Looking for Light

Today, Khalil Rafati is a well-known Malibu resident, owner of Sunlife Organics and Malibu Beach Yoga. Less than a decade ago, he was a convicted felon living on Skid Row in Los Angeles.

“I developed a pretty bad addiction to heroin and cocaine in my 20s [and] sobered up in my mid-30s,” Rafati said. “I was really suffering the high cost of low living.”

And though he participated in the traditional 12-step addiction recovery program, he cites yoga and nutrition as the most effective tools in helping treat the anxiety, depression and addiction.

“I became obsessed with the idea of living my best life,” he shared, adding, “I started seeking out what were the healthiest things I could put in my body, what was going to make me feel great.”

He began to experiment with recipes while trying to mask the taste of things like resveratrol and collagen into something both healthy and tasty in his kitchen with business partner Hayley Gorcey. 

Around that time, açaí—a staple in the Sunlife menu—was steadily gaining popularity in the United States. Rafati had done his research and decided that he wanted to use 100 percent certified organic toppings. 

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“It didn’t matter what the bottom line was,” he said. “The integrity has to be there.”

At 33 years old, he sought help and cleaned up his act; at 41 years old, he opened the doors to the first Sunlife Organics store in Malibu.

Most of all, Rafati wanted to be part of the community—because of his experience with drugs and struggling with addiction, he had felt isolated. Now, he had the chance to help build up the community around him.

“I wanted to feel a part of my community by serving my community, by being a good neighbor, being a good citizen,” he said, adding: “I saw Sunlife as the vehicle to be allowed to let go of my past.”

He noticed that many food places didn’t hire from the community, which impacted his hiring decisions: All Sunlife employees live in Malibu, Agoura Hills or Calabasas. Additionally, he instituted a drug- and alcohol-free environment based on his experience with substance abuse. Though Rafati admits he has had to fire a handful of people, he emphasizes that family-friendly environment is key to Sunlife’s mission.

Today, Sunlife has exceeded Rafati’s wildest expectations. When the first store opened in 2010, he and Gorcey were expecting somewhere around 100 people a day. In Malibu alone, Sunlife serves more than 1,500 people per day from sunup to sundown.

As Rafati puts it, he’s still failing his way toward success. With the City of Malibu’s recent plastics ban, for example, he was very upset—calling it “the bane of [his] existence.”

And then he spoke to city council members Skylar Peak and Laura Rosenthal, who convinced him to warm up to the idea, calling it part of the journey.

He chooses to look at the positives instead: Sunlife will be opening its ninth location shortly, with about 10 more stores planned around California within the next two or so months. Another set of locations is set for Texas and Arizona and possibly a few more in other states.

Outside of Sunlife, Rafati has self-published a book—”I Forgot to Die”—on his tumultuous past and journey to getting clean. Calling it “one of the most incredible experiences of [his] life,” he is currently halfway through writing his second book, a self-help guide for people in similar situations.

As for the future?

“The future is going to look exactly like it looks like right now for me,” he said. “I’m going to go into the different stores and wash blenders and pick up trash off the floor and say hello to my friends and neighbors.”

When people ask if he has an exit strategy, Rafati laughs.

“I wish I was that smart … Why would we want to exit? We get to serve the coolest people in Malibu and I’m talking about the people that live in Malibu,” he explained. “If you serve people good food and you don’t ask them for anything, you build incredible friendships.”

He goes on to describe that even if given “a billion dollars right now,” he would end up standing in line at Sunlife Organics within a short period of time.

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