Amid pandemic, coffee truck stirs business and community success
February 04, 2021
Shadi Khattab had what he thought was an ironclad business plan, one conceived during his time as a Sacramento State student.
To launch Onit Coffee, he would send his coffee truck all over town to build name recognition and momentum ahead of an eventual a brick-and-mortar opening. He had 30 events booked for March 2020.
Then came COVID-19.
To curb the spread of coronavirus, all the events were lost, and with them Khattab’s opportunity to get his coffee to the masses.
Rather than becoming one of the pandemic’s small business casualties, however, Khattab pivoted, against all odds turning Onit Coffee into a success. Business is booming at the truck’s “permanent” location in Elk Grove, he says. At the same time, he is fulfilling the company’s commitment to the community, something that is personally important to him.
“It was one hell of a journey, a huge learning experience for me,” Khattab said. “I always said that if we are able to adapt during the pandemic and overcome this situation, we will be bulletproof moving forward, and we will be prepared for anything.”
Khattab and his family in many ways are an American success story. They immigrated to the United States from Syria in 2000, when he was just 5. His father, a farmer in Syria, eventually became a doctor.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges. Khattab entered first grade in the United States knowing little of the language or culture. A year after they arrived came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he and his family experienced anti-Muslim bullying and discrimination.
“It was very tough, but at the end of the day, it really molded me into a stronger individual and who I am today,” he said, “I stand up against bullying, and I’m very sympathetic with individuals that have dealt with that growing up because I know what it’s like.”
His family settled in Sacramento, where Khattab graduated high school and, intending to study Economics, enrolled at UC Davis before deciding to switch his major to Business. With no undergraduate Business program at Davis, Khattab transferred to Sac State after just one quarter.
It wasn’t just what Davis lacked, however, that drew him to the University. He liked Sac State’s position in a diverse city and its focus on real-world education. As a Business major, he learned skills that have become essential in his dual roles as owner of Onit and as the marketing director of his family’s cosmetic surgery practice.
“You really learn how to work with different personalities, how to problem solve, and I feel like it really prepares you for the real world,” Khattab said. He also appreciated the curriculum, which emphasized class presentations and public speaking. “I felt like that prepared me for my role as CEO of Onit Coffee and COO of Precision MD.”
He developed the initial plans for Onit in one of his three entrepreneurship classes, conducting a market analysis, studying what types of products he should offer, and surveying his classmates on the business name and logo.
But of all possible ideas, why a coffee shop in Sacramento, a competitive market noted for its many local roasters?
“Our culture is very big on coffee and tea. It’s one way that we bond as a family as a community,” Khattab said. “We’ll sit down with our uncles and cousins and bond over tea and coffee.”
Following graduation, he honed his business plan and secured a custom-built truck. He collaborated with local coffee roaster Old Soul on a proprietary blend to use in his drinks. He even developed a matcha green tea lemonade called The Hornet that “commemorate(s) the campus that helped make my dreams come true.”
When the pandemic hit, Khattab put the truck in the parking lot of the family’s cosmetic surgery center, in essence creating a permanent location. He made sure customers could order via delivery apps, and heavily promoted the company through local media and word-of-mouth.
The moves paid off: Onit serves thousands of customers monthly, Khattab said, and has grown from four employees to 15. He still hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location this fall, just a few miles from his alma mater.
Displayed in bold pink letters across the coffee truck are two slogans – “Impacting lives, one cup at a time,” and “By the city, for the city, to serve the city” – that reflect a commitment to community Khattab fostered during his time at Sacramento State, especially working on behalf of Syrian refugees. He volunteered at fundraisers, attended rallies, and even traveled to Washington to lobby Congress for humanitarian aid.
With Onit Coffee, he has continued that commitment, working every three months with a different nonprofit. Over the past year, the business has donated to the Sacramento Food Bank, provided coffee and clothing to the homeless through Sacramento Street Medicine, and partnered with My Sister’s House to donate 25 cents from every drink purchase to help sex trafficking victims in Sacramento.
Khattab’s drive to serve the community stems from his faith and from his experience as an immigrant.
“As a Muslim man we’re taught to give back. God has blessed me and my family in many ways,” he said. “I want to help minorities, I want to help immigrants, I want to help people in need and lead by example, and I want to build a legacy.
“I want to be remembered as a Syrian American that made it and gave back to the city, gave back to its people.”