Sextant is Smelling the Coffee

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Starting last month, visitors to Sextant Coffee, located on Folsom and 10th streets, had their beverage of choice prepared by someone other than owner Kinani Ahmed. After performing every task himself for the previous year and a half, Ahmed is rebuilding the team he lost at the beginning of the public health crisis. 

An energetic man in his forties, Ahmed’s easy smile belies an intensity and focus that’ve seen his business through the COVID-19 pandemic. He founded Sextant Coffee in 2014, after spending 15 years managing two coffee shops. Originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Ahmed started out working in biotechnology at the University of California, San Francisco, but missed the rituals and culture of coffee drinking from his childhood. Opening a cafe as a side project was a way to share that ethos with his neighbors.

“I grew up around coffee,” he explained. “I was always surrounded by people who did farming of coffee or exporting of coffee.” 

He especially missed the warmth of his grandmother’s daily coffee ritual. “Every day she would take the green beans, wash them and roast them in a cast iron pan over charcoal,” he said. “You roast the beans fresh, each time you want to drink coffee. It’s pretty elaborate. Pretty much every household starts their day that way.”  

Given his intimate coffee connection, Ahmed soon found just running a cafe dissatisfying. “I figured out that I needed to control the whole production, and then later on I expanded even more, into the sourcing,” he said.  

He quit his UCSF job and dove into coffee fulltime.

According to Ahmed, coffee was first domesticated in the area around modern-day 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 strain. As a result, the crops cultivated at small farms, such as the one owned by Ahmed’s family near Addis Ababa, display genetic characteristics that aren’t found elsewhere. 

With his family connections, Ahmed began importing beans from Ethiopia and roasting them himself. Thus was born Sextant Coffee, which also offers coffee from Colombia and Brazil. 

Although Ethiopia is presently embroiled in a civil war and emerging famine, Ahmed said the conflict is mostly centered in Tigray, in the north, and hasn’t impacted coffee exports.

Almost from the time it opened its doors, Sextant grew. “We were providing coffee to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so forth,” Ahmed said. 

By March of 2020, Ahmed was overseeing a large team that included a marketing department. He was finalizing plans to license his product at the San Francisco International Airport and open two other cafes. Sextant had just completed its annual coffee bean purchase when the first city-wide shelter-in-place order was issued. Almost overnight, Sextant transformed from a company of 15 employees to an outfit of just one.

“Losing my team was the hardest part,” he recalled. “I had to wear all the hats.” 

He worked 12- to 14-hour days. He considers himself lucky to have survived when so many other businesses didn’t. 

As the pandemic fades in San Francisco Ahmed looks forward to revisiting his 2020 expansion plans. Now that he’s 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’ll he do? Drive his family to Los Angeles. 

“Maybe we’ll even go to Disneyland,” he said. 

Kinani Ahmed. Photo: Courtesy of Kinani Ahmed