Founders' Stories: Keba Konte

Founders' Stories: Keba Konte

Driven by a powerful mission and incredible coffee.
by Randy Miller | February 01, 2021

We're talking to the folks behind the coffee you love to find out how they got there. How they turned their individual passions for crafting the perfect cup of coffee into small businesses sharing their coffee within their communities and beyond. The road is long, often challenging, but always well worth it — this is how they made it happen, these are their Founders' Stories.

The story of Red Bay Coffee didn't necessarily start with a passion for coffee — though its founder, Keba Konte, did have an early interest first piqued by trips with his mother to a small shop in his Bay Area home. In fact, much of Red Bay's — and Keba's — success story begins with his mother's wisdom.

Cooking came next, which turned out to be especially handy when Keba opened his first café as a vehicle to showcase his photography — also inspired by his mother, who was a portrait photographer. In fact, that early career in photojournalism was the very foundation that this mission-driven roastery was built from and still runs on today.

A little Italy

Listen: Keba's first coffee memory

"My first significant coffee memory was in San Francisco, where I grew up. I would sometimes accompany my mother when she went to North Beach. And there was an old Italian roaster there and the name of the shop was Graffeo. I just remember going in there as a 10-year-old or something, and the smell was just like so overwhelming, but pleasant. And there were these kind of old, grumpy Italian guys that you didn't even want to speak to, and she’d get her coffee and they’d grind it just right for her. This was one of the few places that it’d be like you’d only pick up one thing from that shop. And she’d make it. That’s my coffee memory."

Marriage of equals

"Quite frankly, I didn't necessarily get into coffee because I loved coffee. The love of coffee came afterwards, it was more like an arranged marriage. This was in 2005, I already had a career in visual arts and a photography career — I’d been traveling the world and doing that thing, but I was also very entrepreneurial. As an artist, I created a lot of my own galleries and events and just represented myself. And at some point, I got an offer to take over an old diner in North Berkeley and I thought, well, that would actually be a great place to have a gallery.

So, I really got into coffee, because I was looking for a platform for my artwork. And then we took over this place called Smokey Joe’s Cafe in North Berkeley, it had been there 33 years it was California's first all-vegetarian restaurant, but it’d seen much better days. The owner was looking to get out and kind of tapped me, so we took it over and called it Guerilla Cafe. It was across the street from the restaurant Chez Panisse, and that's where I had a good friend tell me that, if you’re going to get into coffee there’s this new company called Blue Bottle and you really need to serve that coffee. Anyway, long story short, I contacted James Freeman and he started interviewing me. I was like 'Hold on, I’m trying to buy this guy’s coffee,' I just didn’t understand at the time there were no coffee shops serving Blue Bottle Coffee, not even Blue Bottle shops. He was at the farmers market, he was at Chez Panisse.

So, that was my entree into coffee — it was an opportunity to showcase and grab a broader audience for my artwork and wanting to do it right. I was accustomed to having events and preparing and cooking food, so the culinary arts were no stranger to me — although I had no professional training other than my mom."

Knowledge is power

"The transition from café to roastery, that was a long time, but it didn't take long for me to fantasize about it. I think within a couple of years I was already designing labels. So, that was 2006 when we opened the doors to Guerilla Cafe, and then I opened another café at first in San Francisco on the campus of City College called Chasing Lions Cafe, so at this point I had two cafés and now it’s 2012, and that ironically freed me up, because I started making more money, so it freed me up to have more management to finally pursue the coffee roasting.

So, I knew I just had to learn, I didn't want to just hire a bunch of experts and just do it for me. So I had to learn — I had spent six, seven, eight years learning espresso and learning coffee on that level, but that's more like dialing in and what good coffee tastes like and trying to discern some small things, but really you’re only experiencing pretty good coffee when you're in that category. So, I turned the little garden room in my garage into what I called the Coffee Dojo, and the Coffee Dojo is a little space just barely tall enough for me to stand up in and there was a grinder, a water boiler, a sink — oh and then I brought in gas and created a little SF-1 roaster.

Really the first thing you had to learn was cupping and how to distinguish one coffee from another coffee, learning how to make changes to a roast — even if it’s the same color how you manipulate the flavors and profiles. So, I was learning that on my own, I was watching YouTube videos, I visited some of my Ethiopianht friends’ cafés when they were just with a hot plate, a wok, and a paddle, just kind of moving the coffee around. So, I was exposing myself to a lot of different methods and knowledge base, eventually I took all the classes at Boot Coffee all the way in Marin — that was a school for coffee and roasting, one of the very few, so every time I was there I was with people from around the country or around the world. There are not a lot of formal coffee education facilities, so I was lucky to have one relatively near to where I live.

I just continued to do my training and probably spent a year and a half just doing that before I thought I had something decent. I was shopping at Sweet Maria's for coffee, which is very easy — everything there is handpicked and it's hard to go wrong — and it wasn't until later that I would take off the training wheels, so to speak. That was the experience with the Coffee Dojo, that was my own sort of self-guided education and training on roasting.

I intended to be my own first roaster, for better or worse, I think that was very good experience. But as soon as I could afford to, I hired a more experienced person than myself. I finally dialed in a couple of coffees that I thought were pretty good, but I set a pretty high bar for myself in Berkeley, I had Guerilla Cafe serving Blue Bottle, in San Francisco at Chasing Lions I was serving Four Barrel, and here I am in the basement as a newbie. I brought those coffees to some of my customers, my regulars, and I got some good feedback. Some things I went back and improved some more. Eventually, I quietly swapped the coffees out at both of those locations and nobody batted an eye, and that was really how the Red Bay Coffee program started."

If we were going to do this at all, we had to do it differently.

Doing it differently

"I think most businesses are a reflection of the founder’s values and personality. In my experience through the arts and photography, there was a social justice background. My entree into photography was photojournalism, and the reason I was inspired to do photojournalism was really seeing in the early ‘90s on the campus of San Francisco State University, a very highly political campus — the first campus in the country to have an Ethnic Studies Department, Black Studies Department — there was a movement around police brutality, Rodney King in particular, and the Gulf War. So, there was a lot of activism in the community and I was in the middle of it as an organizer, as a participant, and eventually started to use my camera — which was another skill I picked up from my mom, who was a portrait photographer.

Listen: Keba begins with a mission

So, I kind of got out there in doing that work, eventually traveling to South Africa photographing the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. I was in Washington DC for the Million Man March in 1995. 1992, I went to Cuba before it was really open and photographed. I was there for a few weeks on a seminar studying the African influence on Cuban culture — of course a lot of local issues as well. So, this background had formed me and really informed my view on the world and so many decisions that I would make and still do make.

When it came to now fast-forward to 2014 Oakland, one of the biggest issues at the time was gentrification, almost seems quaint now that that was what it was. So, I had to think really long and hard before I even established Red Bay Coffee, about what the purpose was and what role does a coffee company play in the community? Even if it’s well meaning, like I was. Very often coffee culture is the spearhead of gentrification movements. So, I knew that if we were going to do this at all, we had to do it differently. We had to approach these problems in a different kind of way.

The first thing I thought, well we had to pay people a decent wage. At the time the minimum wage in Oakland was nine dollars and something. We were paying all of our workers 15 dollars, which was considerably more than the local minimum wage and twice as much as the federal minimum wage. That was part of it, but it wasn’t enough. I knew that I wanted to also create opportunities for people that I did not see in specialty coffee. Coffee culture in the Bay Area was very elitist, it was very white, it was very exclusive, they had their own sort of form of diversity within the very narrow group, but there was plenty room for improvement to say the least. So, those are some of the reasons that I was very intentional about creating opportunities for people with barriers to entry into the industry, which was more than just racial. We also hired formerly incarcerated people, we hired women in leadership positions, we hired folks with disabilities. Then, once you're very aware and intentional about it, you just can't make casual hires.

Some of the challenges that come with that is, inherently if there is a lack of diversity in your industry, then there is a lack of experienced professionals in your industry, which perpetuates the challenge because everyone wants an experienced person on their team, so they’re going to find someone with that experience and that's very rarely the Black and Brown people in my experience. So, I had to find people with adjacent skills and expertise. I started hiring people from the chocolate industry, bartenders, wine experts, chefs with palates. We would just develop them — and we took some hits there and sometimes our inexperience showed, we just tried to grow past it and then move on."

Making a name

"At that time, the biggest player in the Bay Area was like seven dollars a pound and specialty coffee’s market was closer to 10 dollars a pound. I never wanted to compete on price, I just saw that to a race to the bottom. With cheaper coffee comes exploitation and a whole host of horrible things from farm to cup. And also I think that café owners were in a position where they, especially as the move started, wanted a brand that people would recognize. So, if you’re brand-new, it kind of doesn’t matter who you are. Or even the quality of your coffee.

So, no we weren’t immediately embraced. It took a while, but I had built up relationships from my first café and had friends that were opening restaurants, and they would use my coffee — the very first in Oakland was Kingston 11, a Jamaican restaurant, in San Francisco it was Farmer Brown over in the Tenderloin. Then we got a break a couple years in, serving coffee in the Uber office when they were trying to come to Oakland. The mayor of Oakland admired the work that we did, she was a champion of our mission and would always encourage companies to do business with us if they were coming to Oakland. So that was a big break, and we kind of parlayed that into tech relationships and office coffee service.

We had to earn it, it wasn’t an overnight or immediate success, but I was operating it out of my garage, so my overhead was pretty low. It was myself or one or two other people bootstrapping along the way."

And then everything changed…

"We were very clear on our mission coming into 2020 and throughout 2020, what 2020 did was affirm what we had been talking about from day one. And all of a sudden, the rest of the industry — the rest of America — started to get it. And they started to sort of understand what Red Bay had been talking about since 2014.

This is something that we had talked about, written articles about, been on panels, so it was very validating to have the industry — not just the industry, but the market — catch up. It helped with relationships, wholesale retail partners. We had been trying to knock on Trade’s door and get something going. I think a lot of companies were awakened by how vitally important it was. So, that opened up a lot of doors — some corporate partnerships were looking to greenwash or brownwash their practices superficially — in some ways more substantially.

So that was the response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of the practical challenges that we had to face was that we had a lot of eggs in the basket of big corporate tech office accounts — nearly 60 percent of our business — and it came to a screeching halt within hours of the NBA making their move. It was pretty clear that that wasn’t going to be coming back any time soon — turns out to be much longer than I had thought — but even at the time, I thought it was going to be three or five months, we had to reinvent ourselves.

We have about five cafés, we shut them all down, because in the early days it was sort of like 'What is an essential business?' What does that mean? Just a pharmacy? Grocery? Ok, what about roasteries? So, about a week later we opened up our door to our roastery coffee bar, even though we couldn’t have people inside anymore — just myself, my wife, and my grown daughter, who’s a barista. We took it on and saw what happened. You could just buy the whole box of tea, or a carton of oat milk if you wanted that. We just started selling what we had in bulk; part, to be of a greater service, but also part just to like start moving everything in the inventory.

Eventually, we opened up one café downtown, but to this day three of the cafés are still not open. So, that was a hard pivot, of course, curbside service we were doing that, and then next level was ecommerce. We started to grow ecommerce. People stepped up when we put out the call, people showed up and they started purchasing online. And then the George Floyd murder happened in late May, so June — the beginning of Black Lives Matter movement — individuals started to show up and support; people from all over the country, every state. And then media, Forbes and O, The Oprah Magazine. We made a lot of lists of Black-owned businesses, so this whole process started to kind of balance out.

Of course, we had to make a lot of painful decisions early on, when we saw it was going to be months before our established channels of revenue were going to come back, if ever. We were literally building a space in LA and San Francisco, we had really extended ourself preparing for a big growth year and we just found ourself out on a limb. In January, this time last year, we had 60 plus employees, within days, we basically went into hibernation mode: we needed a roaster, an account manager, myself, my daughter, my wife, I mean we were down to seven or eight people.

And we just sort of ran the business a few hours a day, a few days a week, and eventually we started to hire more people back. Then came the holiday season and we made the coveted Oprah's Favorite Things list, which brought us a ton of attention our way. So, we hired a bunch of seasonal production workers, roasting around the clock, trying to install a new roaster that was slated for somewhere else. These days I’m experiencing a bit of a hangover, because you just keep going and trying to get through this year and when you get to the end of it…"

Finding a way to breathe again

Listen: Keba on finding a mantra

"There was another realization that I had which was at some point when you couldn’t really gather — you couldn’t go to the gym, you couldn’t go to the martial arts studio. So, I got a bicycle and that was my exercise and the only little bit of respite that I had. So, in the middle of this I would still take these evening rides around Oakland, and then came the wild fires. If it wasn't enough with the pandemic and the economic meltdown and we had to wear masks everywhere, and then you know, now for smoke there’s a whole different type of mask you need and they’re not the same mask. So we’re wearing layers of masks. And then the chant from George Floyd’s last words were 'I can’t breathe.' So that became the chant of the movement was 'I can’t breathe. And this was in response to state violence, and that was important to echo around the world those words.

And as I’m riding my bike, you know, with a double mask on and I can’t breathe from that, I can’t breathe from the fires, I can’t breathe from the institutional racism, and I’m choking on sort of the uncertainty of economic conditions, and it was just so much. So I was riding my bike and I just realized, you know what: I have to breathe. We have to breathe. And we will breathe — no matter what, by any means necessary — we will breathe.

So, I have been chanting to myself and shouting out loud on my bicycle rides on these isolated stretches of the road, that we will breathe, we will breathe. And that’s the chant that I’m taking into 2021."

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