Red Bay Coffee founder Keba Konte first got into coffee as a way to promote his art. But in the 13 years since then, he’s found, and showed countless others, that coffee is not only the perfect setting for art, it’s the perfect way to build community and create opportunity. Now Red Bay are planning an expansion across the country in 2019 to Philadelphia, all the while continuing to push the boundaries of what the coffee industry can be, and whom it can be for.
Konte, who had previously founded Guerrilla Cafe in North Berkeley and Chasing Lions Cafe in San Francisco, has been making coffee news for some time by using entrepreneurship to challenge the status quo. His third and most ambitious coffee venture, Red Bay, started out in 2014 as a micro-roastery in the garage under Konte’s Fruitvale home (aka the Coffee Dojo). From there it grew into a roastery and event space in a converted factory just a few blocks from Fruitvale Station; a Kickstarter-funded cafe followed shortly after, made from a modified shipping container in uptown Oakland.
With Red Bay, Konte has incorporated a profit-sharing into the business model and is generally going bigger than any of his previous ventures. Through running a roastery as well as cafes, he’s been able to explore the impacts that business can have on the sourcing side of the coffee value chain. “I got into coffee as a way to create a platform not only for my artwork but for my life's work: being creative, organizing community, and trying to push my community forward,” says Konte. While coffee was originally a doorway into this mission, Konte found even more behind the door than he had initially anticipated. “I really got turned on by all the possibilities of impact, of being able to build teams, and the power and impact of sourcing.”
One of Konte’s guiding goals is to bring more equity to members of the coffee supply chain from its most underserved groups, particularly people of color and women. “Most often, black and brown people are either picking the coffee cherries, handing off a cup, or sweeping,” Konte tells Sprudge. “So our mission has really been to fill in some of the career positions in the supply chain, from sourcing, roasting, and quality control, all the way to marketing, equipment, and software. This industry goes so deep.”
In making that mission a reality, Red Bay also works to make sure their hiring pool includes candidates who have previously been incarcerated. “One of the things that keeps me inspired is that we’ve introduced a lot of people to coffee who really never saw coffee as an opportunity for a career,” says Konte. “A lot of people—not just second chance employees but also a lot of other black and brown professionals—really haven’t had the chance to think about how many technical and professional opportunities are spread through the value chain of coffee.”
Another way Red Bay has worked to engage its community is through its events. The Red Bay roastery doubles as an events space and boasts a constant roster of innovative and accessible events and event series. The events, which range from breakfast popups to concert residencies to magazine releases to panel discussions to self-care festivals, are all coordinated by Jessica Moncada, who, in addition to her background as a wedding planner, is Konte’s daughter. “We try to do a mix of everything so everyone in the community can feel included,” says Moncada. “As a wedding planner, I worked with very specific people around their very specific visions, but when creating community events, you have to have the whole community in mind and reach out to people, and encourage them to reach out to you.”
Some of Red Bay’s most successful events have been in direct response to community excitement; for instance, after the release of the film Black Panther in 2018, the space hosted a panel on black futurism. “I just noticed that people loved to talk about the movie,” Moncada tells Sprudge. “So we had the panel, and then we put four chairs in the middle of the room and opened it up so that everyone could take turns sharing and starting new conversations. It’s hard to have a group conversation with 80 people, but somehow it worked.”
The company has had expansion in the works for a long time, and Konte and crew are excited to see Philadelphia get its first container cafe, which Red Bay expects to be open in the summer of 2019. After a string of racist incidents at Starbucks went viral in late 2018 and led the company to shut down its stores for racial bias training, Red Bay’s long-term expansion plans felt even more timely. “Expansion is not just a reaction to Starbucks, but the timing of what happened there and what’s happening all over the country definitely makes it feel a little more urgent,” says Moncada. “What we want to do is put less focus on Starbucks and what they’re doing to solve their problems and just give people alternatives.”
It’s certainly timely but also not entirely surprising that Philadelphia, the location that the Red Bay crew had planned as the first point of East Coast expansion, acted as a flashpoint for a larger conversation about anti-blackness in specialty coffee. “The African American community in the Philadelphia area is both larger and much more underserved than that of the Bay Area,” says Konte. “I think there’s a tremendous market opportunity to be found in serving and engaging that community as well as other communities along the East Coast.”
They’re currently hiring, and Konte is excited about the talent they’ve already brought on in the area. While the coffee box should open this year, Konte also plans to open a Philadelphia roastery and event space in 2019. After that, they plan to open in New York and build coffee boxes along the HBCU line.
As the company approaches their five-year anniversary and preps for expansion, Konte is grateful they’ve been able to have an impact on the specialty coffee community, their local community, and the larger business community. “Surviving five years in business is not easy. I give props to all the small business owners and entrepreneurs out there who really start out undercapitalized, much like we did. We’ve been able to build a working model that shows that creating a socially aware brand can really be a huge competitive advantage. It's a huge win to be able to show that doing good things in the world can also mean good business.”
Running a business is hard, and Konte looks for inspiration not only in the impact Red Bay has had on their community and the individuals that comprise it, but also in his daily cup. “Sometimes what inspires me day to day is just the simple pleasure of having a great cup of coffee,” reflects Konte. “The more you know about everything it takes to make great coffee from seed to cup and all the ways it could go wrong at every step, the more you know not to take it for granted.”
Photos by Evan Gilman unless otherwise noted.