Every sip of coffee contains a connection to Africa and the history of the global drink. One centuries-old legend traces the discovery of coffee to an Ethiopian goatherder named Kaldi. The story tells how he learned about coffee’s energizing effects when his goats stayed awake after eating berries from coffee trees. Kaldi took his findings to a local monastery where the abbot made a drink with the berries. Over time, the world fell in love with coffee.
“This is really something that we should own and be at the forefront of because this is our heritage and our inheritance,” says Keba Konte, founder of Red Bay Coffee. The Oakland entrepreneur recognized a certain irony in the origins of the drink and Black Americans initially being left out of the modern-day specialty coffee culture. He decided to do something about it. “I believed that I had the experience, skills and passion that could connect the underserved community and this global commodity to create something special.”
Birth of Red Bay Coffee
Konte had already achieved international recognition as a photojournalist, visual artist and social activist before entering the coffee business. He and his wife, Rachel, Konte were members of an artist collective that opened Berkeley’s Guerilla Café in 2006. The global impact of coffee and its omnipresence in daily life attracted Konte to the industry. “It’s just a way that people come together, take a break and join one another in conversation or relaxation. There’s so much velocity and so much room for innovation,” he says.
After opening a second coffee shop, Chasing Lions Café, Konte began focusing on the opportunities roasters had to build relationships in the coffee-growing world. “I’ve always been a very curious person. I love to learn new things and challenge myself,” says Red Bay’s founder. “After eight years of running coffee shops, I wanted to challenge myself to the next level of building a roastery and learning how to roast coffee.”
Red Bay Coffee was born in humble surroundings in 2014. Konte converted a garden shed and garage at his Fruitvale home into a coffee lab and roasting operation. He spent a year and a half learning how to roast beans in what he affectionately calls the Coffee Dojo. The practitioner of wrestling, judo and jujitsu applied discipline to honing his roasting skills while working as a café operator. “As I’m building Red Bay Coffee, I’m operating Guerilla Café and Chasing Lions Café. Each one served a highly acclaimed local coffee brand,” Konte says. “I set the bar very high. My coffee had to be at least as good as those that we were going to be replacing.”
With practice, mentorships and professional training, the coffee entrepreneur had a Red Bay product to serve in his cafes and sell wholesale to restaurants and offices. This was at a time when smaller, independent gourmet coffee shops were thriving. Coffee lovers had begun showing more interest in origin countries, fair trade relationships and a lighter roast profile. Red Bay met that demand by roasting coffee beans purchased from local importers. “We grew the business and probably had about eight people working for us. We were still in the Coffee Dojo. It was very close quarters and very tight,” says Konte.
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The Oakland couple eventually moved their roastery into a warehouse within walking distance of their Fruitvale District home. They sold their interest in Guerilla Café, closed Chasing Lions Café and focused on expanding Red Bay’s operations. Konte and Rachel now run the roastery with its coffee bar and outdoor garden, a café in a converted shipping container in downtown Oakland, a new coffee shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, a coffee bar in a San Francisco financial district office tower, a Mercedes mobile van and a coffee shop at Red Bay’s new headquarters in Fruitvale.
Signs of Success
Red Bay’s coffee distribution grew. So did its reputation as a company that cares about high-quality and sustainable production, diversity and inclusion, social and economic restoration, entrepreneurship and environmental protections. The grand opening of the new headquarters at Oakland’s International Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue last month signaled the success of the founder’s focus on welcoming people of color and connecting with his community. “I just thought if we are going to do this, let’s not be shy about it. Let’s put our values behind this,” says Konte. “I knew it was the time for this type of company that didn’t just give back a few percentages to charity.”
The coffee shop and administrative offices are housed in a former 1930s bank building that was a dilapidated wreck. Rachel, Red Bay’s chief of brand, designed most of the 11,000 square-foot structure into a stunning, three-story modern, light-filled space. The sleek coffee bar serves coffee drinks, baked goods and more. The company’s motto, “Beautiful Coffee to the People,” is painted on the building’s exterior. It is a remarkable reflection of how much Konte and his wife have accomplished since they started Red Bay with fundraising campaigns. “I raised $20,000 from friends and family to build out the dojo and get started there. After that, we did a crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter, where we broke records for our category,” Konte says.
The $88,000 collected through Kickstarter almost doubled the record of money raised for other coffee businesses. Banks, angel investors and venture capitalists provided additional funds that allowed Red Bay to import coffee beans and cultivate direct relationships with growers. “I wanted to get out in the world more. One of the things we do here at Red Bay Coffee is building equitable buying relationships with coffee producers,” says the company’s co-owner.
Once the demand for the roaster’s products could fill a shipping container with coffee beans, Konte resumed the passion for travel that took him to African and Latin American countries as a photojournalist. Now Red Bay imports about 300,000 pounds of green, raw coffee beans directly from growers, including the son of the legendary baseball great, Jackie Robinson. “One of the first direct trade relationships was with David Robinson of Sweet Unity Farms in East Africa. We met in New York, and his coffee was fantastic. We hit it off, and Sweet Unity Farms has been our largest single trading partner since then until today,” Konte explains.
Sweet Unity Coffee in Tanzania is not the only African farm that sells coffee beans directly to Red Bay. The company also has a relationship with a coffee co-op in Burundi controlled by women. Their coffee beans are used in the Motherland collection. Konte also developed a relationship with La Ceiba farm after making connections through a Guatemalan church in Fruitvale. “We saw that it had potential, so we worked with them to improve the coffee a couple points. We started to buy their coffee. They tripled their income by working with us,” says Konte.
The grower’s neighbors in Guatemala were also being exploited by middlemen. The following year they joined the coop that sold all of its coffee to Red Bay. “That’s another example of how a direct trade relationship can help elevate the lives of coffee farmers,” Konte adds.
Pandemic Pivot and Ecommerce Growth
According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), coffee is grown in more than 50 countries. Many of those nations are in Africa, Central and South America, North America and Asia. Their coffee beans produce nearly 646 million cups of the beloved brew that Americans drink every day. The spread of coronavirus forced coffee shop regulars to find other ways to get their favorite drinks. “Within hours of the NBA announcing they were going to cancel their season, all of the tech companies sent their employees home. About 60 percent of our business was in office coffee service,” says the Oakland entrepreneur.
Red Bay serviced top technology companies in the San Francisco Bay area, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb and more. Konte temporarily closed all of his coffee outlets as sales plummeted. “We were able to open one or two eventually, and introduce our new coffee van that we had been working on for about a year.”
The founder’s experience with photography, visual arts and social justice prepared him to pivot when the pandemic struck. Konte put out video messages on social media and promoted the mobile van to connect with customers. The calls for consumers to support businesses hurt by the pandemic also moved Red Bay toward recovery. “Following the murder of George Floyd and the growing call to support Black-owned business, we had our second wave of support that helped drive our eCommerce sales,” he says.
Once Red Bay’s staff shifted focus to online purchases, those eCommerce sales skyrocketed 350 percent in 90 days. With a workforce reduced from about 63 employees to eight, Konte had to upgrade the company’s packing and shipping technology to keep up with the new sources of revenue. “People were already getting used to eCommerce. We were on Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things list. That culminated into a pretty high-powered eCommerce holiday season for us.”
Grocery store sales have also increased since last year. Red Bay Coffee is sold in Whole Foods, Safeway and other supermarkets in about a dozen states. It can be purchased on Amazon, CoffeeGoGo and the company’s website. Most of the people buying the roaster’s coffee beans are Black Americans living in California. New York is the second-largest market, and based on social media followers, Black women are the brand’s biggest supporters.
Community Commitment and Social Impact
As an employer, Konte is glad to report the company has been able to increase employees again to 44 and is looking to add more back to the payroll as pandemic restrictions lift, and Red Bay locations expand. His commitment to diversity and inclusiveness in hiring practices gives people of color, women, the formerly incarcerated and applicants with disabilities opportunities to join the specialty coffee industry. “I believe every business is a reflection of the owner’s and the founder’s values. No matter what I decided to do, it would always be anchored into my values of inclusivity and giving people a second chance,” Konte says.
Red Bay’s owners demonstrated their desire to improve the lives of others when they chose to pay starting workers $15 an hour in 2014. Most employers offered a minimum wage of $7 to $10 an hour at that time. “These are things I was passionate about before I opened a coffee company or a coffee shop for that matter,” says Konte. “I grew up in Haight-Ashbury, which was a cultural revolution. Through my photojournalism, I saw injustice around the world.”
The graduate of San Francisco State University was socially active in college before pursuing his career as a photojournalist and artist in South Africa, Cuba and other countries. His desire to address inequities meant Red Bay could not become another example of gentrification that often pushes out or excludes Blacks and other people of color. “I wanted our social impact to be baked into the business model of Red Bay Coffee. We became a B Corp, which is a certified Benefit Corporation, to help institute these values and keep them ingrained in our organization,” Konte says.
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The certification is given to companies that meet higher standards of accountability and transparency while leading the global movement to use businesses to do more good in the world. Red Bay’s exclusive use of World Centric’s compostable tableware and packaging for its high-grade specialty coffees demonstrates a commitment to positive social impact.
“The real potential for impact is by inspiring other companies to follow suit. If we were successful at a business model, then the competition would follow,” says Konte. Although he points out that one company can only do so much, Red Bay’s profitability makes an impression in the corporate coffee world. “And we’ve seen it happen. Also, I think we are at the beginning of a movement of Black people participating in coffee.”
More than a dozen Black-owned coffee companies and cafes have cropped up across the country since Red Bay started operating in Oakland. It was one of the first and is still the most prominent.
New Horizons and Higher Dreams
Red Bay’s share of the specialty coffee market is likely to increase even more with the introduction of a new product in development for the past five years. The company is launching a line of ready-to-drink coffee in a can. “It’s a sparkling coffee beverage with the sensation of a cola. It drinks like cola and is lightly sweetened with just coffee and bubbles. It’s called a black coffee spritzer,” says Konte.
The NCA reports that the pandemic inspired 41 percent of coffee drinkers to try a new type of coffee. So Red Bay’s black coffee spritzers are a timely addition to the company’s offerings through eCommerce and local shops and stores.
Konte and his wife do have other goals they hope to accomplish in the future. They include opening coffee shops in Southern California and, hopefully, other states and countries. “We are particularly interested in markets such as Los Angeles, New York and Japan,” he says.
At the time of this interview for Cuisine Noir Magazine, Konte was sitting outside a location in Southern California that could become a new Red Bay Coffee destination. Continued growth could make it possible for the owners to realize their dream of becoming the most relevant coffee company in America. “Although there is so much more I would like for Red Bay Coffee to accomplish, I must admit that we have already exceeded my original dreams.”
There’s also the promise of creating generational wealth for the couple’s daughters, Jessica and Assata. Both have worked in the family business but are pursuing their own entrepreneurial visions. Jessica Moncada-Konte recently opened Alkali Rye – Oakland’s Beverage Shop with her friend and partner Kori Saika Chen. The specialty retail store sells a thoughtfully curated selection of liquor and beverages that showcase the talents of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Women and LGBTQ businesses.
Konte is confident his daughters can take over Red Bay someday if they choose to do so. For now, he and Rachel are focused on setting their company on the right course for an even brighter future. “Back in the early days, my vision was to create a coffee brand that was economically viable and stood for something we could all be proud of. From our current perch, I can see new horizons, and I have set higher dreams.”