The Community-Driven Ethos Behind Oakland’s Red Bay Coffee

In an industry saturated by foul play, this California-based brand aims to foster a global community and create opportunity

On 10th Street in Oakland, Red Bay Coffee (a certified B Corp) offers ample space to sip coffee and hosts events where visitors find the open warehouse space filled with others enjoying coffee while watching performances, taking part in workshops, and attending cookbook launches. The pandemic hit Red Bay Coffee—like so many others—hard, and demanded that founder and owner Keba Konte think fast and collaborate with his staff to be imaginative, nimble and flexible. But, as Konte says, “Coffee is one of those items that can do well in a downturn. It is a staple.” While the events halted and customers began ordering more beans for brewing at home, the central mission of Red Bay Coffee remains intact: to foster a global community and create opportunity within.

Courtesy of Byrom Malik

“I have always had a passion and connection to Africa,” Konte tells us. “It is tragically ironic that though coffee originated in Africa and most is still produced overall in Africa, that Africans and African Americans share the smallest piece of the coffee dollar. There is some economic justice that needs to happen. That is part of why I am passionate about participating in this industry. I want to make right some wrongs.”

Konte commits to this balance of purpose and profit across various aspects of the business, perhaps most visibly by employing those oftentimes looked over for employment—especially within the coffee industry; people of color, individuals with disabilities, those who have been incarcerated, and former foster youth. “I am talking about leadership positions,” Konte explains. “If you are looking to create a more diverse and inclusive work force, you have to build that pipeline.”

Further afield, this concept of a global community remains and the team at Red Bay Coffee abides by specific criteria when selecting their sources: “One, the quality and taste of the coffee,” says Konte, “And two, they have to have some sort of impact in their local community.” The company champions a “value chain” (single-origin, fair trade, direct trade and ethically sourced) rather than a simple supply-and-demand chain. Konte explains this ethos through an experience in which he learned of a Guatemalan community located at the base of a volcano that was being exploited—making far less selling their beans than they should have. “We got connected through a Guatemalan pastor in our neighborhood. We flew down to Guatemala to build a relationship,” he tells us. “We are advising them on some best practices, helping increase their quality. We are their first relationship to export coffee direct trade coffee. Since then many of their neighbors have joined their collective because we are paying them $3.30 [rather than 70c they were making previously] a pound on average for their coffee and now we buy their entire lot.”

Keba Konte in Ethiopia, courtesy of Red Bay Coffee

For their King’s Prize coffee, Konte traveled to the farm in Ethiopia to set up the transaction himself. “When I started Red Bay, I felt I had to I had to pay a visit to the motherland of all coffee. The farm there is beautiful. They have great sustainable practices and are treating their people well. We have also set up relationships so that in their off-season they have small businesses. The farm is supporting those small businesses giving micro-finance loans. We are also buying some of their products whether it is beaded jewelry and handmade items in conjunction with my wife [and co-founder] Rachel’s company OwlNWood.”

Courtesy of Nye Lyn Tho

The coffees themselves are delectable. When it comes to roasting, Konte and Karla Mancio (head of roasting and green buying) seek out their preferred sweet spot. “We try to maximize the sugars and sweetness in coffee. We are going for a balanced and approachable profile. We are always riding this tension between a fully developed coffee,” Konte tells us. “It is not an easy needle to thread.” We especially love their Slow Burn (with beans from Brazil and Sumatra) and Carver’s Dream (with beans from Guatemala and Burundi), as well as various specialty drinks including a cocoa butter latte and charcoal vanilla latte.

Beautiful, to me, is something that is synonymous with equitable relationships from the farm through the company to the streets.

Red Bay’s motto, “beautiful coffee to the people” permeates the brand—literally and figuratively. “It echoes a chant ‘All power to the people’ that was coined in Oakland by the Black Panther Party,” explains Konte. “It is something that is in the water here. Coffee shops are often the spearhead of a gentrification movement. I knew if I opened a coffee shop in Oakland, it had to be mission focused and try to address some of the challenges that our community faces. I want to make specialty coffee more accessible.” Simply put, “You can have a good product, but if it was grown by exploited people under slave conditions it would be a stretch to call that beautiful,” Konte says. “Beautiful, to me, is something that is synonymous with equitable relationships from the farm through the company to the streets.”

Red Bay Coffee coffee is available in whole bean or pre-ground bags in their online store. There, customers may also purchase mugs, gift cards, and apparel and accessories designed by co-founder Rachel Konte. They also started a podcast called Coffee Dojo during the pandemic.

Hero image courtesy of Red Bay Coffee