Imran & Ali’s Coffee Hut
Downtown Berkeley BART plaza
7 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Friday (Saturday TBD)
Downtown Berkeley’s BART plaza looks better that in did in 2010, when plans to reactivate the long-dormant space were first launched. The rebuilt area opened in 2018, with plans for a coffee kiosk on site to help people pause and take a beat, as opposed to just hustling over the pavers on their way to BART. That kiosk shut down in 2019, but has been pulled out of storage and revived under a new name this week: Imran and Ali’s Coffee Hut is open starting Friday morning with hot and cold coffee drinks, pastries and snacks.
Java fans might recall that 1951 Coffee Company, Berkeley’s mission-based specialty coffee organization, operated a similar-looking kiosk in the same spot a few years ago. “When we opened,” 1951 co-founder Doug Hewitt told Nosh, “it was the rainiest, coldest winter in years. It was really hard to get going,” and to sustain, so after a few months, they put the kiosk in storage. “We knew we’d find our purpose for it moving forward,” Hewitt said.
One of the managers of that kiosk was Ali Fayez, a recent graduate of 1951’s barista training program. A refugee from Afghanistan, he came to the U.S. in 2016, with no background in coffee to speak of. (“In Afghanistan, tea’s the big drink,” Hewitt noted.)
The International Rescue Service (IRC) connected Fayez with 1951, which since 2015 has helped refugees and asylees “move toward self-determination,” as Hewitt put it. After training at 1951, Fayez worked his way up the local coffee scene, taking jobs at tech company cafes and at 1951 properties.
Eventually, Fayez realized he wanted to start his own company. “So I went to Doug and asked ‘whatever happened with that old kiosk? If you’re not using it…'”
“We realized this was a great opportunity to offer our graduates help and support,” Hewitt said. So with business partner and fellow 1951 grad Imran Jafari, Fayez started making a plan for a new coffee venture to operate at the plaza, one with a broader range of products than the previous kiosk, and with a nifty new name and logo.
“It’s such a great marriage, our public plaza and coffee,” John Caner told Nosh. He’s the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), and since the current plaza’s development started 12 years ago, he’s been rallying for a consistent caffeine presence in the spot. When he heard that Fayez and Jafari were looking to move in, “I got really excited about activating it once again.”
Caner helped move things along for the Coffee Hut, connecting the pair with the right city agencies and helping them solve some pretty big problems — like where to get water for the coffee machines.
“All this time I always saw hoses for the plants in the plaza,” Caner said. “It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be potable.” (Reader, it wasn’t.)
Caner helped Fayez and Jafari build a relationship with the nearby Almare Gelato, where workers are on the clock as of 6 a.m. Founder Alberto Malvesto and his staff “are amazing, really nice people,” Fayez said, who allow the Coffee Hut owners to access their taps to get the drinkable water they need.
It’s also Caner and DBA that will help coffee drinkers take a load off. They’re the ones who place the nearby cafe seating in the morning and pick it up at night, helping make the plaza a more linger-worthy place.
Meanwhile, Hewitt is there to “provide mentor support for things like permitting and sourcing,” he said. But he wants to be clear that the Coffee Hut’s partnership with 1951 — a partnership memorialized on the front of the kiosk — isn’t a heavy-handed one.
“We work with Ali and Imran, but we don’t lay out the path or dictate it to them,” he said.
One of the ways Hewitt helped with sourcing was to connect with East Bay roastery Steeltown Coffee, the same place 1951 gets their beans. That’s what Fayez and Jafari will be brewing up for a tight menu of hot and cold drinks. They’ll also have grab-and-go snacks for the student crowd, and pastries for the sweet-toothed — they were still finalizing their pastry supplier as of publication time, but have high hopes for a deal with a great local baker.
“It really all seems to be coming together,” Fayez said, sounding slightly surprised, himself. “We will be ready for everyone on Friday. We’ll see you all then!”