Yellow The Cafe Coffee Director Ayat Elhag Credit: Rey Lopez

There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.

Our sense of smell can help us recall moments in our past. One of Ayat Elhag’s earliest memories comes from the childhood trips she would take to Sudan with her parents in the summer. The Sudanese would perform a sort of ceremony that stuck with her.

“They light incense and then use sandalwood or frankincense to smoke the small cups before pouring the coffee on top,” she says. “I remember this ritual being so mesmerizing. Seeing the way people drink coffee all over the world is so interesting to me. People have been drinking this for centuries, but we’re really just at the beginning.” 

Elhag is the coffee director at Yellow in Navy Yard where she serves customers halva honey lattes, smoked dirty chais, and tahini affogatos. The Levantine-inspired daytime shop is an extension of Albi—the fine dining restaurant next door from Chef Michael Rafidi.

She and Nazia Khan, who helms Cameo inside The Roost on Capitol Hill, are running two of the most exciting new coffee shops in the city. They’re first-generation Americans and women of color with bold ideas about the future of their profession. 

After growing up in Northern Virginia, Elhag studied neuroscience at The College of William & Mary. “I thought I wanted to be a doctor, then I realized I never wanted to go back to school,” she says. She worked in cafes and restaurants throughout college and found barista work the most rewarding because she could be creative behind the scenes and also interface with customers. “I like those small interactions you have with people when you’re serving coffee,” she says. 

Before joining the Yellow team in July, she worked at Northside Social in Arlington. She was attracted to Rafidi’s project for a number of reasons. “My family being from Sudan, we have a lot of similar flavors,” she says. “The nostalgia of it all was really exciting and comforting—especially with everything being so difficult these last few months.” 

She also liked that Yellow serves Counter Culture coffee, a national roaster that’s big on transparency, sustainability, and education. The roaster trains baristas in Adams Morgan. “A lot of places don’t have that,” Elhag says. “There’s a little bit of gate-keeping involved in terms of education [in the industry].” 

Elhag is passionate about saluting coffee growers. “I really appreciate when shops are farm-focused or they highlight where they’re getting their beans from,” she says. “It’s not a possibility for all shops to source intentionally, but it’s important to acknowledge the fact that someone in the world grew it, roasted it, and shipped it. So many hands are involved in the creation of the drink sitting in front of you … We’re at such a small point at the end of this coffee supply chain.” 

Photo of Nazia Khan courtesy of Neighborhood Restaurant Group

Khan from Cameo couldn’t agree more. “I want to see more honoring the time and place of where coffee comes from,” she says. “It’s a product of Black and Brown communities. We need to honor them by not only speaking about how great the coffee is, but also by speaking about the growers. Because of Instagram, and where we are in the world, specialty coffee shops in America have been about latte art and beautiful spaces. That’s fun, but I’d like to have deeper conversations about what we’re consuming and why.” 

Before becoming Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s director of coffee last year, Khan worked at The Wydown. She started as a part-time barista at the 14th Street NW shop and then joined the company full-time when she was tapped to manage the newer shop on H Street NE in 2016. 

Coffee is a second career for Khan. After growing up in Oklahoma and studying international relations at the University of Michigan, she moved to D.C. for an internship at a think tank. For about five years her work focused on policy and development in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (Khan’s parents moved to the U.S. from Pakistan.)

“At a young age I was passionate about learning about other communities around the world and wanting to create access to opportunity for others,” Khan says. She worked at coffee shops as side jobs. “There was a moment where I think I saw the paths collide. I realized I could do what I wanted to do and create access to opportunity and learn about the world through coffee.” 

Khan has several goals for Cameo, where seasonal drinks like ginger snap and sugar plum lattes are big winter sellers. “We really wanted to focus on sustainability and responsible consumption,” she says. Think compostable packaging, avoiding plastic, and serving as many local products as possible. “The coffee industry is full of concerns about whether it can last 10 more years because it’s threatened by global warming. We’re doing our part as buyers to reduce our carbon footprint as much as we can.” 

She also wants Cameo to be “a coffee shop for everyone” and hopes to accomplish this by hiring from the neighborhood and building a diverse, multicultural team. She also hopes to expose Washingtonians to exciting voices in the coffee world by launching a Cameo Coffee Club in 2021 featuring a range of roasters. (They currently serve Parlor Coffee Roasters at the shop.) 

Asked whether women and BIPOC women in particular are poised to lead the next wave of cool, sustainable coffee programs, Khan says, “I don’t think you have to qualify it with coffee programs. Just end the sentence at lead. Having more women and more BIPOC people in positions of power is so vital to the future of our communities and our country. It brings about a different perspective. I have a different set of eyes.”