Jack Karuletwa opened Silverback Coffee of Rwanda about a year ago with a distinct mission: to enable the poorest Rwandan coffee farmers to become participants in the global economy. Built on the eastern edge of Downtown LA’s industrial district — in a complex best known for fashion designers, garment makers, and models — Karuletwa’s coffee bar keeps the pretty people caffeinated while its proceeds proudly benefit his birthplace. Given his harrowing family history, it seems like a miracle that the company exists.
Talking to Karuletwa, 40, today, it’s hard to envision what his family’s been through: to picture the genocide they survived. At a towering seven-feet-tall, the former basketball player has a shaved head and a large smile. His friendly demeanor shines outward, seeming to touch all paths he crosses.
When he starts to tell the story of his past, another side emerges. Karuletwa was 16 years old when the massive Rwandan genocide of 1994 occurred. He remembers the period leading up to it when his father was “always either coming or going in the night.” Karuletwa’s parents told him and his siblings that these travels were “business trips,” but the reality was that members of the Hutu tribe were hunting his father, who could have quickly been captured or killed at any point, even after the family fled to gain distance from danger.
In hindsight, Karuletwa pieced together the truth: “[The Hutus] thought my dad had a successful business. They thought he must be supporting the rebel movement. If you were successful and [doing business outside] your own country, they were suspicious. The suspicion then led to him always on the run.” His father ran a small trucking company called Transit Cargo Masters — shipping produce and anything else he could carry — and then started a farming business in Uganda in 1986.
Thanks to valuable connections, his father became aware of Rwanda’s growing danger early, while the menace was still building momentum. In the late 1970s, he moved the family from Rwanda, toggling between Uganda and Kenya. Jack’s father found the family safe places to live, but he personally remained a moving target, adopting aliases and staying underground for weeks and months at a time. Unfortunately for the Karuletwas, many extended family members weren’t so lucky. He lost many of his aunts, uncles, and cousins to the genocide. Karuletwa somberly recalls, “Some refused to leave, and some didn’t have the ability to leave.”
When the turmoil and destruction ended after 100 days, the estimated death toll reached 800,000 people. Survivors found bodies and skeletons amid the mayhem. “My mom and dad went back [to Rwanda] literally the day that President Kagame took over,” Karuletwa recalls. “They were there for two or three days to help [with the clean up]. Even then, there were still pockets of gunfire and shooting and fighting.”
“Today I have a cousin who lives with my mom [in Rwanda],” Karuletwa says. “Once in awhile, she’ll just burst out screaming, ‘They’re coming!’ She’ll just start running and telling everybody, ‘You’ve got to hide, you’ve got to hide! They’re here. They’re here! They’re knocking on the door!’ She breaks out in sweats and just loses it.”
Tragically, PTSD persists for far too many Rwandans, according to Karuletwa, who says: “It’s pretty sad because there’s a lot of youth like that. They were very young at the time [of the genocide] and now they’re in their late 30s, but it’s affected them, and that’s the group that’s supposed to be leading the country and growing the country now.”
Karuletwa moved to LA in December 1993 as a teenager from Uganda, living with a family friend who worked at U.S. Embassies in Uganda and Kenya. Initially, basketball felt like his natural calling: Tutsis are known to be some of the world’s tallest people.
Karuletwa attended Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, where he studied physics and joined the basketball team. Upon graduation, he traveled with the Harlem Globetrotters and auditioned for the NBA’s Clippers and Nuggets. He injured his legs, however, which prevented a professional career.
Then another calling rose to the surface. He acted on the television show Sparks and in the basketball comedy The 6th Man, but eventually found true purpose in coffee.
“I always wanted to give back not only to my country, but also here in the country that took me in,” he says.
Karuletwa’s father would visit LA and say, “We should get into coffee. Look at how much coffee Ethiopia ships, and we have even better coffee.”
At that point, Rwandan coffee was largely unknown in America since the government was keener on keeping control than exporting and promoting its goods.
“I’ve always believed that coffee brought people together and I wanted to help do that,” Karuletwa says.
He pitched Peet’s Coffee after noticing the company didn’t carry Rwandan coffee and he and his brother Arthur supplied beans to them for a while. But the big break came when he and Arthur sold several containers of Rwandan coffee to Starbucks. The company was so pleased that they hired Arthur to work in Seattle, where he now serves as the company’s Director of Traceability.
Jack remained set on a different purpose.
“I wanted to create my own brand. I didn’t want to just give them the coffee,” Karuletwa says. “I have my own story, and the reason I wanted to open my own place was to connect with the farmers and connect with why I started.”
He credits his mother with instilling his charitable leanings. She opened a sandwich shop within months of returning to Rwanda in 1994, but ended up giving away so many sandwiches to homeless children that the business became more of a food bank. Silverback Coffee is following suit, also benefiting Rwandas, but from abroad.
Karuletwa named his business for Rwanda’s endangered silverback gorillas, gentle giants that are to Rwanda what pandas are to China. He sources coffee from farms in Musanze on the doorstep of Volcanoes National Park, where the mountain gorillas roam, and where his family is from.
He raises money and serves on the board for Gorilla Doctors, an organization based at University of California at Davis that provides life-saving veterinary care for silverbacks. Thankfully, these gorillas aren’t poaching targets, but do face dangers in the form of snares meant for other animals, infectious diseases, and other health issues. The charity extends to organizations that build schools in Rwanda and provide services to widows and orphans from the genocide.
At first glance, his café fits in with the trendy Los Angeles coffee house set: all brick arches, glass windows, and a silver eco-friendly Loring coffee roaster visible behind glass. An aqua, white, and silver Synchro T2 espresso machine anchors a wood bar with blue façade. Baristas crank out recognizable espresso drinks and brewed coffee, peppered with three drinks Karuletwa dedicated to the loves of his life. Jen’s latte is a white chocolate coffee drink named for his wife. Baby Wyatt, named for their son, features steamed milk, banana syrup, banana slices, and whipped cream. Gorilla’s eye is his take on a red eye: a drip coffee enhanced with a double shot of espresso.
Karuletwa’s commitment starts at origin. “Respect the farmers, take care of the farmers, and let them see that they’re being appreciated,” he says. He regularly sends pictures and video to farmers of people at Silverback enjoying their coffee, since most farmers can’t see what happens to their beans beyond processing. “They would ask me, ‘Do they like the coffee? I don’t know.” Those questions are a big part of what prompted Karuletwa to go beyond wholesaling, so that he could roast beans and add the café to his repertoire.
Roasting in-house also makes sense financially, allowing for higher profit margins because he can eliminate middlemen and practice direct trade with Rwandan farmers. This means better pay to farmers and more charitable donations.
“There’s no wrong or right way to roast,” Karuletwa says. “You can be dancing salsa. You can be dancing rumba. You’re still dancing.” He offers medium, medium dark, and extra dark French-style roasts. He doesn’t produce a light roast because that profile doesn’t work particularly well with his beans.
He sources two different types of high-altitude coffee from a women’s group in Musanze, favoring varietals and processing that yields two results: “Hints of lemon and orange and sweet citrus” and “bourbon coffee that offers caramelized cane sugar with cinnamon chocolaty notes.” His coffee roasting acumen accentuates these natural qualities in the beans.
In the next year, Karuletwa plans to add beans from other countries in the mountain gorilla migration zone: Uganda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As for Rwanda, support for its revival will remain core to Silverback’s values. Its people still need to heal. It will take generations. But hope and support from Karuletwa will speed them on their way.
2301 E. 7th St., Los Angeles, 323.685.5927, www.silverbackcoffee.com