If you like Dave Eggers, riveting stories, or craft coffee, then you probably know the best seller The Monk of Mokha. The book tells the uplifting true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a 24-year-old Bay Area doorman who essentially makes it his one-man mission to revive Yemen’s 500-year-old coffee tradition, gets ensnared in the country’s civil war, and escapes to supply Blue Bottle with beans that end up in $16 cups of coffee.
It’s an incredible story, but Alkhanshali’s newfound fame as a rag-to-riches coffee trader might not even be half of the craziness if a new 59-page lawsuit filed in federal court this week is to be believed. Alkhanshali’s former company, Mocha Mill, a Yemeni specialty-coffee roaster, claims that for four years Alkhanshali engaged in “a pattern of racketeering activity involving numerous unlawful acts.” Among them are embezzlement, wire fraud, extortion, and money laundering — or, as the plaintiffs argue, “extensive” RICO violations. (As Sopranos fans will recall, RICO lawsuits are what organized crime syndicates like the Mafia face.)
Mocha Mill — which Alkhanshali helped found and where he served as CEO until 2016 — claims his actions culminated in a corporate takeover of their company that has cost them “hundreds of millions of dollars.” All the while, they say Alkhanshali used a separate company called Port of Mokha (the one Blue Bottle ultimately partnered with) to sell the very coffees Mocha Mill had sourced. The suit also contends that Alkhanshali milked his close relationship with Eggers to whitewash any mentions of Mocha Mill from The Monk of Mokha, then leveraged the book’s notoriety to get business for Port of Mokha, a company the plaintiffs claim they didn’t know existed at the time.
The lawsuit maintains Eggers “wrote a false narrative concealing Mokhtar’s questionable business dealings and schemes,” including the part about writing Mocha Mill “completely out of the story.” Eggers claims the book was fact-checked to ensure it was “as accurate and thorough as possible,” while the plaintiffs argue “accuracy would hurt his narrative by exposing his protagonist.”
Blue Bottle, meanwhile, is named a co-conspirator alongside four others in the lawsuit, which argues CEO James Freeman “intentionally agreed” to help Alkhanshali defraud Mocha Mill. Allegedly, Freeman promised to promote Port of Mokha’s coffee instead of Mocha Mill’s in exchange for “prominent” placement in the book that also cast his third-wave empire “in a very positive light to further build the Blue Bottle brand.” The suit also claims Blue Bottle agreed to stop advertising Mocha Mill’s brand on social media “as it had been doing.”
So far, Blue Bottle and Port of Mokha haven’t responded to the allegations. The lawsuit requests a jury trial, and RICO violations carry mandatory treble damages. However, because the damages are so high, proving a complaint qualifies as a RICO case has been called purposefully “onerous,” meaning these kinds of suits “often don’t survive the pleading stage.” This particular legal battle while likely heat up in the meantime.