centered in Tigray in the north and has not impacted coffee exports.
Almost from the time it first opened, Sextant has grown. âWe were providing coffee to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on,â Ahmed said.
As of March 2020, Ahmed was overseeing a large team which included a marketing department. He was finalizing plans to license his product at San Francisco International Airport and open two more coffee shops. Sextant had just completed its annual purchase of coffee beans when the first city-wide shelter-in-place order was placed. Almost overnight, Sextant went from being a company of 15 employees to a company of one.
âLosing my team was the hardest part,â he recalls. âI had to wear all the hats.
He worked 12 to 14 hours a day. He considers himself lucky to have survived when so many other companies did not.
As the pandemic subsides in San Francisco, Ahmed is eager to review his expansion plans for 2020. Now that he has hired a manager and two baristas, he can take his first day off in eighteen months. In fact, he’s taking a week off. What is he going to do ? Driving his family to Los Angeles.
âMaybe we’ll even go to Disneyland,â he said.
Kinani Ahmed. Photo: Courtesy of Kinani Ahmed