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Sumi Ali Wants to Make Coffee Culture More Accessible

With his new company Yes Plz, the co-founder plans to democratize the “fancy coffee universe”

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At 27 years old, Sumi Ali talks about coffee with the kind of calm specificity that could turn a non-believer into a missionary. I tell him I’m a coffee noob, someone who’s barely dabbled, is underwhelmed by the taste, and overwhelmed by the breadth of “choice.” Hip artisanal shops? Corner bodegas? Chain stores? All out to get me, all waiting impatiently while I meander through a menu the size of the Hall of Faces in Game of Thrones.

So when I tell this to Ali, the co-founder of direct-to-consumer coffee company Yes Plz, he perks up a bit over the phone. Maybe his company’s plan — to get a $15 bag of a hand-picked blend into the homes of anyone who wants it — is for someone like me?

Born to Pakistani immigrants in New Mexico, Ali fell in love with coffee at his first barista job in the suburbs of Chicago. “I kind of felt like a rock star,” he said of his teenage years roasting coffee. He’s in many ways the antithesis of a company founder. He’s soft-spoken and humble, but enthusiastic. He’s a prolific Instagrammer of his family — his wife Christine and their dog Quincy.

His career eventually led him to working on a $1 cup of coffee with Tony Konecny, his fellow co-founder. The two share a philosophy that coffee shouldn’t be dressed up for the sake of being dressed up — a philosophy that’s often preached but rarely acted on without the endless scale that venture capital demands (they’re bootstrapping Yes Plz with money from Kickstarter, instead).

“To get a good bag of coffee,” he said, “I have to roll the dice, go to a coffee shop, even a good coffee shop and a reputable roaster, and pay 20 or 30 dollars. And then, in some cases, get the lecture of ‘Oh your grinder isn’t good enough, your water isn’t good enough.’ Coffee should be more fair.”

This kind of talk of democratization in the coffee industry is storied and complicated. But what Ali and Konecny have in mind is to start small. They’ve raised about $50,000 to ship out an evolving coffee blend they’re calling “The Mix,” at their $15 price point, to people’s homes. They’re veterans of the so-called “fancy coffee universe” so anything they do has an extant interest. And Ali in particular comes off as deeply self-aware of the world he intends to subvert.

The first boxes of The Mix go out this summer to Kickstarter backers, with plans to expand the product to the general public soon after. Ali will be involved with preparing and labeling every box that goes out. For Ali, it all goes back to taste and reliability — tenets of the business that he’s eager to stay true to.

“I’m a firm believer that there’s no single coffee in the world that can’t be made better by blending and really carefully roasting and profiling. We’re going to pursue the best possible tasting profile and combination of the beans available.” He sees that work culminating in a blend that will set The Mix apart. “I hope that we have a distinct style.”

Sumi Ali is a co-founder of Yes Plz.
Aaron Edwards is a New York City-based writer and editor who produces stage shows for Pop-Up Magazine, the live storytelling series.