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Brewing Revolution

Coffee culture is largely white and elitist. Keba Konte wants to change that, one scrupulously roasted cup at a time.

 

Keba Konte stands with a practiced stoop in Red Bay Coffee’s dojo—if he straightened up, his head would skim the ceiling—and welcomes a group of visitors to the former garage in his backyard, now a mini-roastery and training hub. The perk at the $40 level of his Kickstarter campaign, which exceeded its $80,000 goal in June, is a tour of the dojo behind his Fruitvale Victorian.

Eight people of assorted ages and ethnicities are sipping freshly brewed Kopi Luwak. No one requests cream or sweetener. They are self-proclaimed coffee heads with expensive cameras around their necks, and they ask informed questions. One inquiry concerns the recent trend of Bulletproofing, or putting butter in coffee, which has ties to an Ethiopian tradition but is rarely credited as an African mainstay. “Reused,” responds the Red Bay employee leading the tour. The guests excitedly volunteer more condemning options: “Appropriated!” “Capitalized!” Konte chuckles. “I like this group,” he says.

Thanks to his Kickstarter campaign, Konte is planning to open Red Bay’s flagship coffee bar in October at Oakland’s mixed-use Hive development. The café, located in a modified shipping container, will bear all the hallmarks of a zeitgeist-issued coffee shrine—charismatic baristas will explain the origins of beans as they concoct your pour-over—but Konte’s business model and mission are less familiar. He is committed to hiring people of color, women, disabled people, and the formerly incarcerated, and his employees will share 100 percent of the profits (he will make his money as a bean wholesaler to some 40 clients, including Twitter and Berkeley Bowl). He wants to change coffee culture, which he sees as predominantly elitist and white despite the fact that coffee is harvested by brown hands in developing countries. “It’s an industry that’s moving billions and billions of dollars that we’re getting completely left out of,” Konte says. “And this started in Africa. I like to think of it as our inheritance. But inheritances still have to be claimed.”

Born Armand Walker in 1966 to a black father and a white mother, Konte was raised in Haight-Ashbury and shed what he calls a slave name during a 1992 trip to Senegal. He studied photojournalism at San Francisco State while rearing the older of his two daughters as a single father. Throughout the ’90s, he created album cover art for Bay Area musicians like E-40, Master P, and Michael Franti, but was better known for his large photo transfers on wood, which today hang in places like Farmerbrown, a San Francisco soul food restaurant. In 2006, he decided to begin a new chapter, cofounding Guerilla Café in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

“Keba’s one of my favorite men. Amazing. Humble. He protects the weak, champions the poor—he’s not just trying to crush the bottom line,” says Charlie Hallowell, a longtime friend and the restaurateur behind Oakland’s Pizzaiolo, Penrose, and Boot and Shoe Service. “It just seems right to me that an Oakland native will be the next badass roaster.” The original badass, of course, is James Freeman. Ten years prior, the founder of Blue Bottle was an unknown, processing a pound of beans at a time on a tabletop roaster in Pizzaiolo’s shared courtyard and offering Hallowell samples of his coffee. Hallowell insisted that Freeman meet Konte, and Guerilla became one of the first cafés to brew Blue Bottle. In 2009, Konte followed Freeman’s lead and began roasting beans in a wok over a propane stove in his backyard and watching YouTube videos to learn technique. He built the dojo two summers ago, then took a master roaster class.

“I already had a coffee shop, but that was kind of small potatoes,” Konte recalls. “The bigger picture is a coffee company. The horizon is broader, the ceiling is higher.” He founded Red Bay in 2014; nine months later, during a trip to Ethiopia—“where coffee began,” he says—he established an exclusive direct trade relationship with a coffee farm. Konte has worked out another direct trade relationship with a family co-op in Indonesia: He’s buying its entire harvest for his smoky Sumatra Honey, one of Red Bay’s eight unique blends.

 

Hallowell is blunt about the shortcomings of the coffee industry where Red Bay is carving out territory. “What’s missing is black people,” he says. “We live in Oakland. Keba will create a space that really represents Oakland.” In doing so, Konte will likely face challenges posed by the very people he hopes to engage. Adrionna Fike, a friend of Konte’s, can speak to that firsthand: As co-owner of West Oakland’s Mandela Foods Cooperative, she’s used to watching people walk right past Mandela (which was the first store to stock Red Bay) to buy food at the nearby 99-cent store. “We’ve been open for six years, and our target audience is just now starting to come in,” she says. “Part of it is normative behavior. People have ideas about convenience and misconceptions about how much things should cost.”

Particularly, one could argue, when it comes to a $4 cup of coffee, no matter how delectably roasted. Konte, for his part, is well aware of that. “It’s a fine line,” he says of the struggle to change coffee culture without alienating anyone in the process. “Yes, we are appealing to black people, but we don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves. We don’t have a red, black, and green label for that reason.” Broadening the appeal of a business that’s addressing exclusion, especially as the face of Oakland continues to shift from brown to white, makes sense. “The reality is that the biggest segment of specialty-coffee consumers is still young white folks,” Konte says.

On a morning in mid-August, Konte arrives late to set up his booth at the Umoja Festival, a pan-African celebration in Oakland. Although neighboring vendors have started serving customers, he unloads the boxes and gallons of coffee from the bed of his old pickup without haste. “We’re still finessing the setup,” he says to a curious stranger. The day is already hot, even in the shade of Red Bay’s tent, when the first customers—a white couple in sun hats pushing a stroller—order cold brews. An employee arrives from the dojo, where she’s been making fresh batches of the stuff since the wee hours. Konte needs to leave to check on other employees working a farmers’ market and roasting at the dojo, but he’s something of a prom king around here, and his attempts are constantly thwarted by people who want to hug him. He poses for pictures with babies and invites their overheated mothers to relax on a blanket behind the booth. “Hellooo!” he greets a middle-aged black man who wanders over to shake his hand. “I’ve been hearing about the name,” the man responds, nodding and looking over the bags of coffee for sale. “I like what you’re doing.” He walks away without buying anything.

The exchange highlights the question that is frequently on Konte’s mind: Are communities of color ready to fully embrace coffee culture? To the best of his knowledge, he’s the only black wholesaler of coffee beans in the country. “Every time I search ‘black’ and ‘coffee,’” he says, “they just show a cup of black coffee.” He keeps tabs on the few black industry denizens he can find: an Ethiopian woman in Oakland who runs a coffee shop, a man in Arizona who recently started home-roasting. “I mean, please find one and let me know—we’ll start an association,” he says, laughing. In October he will speak at the Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners conference. He expects to be the only panelist discussing specialty coffee at the event, and one of few interested in it as a business pursuit. But at the festival, at least, it’s clear that he’s struck a chord. A woman with a plate of food pauses in front of Konte’s booth. “You have a hell of a concept,” she says to him. “Or maybe I should say ‘vision.’”

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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