More Than Mocha: Turkish Coffee At Qawha Cafe In Downtown Memphis
Farhat Othmani, 56, wants nothing more than to have a conversation with you. He looks mild-mannered and maybe a bit shy—his square-framed glasses, clean-shaven face, and broad figure brings to mind Clark Kent with less of a superhero coif. But, he’ll talk your ear off if you let him. Even his adopted American name has stuck around because he believes it makes good conversation. He prefers to go by Fred.
“A lady gave me the name of Fred,” he said. “And honestly, it was easier for me to have it because a lot of times you say, ‘My name is Farhat’, and people say, ‘How you say that? Where are you from?’”
I met Fred at Qahwa, his coffee shop at 109 North Main, because I was interested in learning more about Turkish coffee. I had also read about him in The Washington Post, where he was featured in a story about being one of the many business owners in the country affected by the pandemic, and wondered why he was featured over the countless other business folks in this city. Well, probably because the guy’s just interesting.
Meet Fred Othmani
Fred came to the United States in 1989 as a member of the Tunisian Air Force. He served as a U.S. Marine for five years after that. After his military career ended, he started working at a car wash. “I put my brain in the freezer,” he said, describing his experience. “I thought, ‘I’m not going anywhere with this, honestly.”
One day, a limousine pulls into the wash. While Fred is vacuuming it out, he has an idea: what if he drove the cars instead of washing them? It seemed so obvious.
So now, Fred’s got a limo service, and he’s running it well. He grew it from one limo to 24 limos in three years. After spending most of those years shuttling gamblers from the airport down to Tunica, he picks up an unexpected passenger.
“They shoot in the movie Black Snake Moan with Samuel L. Jackson, so we get a call to pick him up from the loft in Downtown,” he said. “Most of my business, I do airport to casino. So I discovered, wow, there is a lot of condominium in this area. So I went ahead and bought a condo at the Claridge House in 2006.”
The same year, he bought the space that used to be The Daily Grind, a small coffee shop conveniently located under the Claridge House condos, and resurrected it.
So now, Fred’s got a limo service and a coffee shop. He goes by Fred because it makes good conversation, and he named the cafe Qahwa—Arabic for “coffee”— for the same reason.
“People know the Italian word for coffee. But qahwa? People say, ‘what does mean? How you say it?’. It's an Arabic name. Memphis is an Arabic name. It’s the same, you know?”
Downtown Memphis Neighborhood Coffee Shop
There’s a reason that some of our city’s most beloved coffee shops aren’t really beloved for their coffee. Neighborhood cafes are a lot like churches, I think. They’re places where the product is most of the time secondary to the sense of community you feel by being there. Fred knew every single person in the shop that day. Any strangers, like me, he makes sure to befriend.
He’s working more hours in the shop himself because of the pandemic, but Fred feels like the kind of guy who would just hang out in his own coffee shop regardless. When I went to Qahwa a couple weeks before doing this interview, I noticed Fred playing chess with an older gentleman.
“He taught me how to play,” he said. “I was intimidated by it, but I like it. And now, we had three kids in here yesterday learning how to play. I love it.”
Turkish Coffee In Downtown Memphis
Community aside, Qahwa actually does have something that sets them apart from every other coffee shop in Memphis—Turkish coffee. It’s the reason I’m here.
Turkish coffee is made by boiling water, fine coffee grounds, sugar, and cardamom in a small Turkish pot called a cezve. Fred boils his in a bed of hot sand. It’s fragrant and flavorful, spicy, a little fruity, and just the right amount of sweet.
It’s got a slightly thicker texture than standard drip coffee, which makes it feel like a heartier drink. The spectacle of the preparation with the incredible flavor makes for an experience I’d recommend to anyone.
Unlike standard coffee, the grounds aren’t filtered. Don’t stir your mug, and don’t drink to the bottom. And, for best results, savor it in the cafe. As exceptional as it is, though, Fred says that not too many people order it.
“It’s an experience. It’s not an American thing,” he said. “Americans want the 16, the 20, the 24 ounces. Turkish coffee is four to five ounces, that’s it. What I want is the discussion to come after drinking the coffee.”
You could also try making your own at home, as long as you have the cezve (there are no substitutes for this, according to Fred), a hot plate, and, of course, the beans.
“Just go to one of the Arabic stores, let's say Jerusalem or Mediterranean Grocery, something like that, and say ‘I’d like to make the Turkish coffee. Can you get me the beans? They know what they're doing.”
Car Service + Coffee Shop: An Unlikely Match
Fred uses his car service and his coffee business in a feat of one-man corporate synergy. It almost feels like cheating. Elegant capitalism-ing always does, though.
“I picked up some doctors, it was about 3:30 or 4:30 p.m.,” he said. “They asked if I know any good places to get coffee. I brought them here, get behind the counter, and they think I’m robbing the place. They were like ‘Wow! You do this too?’”
He told me a story about spending a week shuttling some high-powered yuppies to and from their Downtown wheeling and dealing. Come Saturday night, he’s driving them to The Peabody. “I know what kind of crowd they are,” he said. “They’re leaving Sunday morning, they’re finished with their meetings, they’re spending the night, they’re gonna party hard.”
Fred makes a quick stop at Qahwa about 15 minutes before he’s scheduled to pick them up. He grabs a few carriers of iced coffee and a bag of pastries, then he’s out the door. He pulls up to The Peabody, and, as he expected, they all pile into his vehicle with whopping hangovers. Fred’s got them covered.
“Everybody was like ‘Wow, this is service! This is service!’,” he said. “Guess what? I get $60 tip. They don’t know I own a coffee shop. They know nothing!”
I came to talk to Farhat Othmani because of his coffee. We talked about the coffee, sure. But, I left with the story of Fred: the story of a hustler, of a friendly, sharp-witted man who gets paid however money is made. The American Dream. Coffee goes right through me, but I think Fred’s gonna stay with me a long, long time.