Giving a Family Business a Jolt With Coffee That Empowers Women
By Dan Hyman
MINNEAPOLIS — As a child, Alyza Bohbot always respected the unflappable work ethic of her parents, who ran Alakef Coffee Roasters in Duluth, Minn. Still, in late 2014, when she was in her 20s, that didn’t stop her from warning them of their company’s potential downfall.
In Ms. Bohbot’s estimation, Alakef — a profitable enterprise that financed her voice lessons, provided for family vacations and allowed her to enroll at a private university — had grown stale.
“We were hitting a plateau, and it needed to be reinvigorated,” said Ms. Bohbot, now 32, all steely determination and dry humor. Her parents considered selling the company, but instead, she thought, “We needed someone to come in and infuse a lot of new energy.”
That person, she decided, was her.
“But I don’t want to come in and keep things ho-hum,” she told her parents. “If I’m going to do this, I want to make it my own and grow it and bring it somewhere new.”
So after taking control of the family business just under three years ago, she made the start of a sister company, City Girl Coffee Company, her primary focus. Unlike Alakef, City Girl is bold and risky, from its bright-pink logo and packaging to its business plan’s central tenet: fighting gender inequity in the coffee industry.
On average, according to the International Trade Center, women do 70 percent of the work in getting coffee to market but regularly cede or are barred from financial control, so City Girl gets its beans exclusively from farms and cooperatives that are owned or managed by women. In addition, the company donates 5 percent of all profit to organizations that support women in the industry, including the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, or I.W.C.A., and Café Femenino.
When consultants told her that “it’s great to have a mission, but it’s not enough to drive sales,” Ms. Bohbot insisted that an “unapologetically feminine” coffee brand would find consumers. Even so, the company’s success has exceeded her expectations: Sales — principally through City Girl’s online store and in the Twin Cities’ high-end retailers, including Kowalski’s Markets and Lunds & Byerlys — are up 300 percent year over year.
City Girl aims to break into other Midwest markets, including Chicago, St. Louis and Des Moines, and then to select cities on the East Coast. Still, Ms. Bohbot is willing to be patient.
“If you blow up too quickly, you will sacrifice something,” she said.
She has played witness to a slow build before. When her parents, Nessim and Deborah Bohbot, moved to Duluth from Israel in the late 1980s, they were dumbfounded by their new neighbors’ preference for mass-market coffee brands like Folgers and Maxwell House, so they began roasting coffee in their basement. After locals started taking notice and wanting to buy the coffee, Alakef was formed.