Bringing a taste of Southern California to Palo Alto, SunLife Organics co-founder Khalil Rafati recently opened the Malibu-based eatery’s newest location just off Stanford’s campus. The cafe serves acai bowls, cold-pressed juices, protein shakes and smoothies, showcasing the healthy lifestyle to which Rafati says he has committed since overcoming his years of drug addiction and homelessness in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Founded by Rafati and his then-girlfriend Hayley Gorcey in 2011, SunLife Organics opened its Palo Alto location on California Avenue in Nov. 2018. The cafe chain now has 10 locations throughout the state, with the Palo Alto location being its first outside of Southern California.
In an email to The Daily, Rafati wrote that he decided to expand SunLife to Northern California after a Palo Alto couple, concerned about the pervasive mental health issues among local teens and adults, suggested he bring the health and positivity of SunLife’s cuisine to the Bay Area.
“They came to me because they were very concerned about the high rate of depression and suicide taking place in such an amazing, creative town,” Rafati wrote of the couple. “They told me that they liked what they saw in my Malibu stores, and what they saw were a lot of young people that were healthy, happy, laughing and smiling while they worked.”
Rafati’s own dedication to nutrition, exercise and wellness did not begin until 2003, when he decided to fully commit to sobriety.
“Just because I stopped shooting heroin and smoking crack, that did not mean that I was ‘healthy,’” Rafati wrote. “In fact, I was so far from it. I heavily relied on cigarettes and caffeine. I ran on adrenaline and fear to get through my days. Finally, when my friend introduced me to juicing, smoothies, superfoods, I immediately, like any good addict, became obsessed with acquiring, sourcing, blending and consuming healthy foods.”
Before moving to the Bay Area, SunLife Palo Alto senior manager Justin Caña worked for the company in Southern California, as he has done since graduating from California Lutheran University four years ago. He said SunLife’s investment in his personal and professional growth as he rose from an entry-level employee to his current managerial role inspired him to stay loyal to the company.
“The company is really about growth — not only for the people that come in, but for the people that work here too,” Caña said. “It’s something that [the founders] hold true to themselves, and it’s infused into the culture that we have here at SunLife.”
As with SunLife’s other cafes, the Palo Alto location sources ingredients locally and organically. The majority of the shop’s produce is grown just east of Palo Alto in the Central Valley region, the agricultural hub of California. In addition to its menu items, SunLife sells sweet and savory snacks, such as organic dark chocolate bars and packages of Himalayan raisins.
The Palo Alto location also includes a personal meditation pod for customers to use while waiting for their order or relaxing with their food.
Rafati emphasized his enthusiasm about opening SunLife Palo Alto, underscoring the city’s identity as an education-focused place given its proximity to Stanford. In the Palo Alto cafe, he said he has had the chance to connect with Stanford students who have talked to him “at great length” about classes taught by well-known University affiliates such as Condoleezza Rice and Peter Thiel ’89 J.D. ’92.
According to Rafati, Stanford students’ “ideas about the world … filled [him] with energy.” He said he is especially excited about providing nutrition to college students.
“You guys are going to change the world,” he wrote, directly addressing the Stanford community. “I see it as such an amazing privilege to be able to serve you and keep you happy and healthy and full of energy.”
Contact Alexandra Chang at alexandrachang ‘at’ stanford.edu.