For Keba Konte, coffee is a work of art.
The Bay Area-based photojournalist started Red Bay Coffee in 2014 after he saw an opportunity to fuse his passion for photography and roasting to create a space for all people to consume art experiences over a carefully brewed cup of coffee.
Red Bay’s headquarters, or “Coffee Dojo” as Konte calls it, is located in Oakland, CA. There he and his team roast small batches of coffee and run a wholesale business importing and supplying coffee to other cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, and tech businesses.
“We have cafes, but 75 percent of our revenue comes from our wholesale program,” explained Konte.
The company has supplied coffee for numerous tech giants in and around San Francisco including Salesforce, Twitter, Airbnb, and most recently, Facebook.
“We’re fueling the tech industry,” he said with a laugh.
While big tech clients are great for business, selling coffee is just a piece of Red Bay’s story. It’s become a pillar in the community.
In the Fruitvale neighborhood — where Red Bay is based — the company opens the space for the community to host events, which are often produced by local residents who use the 6000 sq ft warehouse roastery to screen films, launch products, host lectures, and even put on ballet performances.
“My home is Oakland,” said Konte. “The spirit of Oakland is in line with Red Bay Coffee’s mission. There is an entrepreneurial and artistic spirit in the water here.”
According to the National Coffee Association, the coffee industry is responsible for more than 1 million jobs in the U.S. economy. Konte wants Black people to be a part of that economic opportunity.
He founded Red Bay on the mission of creating the best coffee and empowering people to become excited about pursuing careers in the coffee world. Konte said the company is also dedicated to supporting coffee entrepreneurs and mentoring aspiring coffee shop owners.
“We try to encourage more Black people to enter the space of coffee,” said Konte. “I evangelize for Black people to participate in this industry in everything from education and tech to equipment and marketing.”
Konte is a San Francisco native who launched his entrepreneurial career as a photographer chronicling everything from the Bay Area hip-hop scene in the early 90s to the historic election of Nelson Mandela.
Konte has always been a coffee connoisseur. He opened Guerrilla Cafe in Berkeley, CA and later bought Chasing Lions Cafe in San Francisco. He had a desire to make his art available to the masses and saw coffee shops as a way to open a public space without exclusivity.
“As my art career grew, the value of my art grew and it became less accessible. There were fewer people who could purchase it,” he explains why he adorned the walls of his cafes with his artwork. “I felt like coffee could bring people together. The coffee shop is like a daily art exhibit”
Anxious to expand into a new area of the industry, he began teaching himself how to brew specialty coffee by watching YouTube videos and simply experimenting out of his garage in Oakland.
“I saw a lot of similarities in my artistic career and coffee,” he said. “In art, we create exhibits with lighting, tempo, and mood. In coffee, there is an art to crafting it from the way it’s roasted to the latte designs.”
At the heart of Konte’s business is Africa— a key inspiration of his when roasting coffee. The artist traveled to the continent on numerous occasions during his career as a photographer and returned as a coffee entrepreneur to develop relationships and buy coffee directly from African farmers.
“Much of my artwork was centered around Africa,” he said. “Africa being a primary place I was already doing a lot of my work, I saw a tremendous opportunity as an African American coffee roaster to roast a product that came directly from Africa.”
Red Bay Coffee does not shy away from honoring the continent saying “Coffee is Africa’s gift to the world.” Konte sees their relationships with farmers on the ground as Red Bay’s competitive advantage.
“Companies should be paying homage,” he said of recognizing Africa’s contribution to coffee. “I see it as my inheritance, but Africa is still playing a small role in picking and processing coffee and has not borne the fruit of the labor of the coffee market.”
The National Coffee Association reports that the coffee industry generates nearly $28 billion in taxes and approximately 1.6 percent of the total U.S. gross domestic product.
Konte says Red Bay’s next big focus is opening more retail locations. It currently has three, but that the company is currently raising money to open more retail spaces.
“We just won a contract for the Oakland International Airport and we’re establishing new coffee shops in Richmond,” he said.
The company also has plans to open a hub in Los Angeles next year that serves as a roastery and a training ground for baristas.
“The broader impact we’re hoping to have is not just the jobs and opportunities we create, but in how we influence our industry in particular and how we influence other people doing business,” said Konte.