By WALTER KIRN
October 22, 2016
MALIBU, Calif. — I wasn’t eating right. Was I even eating? In that miserable winter in 2011, I couldn’t always be sure. Unlike my impossibly slender, toned new neighbors here, where I’d rented a small apartment on the beach to escape my cold Montana hometown, I didn’t count calories, carbs or protein grams. I only counted pounds, the bottom line. Lately, I’d lost track even of those. A combination of workaholic strain and grief over my mother’s recent death had plunged me into a spiral of self-neglect as I veered between pigging out and going hungry. I was failing as a Southern Californian, and my eyes, as yellow as Post-it notes, were proof.
One day, in this state of nutritional manic depression, I wandered into a local juice bar, SunLife Organics. My goal was modest: to drink something, anything, containing maca, a so-called superfood much praised by the yoga instructors and pro surfers whom I sometimes overheard chatting about their health and fitness regimens. I’d scorned these types when I’d first moved to the beach, but physical beauty is a great persuader, and misery soon grows tired of its own company.
I waited in a long line whose glamour quotient — the ratio of pop culture celebrities to people who ought to be, judging by their looks — was higher than I’d ever seen. The décor was predictable: crystals everywhere. Standing upright on shelves and on the floor were several enormous geodes, split in half, with sparkling amber and purple centers. Equally luminous were the bottled drinks displayed in a cooler near the front door. I picked up one, a glowing orange potion made of turmeric, raw honey, lemon juice, ginger, black pepper, cayenne and alkaline water. The stuff was called Elixir of Life, and I sat down to drink it at a communal table under a screen playing surfing videos.
I became a SunLife regular that day, unwittingly joining the only cult that has ever had me for a member. There was something euphoric about the place, as though each morning, just before it opened, someone struck a giant diamond tuning fork that magically resonated till closing time. The young men and women working behind the counter, most of them no older than their late teens, were the handsomest human beings I’d ever seen outside of magazine ads for high-end underwear. As they chopped fruits and vegetables and blended smoothies beneath a large sign that read “Love Heal & Inspire,” they seemed on the verge of bursting into song.
One morning as I was sipping my Elixir, a lean, compact man with short dark hair approached me. His gaze was unsettling steady, like a therapist’s, and hanging around his neck was a gold cross overlaid with a Star of David. This made me wary; I wondered if he were a guru to the stars. I’d noticed him talking from time to time with two of SunLife’s most conspicuous regulars: Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and David Duchovny, the actor. The man also appeared to be on intimate terms with an elderly Buddhist monk in saffron robes who came in for açaí bowls with chopped bananas.
“That drink saved my life; it’s a game changer,” he said. Then he introduced himself. His name was Khalil, and he was a co-owner of the place.
I said that I was pleased to meet him and that his juice bar was the best one I’d ever been to, by a mile. He answered, “I know.” Or maybe he just nodded. All I remember is his startling confidence. That, and the way he looked me in the eye when he told me about the game the drink had changed.
Khalil Rafati is 46, but he shouldn’t be. He should be dead.
In 2001, at a house party in Malibu, Mr. Rafati, who had been dealing drugs for years, intentionally overdosed on IV heroin and was revived by paramedics. In 2002, he almost died again, when armed intruders fired at him through the door of a bathroom where he was shooting drugs. He found himself homeless soon afterward, drifting through downtown Los Angeles’s skid row, emaciated and covered in abscesses. Eventually he wound up in the Los Angeles County Jail. He credits his survival there to a fellow prisoner’s advice to feign suicidal thoughts, a trick that allowed him to escape the facility’s general population for its less violent psychiatric unit.
Mr. Rafati describes this in “I Forgot to Die,” a self-published memoir of addiction and recovery that is for sale online and in his stores, of which there are six now, spread around the greater Los Angeles area, from Pasadena to Manhattan Beach. The book starts in Toledo, Ohio, his hometown, where he was born in 1969, the son of a Polish Jewish mother (who was raised Roman Catholic, and a Muslim father of Palestinian origins). His childhood was exceptionally grim, marked by sexual abuse, repeated run-ins with the law and a gnawing desire to get away. He finally did in 1992, driving nonstop to Southern California in a caffeine-fueled bid for independence.
Mr. Rafati’s first year out west was a Horatio Alger story of humble hard work and social ascendance. He started a business detailing sports cars, and soon found himself employed on the estate of none other than Elizabeth Taylor. Other celebrity clients followed, including Slash, the guitarist for Guns N’ Roses, and Jeff Bridges, the actor. Unfortunately, Mr. Rafati wasn’t content doing odd jobs for the stars; he invested his earnings in bulk purchases of marijuana, which he sold off in small amounts for lavish profits. By the late 1990s, he was peddling ecstasy at raves and smuggling ketamine, a surgical anesthetic, across the border from Mexico. Then one night at a party, he tried heroin. It gave him, he writes, what he had always wanted: “A childhood.”
After countless failed attempts at sobriety, Mr. Rafati cleaned himself up for the last time on June 18, 2003. “I’d finally reached the bottom of all bottoms,” he said. “There was no more digging left to do; all of my shovels were broken. I was done.” Before long, he’d grown as serious about his recovery as he had been about narcotics.
In 2007, he founded a sober living house in Malibu, Riviera Recovery, where he concocted what would become SunLife’s signature smoothie, the Wolverine, a date- and banana-based drink that also contained maca, bee pollen and royal jelly. “It was meant to rejuvenate and strengthen the patients,” he says, “and give them some much-needed strength. Lethargy in early sobriety is pretty brutal, especially if you’re coming off a long run with hard-core drugs.”
Once Mr. Rafati refocused his energy on nutritional matters, his entrepreneurial spirit took over, helped by a series of CDs and DVDs by the motivational speaker Tony Robbins. He started to dream of, in his words, “a place where everybody would know your name, just like in the old television show ‘Cheers.’”
Because he’d ruined his credit during his years of drug use, his grubstake for the store consisted of $50,000 worth of gold coins he’d squirreled away. With a partner, Hayley Gorcey, his girlfriend at the time, he also found a backer, a professional gambler who wishes to remain anonymous. Finally, he sought advice from his friend Fred Segal, the retail clothing legend and a stickler for detail.
“He gave me a 20-minute lecture on the sign on the bathroom door that read, ‘Customers Only,’” Mr. Rafati said. “He was so mad! He insisted that I take it down immediately and have a new one put up that said, ‘For our customers.’ He told me that my job was to love people and heal them.”
That was 2011. I remember it clearly, since I was one of those customers who needed healing.
Cache Coelho, 26, the exceptionally fit and fresh-looking manager of SunLife’s store in central Malibu, is the company’s longest continuous employee. Like a lot of the young people whom Mr. Rafati hires, he wasn’t in good shape when he signed on. “I lost my mom at 17 to an overdose,” he said. “Then I lost a full-ride scholarship to the University of Arkansas. I started doing cocaine. My grades dived. I started shooting up every day — OxyContin. I picked up a couple of felonies for selling weed.”
One day, after mixing Xanax and methadone, Mr. Coelho fell into a coma. He wasn’t supposed to wake up, he tells me, but when he finally did, his sister flew him from his Arkansas home to California, where, lacking money for professional treatment, he detoxed in a hot tub for a week. He met Mr. Rafati on his second day out west.
“Right from the start, he was trying to better my life,” Mr. Coelho says of his boss. “He got me to run my first Tough Mudder,” an ordeal-like race and obstacle course. “He gets very personal with us, especially the ones he believes in. This shirt I’m wearing? It’s one of like 20 James Perse shirts he’s given me. He pushes us very hard, in a father-like sense.”
Over the years as a SunLife customer, I’ve seen firsthand how Mr. Rafati’s juice bars function as informal meeting places for souls on the mend from drugs and alcohol. This makes SunLife more than a zone of good nutrition; it makes it a haven for spirits who truly thirst. Mr. Rafati, with his eclectic spiritual background — part Jewish, part Muslim and part Christian — wouldn’t have it any other way. One morning, over my daily Elixir of Life, I asked him, “If you had to check a box concerning your religion, what would it be?” He thought for a moment and then said:
“Yes.” Just, “Yes.”