As we welcome Common City Gardens into the Common community and begin to explore more of SoMa and the adjacent Mission District, we’re excited to highlight the area’s diverse local businesses and the hard-working people behind them.
What makes a good cup of coffee? Kinani, owner of Sextant Coffee, would argue that it all comes down to a perfect mixture of science and relationships with the coffee-growing community. As a first-generation Ethiopian with a background in medicine and computer science, Kinani never planned on starting one of the best coffee roasters in San Francisco, but his dedication to quality has made Sextant Coffee a staple name in the city and beyond. We spoke with him to learn more about how he got started and his favorite parts of the SoMa neighborhood.
Hi Kinani! Let’s start with the basics. How does a medical student pivot to starting a coffee company?
My family came to the US when I was still a young teenager, but my childhood in Ethiopia still had a tremendous impact on my life and passions. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, so I grew up with it all around me. In an Ethiopian household, the mother always prepares the coffee in the morning for the entire family (even the kids) before you start your day. So the smell, process, and culture of coffee were ingrained into me at a young age.
However, I never considered coffee a career! I moved from Santa Clara to San Francisco for my Pre Med but soon realized that was not the path for me. Next, I hoped that my minor in computer science would spark my interest, but I soon realized that I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle for my 9-5.
After some soul searching, I came back to what I knew best: coffee. I have many family members back in Ethiopia who are connected to coffee farms and are already in the coffee business, so I started by tapping into that network. My mission was to do more for the Ethiopian community while also bringing quality coffee to the San Francisco area.
A mission to produce the best cup of coffee in San Francisco
My first coffee shop was a huge learning curve for me. We were sourcing our coffee from a broker at the time, and the quality was very inconsistent. If our customers loved a particular roast, there was no guarantee that the coffee would taste the same the following week. I knew that if I wanted to improve the quality of our coffee, Sextant Coffee needed to be able to have a say in the harvesting and roasting process of the beans as well.
Luckily, I had a friend who was already in the roasting business and he helped me buy a coffee roaster in San Jose. However, we didn’t have space in our shop for the equipment so distance was an issue. When we moved to our current coffee location in San Francisco, Sextant Coffee was able to start roasting in house and our customers loved it!
I love the science behind roasting and how to influence the flavor of coffee, so I continued to research the best way to improve the flavor of our coffee. My research led me to find a man in Germany who was refurbishing old-school cast-iron roasters, which provide some of the best quality roasted coffee. We were humbled to be voted as the best coffee roaster in San Francisco by Star Chef and a few other media outlets, but truly, my main motivation is to satisfy the coffee craving of my customers.
Boots on the ground in the coffee-growing community
The other vital component to producing quality coffee is in the sourcing process. My entire journey of starting Sextant Coffee taught me that the secret to a delicious cup of coffee is in high-quality ingredients and processes. If you have mediocre beans, a stellar roaster won’t necessarily make it a high-quality brew. I knew that if we were going to do this right, we would need boots on the ground at the farms to make sure the best beans were selected. One of my business connections in Ethiopia has a Ph.D. in agriculture, and once we trusted him to oversee the farming and harvesting process, our coffee quality improved dramatically.
While our main sourcing is focused on Ethiopia, Sextant Coffee has expanded to partner with farmers in Brazil and Colombia to provide the Central American flavors our customers love as well. No matter how far we expand our sourcing, we will always work to have a very personal and involved relationship with our farmers to provide them with a living wage and celebrate the quality beans they produce for us.
What do you love about running a local business in the SoMa District of San Francisco?
In my opinion, San Francisco has always been a leader in the coffee scene. The coffee movement started in Seattle, went to Portland, and then landed in San Francisco. It’s truly the perfect place for Sextant Coffee to flourish as a local business and connect with a community that truly appreciates a quality cup of coffee. Sadly, I’ve seen so many amazing coffee roasters in the area start with passion and then lose their touch as they get bought out by corporations or expand too quickly. This has been a warning to us not to discount the beauty in interacting with the local community and to focus on growing at a more sustainable pace. We’ve been able to expand to provide bulk items and sell coffee online through the support of this community, and I’ve been grateful for it since day one!