Feature | June 29th, 2024

From Jaffa to Berkeley

A Coffee Lovers' Paradise

By: Yasmeen Jena

When you meet the Gaith brothers, Majdi, Noor and Sami, you can’t help but be struck by an infectious optimism that soon finds you rooting for their success. In many ways theirs is a story that exemplifies the promise of California for so many families, including my own. Children of a tight-knit immigrant family, brought up in the public school system and educated at the University of California, all three have pursued their own paths and developed distinct areas of expertise as they come together now to make this new family venture a reality. But in other crucial ways, their California entrepreneurial story is unique: they are Palestinian-American and the year is 2024. “First and foremost,” Majdi tells us, “this space is dedicated to the people of Gaza 100% and the Lisjan Ohlone people, the people whose land we’re living on.” It’s a sad and jarring reminder of the unlearned lessons of our collective past.

 

The time, attention to detail and effort the brothers have put into the Jaffa Coffee storefront is palpable as soon as you enter the cafe. The space is bright, clean and inviting, minimal and elegant. A long wooden bench lined with marble tables sits against the cafe’s west wall. Wicker chairs and hanging light shades convey the old world charm the Gaith brothers set out to capture. Each piece of art, wall paint color, furniture piece and menu item has been carefully chosen with intentionality. There is meaning behind everything in this cafe. The walls are garnished in lime wash to give an old world feel, and the subtle difference in color represents two aspects of Palestinian life: sage on the right calls to mind olive trees and ivory on the left, the sands of coastal cities like Yafa and Gaza. “Most people may not notice the difference,” says Noor, “but to us it was important.” Commitment to details like this is probably why the brothers kept running out of money during the project. The art on the wall speaks to the wide range of interests represented at the cafe: technical coffee graphs, Palestinian poppies, California landscapes. They did most of the build-out themselves: high up on ladders painting, tearing down walls, or in the case of their pride and joy ripping out the tile in the old bathroom to recreate the cave in Hebron where their father was born.

 

As you enter the shop, you are greeted by a surfboard leaning against the left wall — an ode to the Southern California influence they have intentionally integrated into the design. Hand painted by local artist Arun Khanna in the red, black, white and green of the Palestinian flag it’s adorned in flowing Arabic that reads: “Long live the truth, long live real education.” (The quote is from a 12 year old middle schooler’s public comment at a Berkeley School Board meeting.) As with so many details around the cafe, the surfboard also represents a further nexus of their dual identities and the conversation digresses for a moment to discuss the rich history of surfing in Gaza.  

 

Majdi and Noor explained how much thought went into displaying their Palestinian identity proudly, but also invitingly. They wanted to be strategic. What the brothers sought out to do – and have done – is give people a space to interpret the Palestinian flag differently, in a way that opens them up to art, education and conversation, and inevitably to understanding the injustice in Palestine.

 

The menu offers all the traditional espresso and tea drinks one would expect in a modern cafe, but there is plenty for the more curious. They offer specialty coffee pour overs from all over the world as well as a variety of coffee drinks and mocktails infused with fig, apricot and Jaffa-inspired orange flavoring. Each drink is prepared and served with consummate care, another nod to old world sensibilities.  

 

The Gaith brothers grew up in the Napa Valley. “We thought it was kind of a random place to grow up,” said Majdi. “Ironically for Muslims, it’s a very famous wine-growing region, but we incorporated a lot of the hospitality etiquette that we learned into the serving style of coffee and kind of made coffee the substitute for alcohol in our adult lives.” Majdi pointed out how similar the landscape in Napa is to the wine growing region in the strip between Hebron and Bethlehem in Palestine. He said if you drive that route “you feel like you could be driving along the Silverado Trail or Yountville or any of those north 707 roads.” 

 

Majdi, Noor and Sami also spent three years as kids living in the West Bank city of Hebron from 1997 to 2000. “Right before the second Intifada we moved back,” Majdi explained. “My dad thought Oslo was gonna be real and there’d be a two state or one state solution and it all turned out to be hogwash. And they kept taking more land and more settlements so he moved us back here. … It was so formative in our early childhood development and understanding who we were.” Outside of their immediate family, all of their relatives still live in Palestine. 

          

Each brother brings a unique expertise to the business. Their tireless work ethic and commitment to the business shows through in various ways, and is complemented by their distinct personalities. Majdi manages the real estate and handles the business side of things. Not surprising as a Political Science grad from Cal, he’s also responsible for much of the Palestinian-themed consciousness around the space. He is also – when time permits – a passionate and talented baker, known as “Majdough” in the baking world. In fact, the Jaffa Coffee line is just one arm of the brothers’ larger business venture, Gaith Brothers Restaurant Group. Majdi gets excited when he talks about Seedoughs, a bakery project specializing in Nabulsi style kunafa, they hope to soon launch. Like everything with these guys, the name was selected to give local customers something familiar to hold onto, while injecting meaning from their own experience; the term means grandfather in Arabic.

 

Noor, a graduate of Haas Business School at UC Berkeley, is so deep in the coffee game he sees brown. As he describes his love of coffee, you sense not only his passion but an authentic commitment to the integrity of the entire coffee experience, which he cultivated while living in L.A. for three years. He’s happy to engage with you on any aspect of the process: sourcing, freshness, grinders, preparation methods, roasting batches. (Jaffa won’t sell any beans aged more than two weeks after roasting.) Or he’ll take you into the Ethiopian highlands with his teacher from the Boot Coffee Academy to discover a new strain of specialty coffee. When he starts talking about the SCA Wheel, rating categories and temperatures, he sounds a little like a baseball analytics guy. But the numbers aren’t dry statistics to Noor, they inspire him to deliver the best coffee experience possible for his customers. 

 

Sami has an engineering degree from UC San Diego, and according to his brothers, brings an invaluable problem-solving mind to the venture, always making projects run more efficiently and smoothly. The brothers credit Sami’s engineering acumen and mastery of concepts like air flow dynamics and heat transfer for transforming what can typically be a five year marathon to perfect the roasting process into a one year sprint. 

 

They each naturally and compatibly fall into their roles, which allows them to work well together. You can see this in the way they talk about one another and in the respect and kindness they show each other. They listen when their brothers speak, and even if they don’t agree with a risk someone is taking, they still trust him to follow it through. It’s not hard to see where such habits were learned. The brothers aren’t the only family members you’ll see around the space. Mom and Dad often show up on Sundays, and their sister Suzan and Majdi’s wife Thalissa are also known to don an apron behind the counter and serve up good will along with impeccably heated coffees.   

 

Why Jaffa?

 

The brothers are quick to point out that their family is from Hebron and East Jerusalem, the Old City, not from Jaffa. Majdi shared the frustration of living ten minutes away from their grandfather’s home in the Old City of Jerusalem but being unable to visit it or his grave. Reflecting on the daily harassment Palestinians face from the occupation and the dehumanizing apartheid system – that includes over 600 checkpoints –  in the West Bank, Majdi said: “It is the most unfair place on Earth. Hands down. That’s not even talking about Gaza. I’ve never seen it. I’m not allowed to go.”

 

They settled on the name as a kind of serendipity of circumstance in combination with a deeper cultural meaning. In 2022 the brothers were in Jaffa together – despite a set of maddening travel restrictions that deny their Americanness in deference always to their West Bankness. Between visiting some of Jaffa’s specialty coffee houses, Noor looked at his brothers and said: “Jaffa coffee…?” Noor admits there was no substance behind his offhand suggestion and he was largely unaware of the city’s history. Majdi liked the wider symbolism of the old coastal city, which he described as the commercial hub of Palestine, home to the first Palestinian newspaper and famed for its eponymous oranges. He also thought it important because Jaffa was the city that lost the most residents during the Nakba; 50,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from the thriving city. Within the year they’d started the company. A painting of the old city hangs prominently on the wall in the middle of the space, as if watching over the cafe and its patrons.

 

“It’s important for us to carry the legacy,” said Majdi, “to kind of uplift our family name, our tribe, and our country, outside of Palestine. It’s a lot of responsibility to be excellent, to answer with excellence.” Noor picked up on the theme: “We are more than our diaspora. We are more than our grief. We are artists, we’re engineers, we’re business-owners.” 

 

As Noor put it: We wanted to open a Balinese-inspired, California coastal, Palestinian coffee shop that highlights our identities and provides a warm, inviting atmosphere for our customers. That’s a tall order, and to borrow a phrase from the baseball analytics guy, one they’ve hit out of the park.

 

 

Jaffa Coffee Roasters

1701 University Ave

Open every Tuesday-Sunday 7AM-4PM

 

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