When two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018, Americans were rightfully outraged.
As the mega-corporation worked to find ways to address the incident — ultimately deciding to hold a national anti-bias training for employees — coffee lovers of color began sharing their go-to caffeine shops and roasters around the nation. One such company was Red Bay Coffee.
Established in 2014, Red Bay Coffee has quickly become one of the most well-known roasters in Oakland, California.
People from all over the country order its beans online, purchase its products at Whole Foods, and stop by the roastery, bar, and garden.
So how does a coffee roaster reach this level of adoration? Some pretty incredible leadership is making it happen.
Red Bay Coffee founder Keba Konte has spent years building a company that’s as rewarding for its customers as it is for its employees.
A former photojournalist and artist, Konte has made a name for himself as a socially conscious business owner. With more than 10 years in the coffee industry, Konte’s dedication to diversity has led him to work on bridging the gap between coffee culture and communities of color.
“I’m into equity and how we sort of share the wealth, we do profit sharing, and how we really help support other people’s [of color] businesses,” Konte says. “So there’s the creative piece, there’s the community piece, and the social justice piece that you need to make this all happen.”
In addition to hiring women and people of color, Red Bay is known for hiring formerly incarcerated individuals and foster youth.
“We’re a second chance employer,” Konte says. “It’s a great industry for these individuals because there’s a lot of opportunities to advance and learn.”
“There are a lot of foster youth that turned 18, and they’re emancipated, which really just means now you’re just out there on your own,” he adds. “Yeah, 18 is sort of a legal number, but most people need support past 18, especially if you’ve been having challenges growing up anyway.”
His work philosophy has left a mark on his staff, including general manager Antoine Hicks. Hicks attributes much of the roaster’s success to the mission-driven culture.
“Red Bay has this great way of kind of rallying all of us around one common goal where for the most part I don’t ever feel like I’m working for one person or for Keba,” Hicks says. “I feel like I’m working towards the mission. It doesn’t even feel like a job so much as it’s just a responsibility to do good work and an opportunity to serve our community.”
Red Bay is also keenly aware of the community it serves. With a black population of 35%, it’s especially important that Oakland’s food and drink establishments create a welcoming atmosphere.
While marketed toward white, affluent patrons, the coffee industry is largely possible because of underpaid farmers of color in Central America, Africa, and Latin America.
Coffee distributors, including Starbucks, have worked harder to ensure that ethical practices and policies are available for both their American baristas and farmers abroad. But there are still issues. Seeing these injustices and how they predominately have affected communities of color propelled Konte to be an agent of change.
“My goal with Red Bay is to involve more people who are descendants of these coffee-growing regions of the world and giving them a greater role in the industry and, in the end, the economy,” he says.
Red Bay’s dedication to marginalized groups and equitable business practices makes it a great start. But Consumers can do a lot to be more socially conscious too.
Wendell Pierce, who tweeted his support of Red Bay, expertly explains the consumer’s role in the current racial climate:
“Ask ‘What is my contribution to that dynamic of inclusion?’ By going online [to Red Bay] and ordering its coffee, it supports that mission. Everyday citizens can look in their own communities and see the people around them that reflect and check those boxes off. Support those companies that reflect the inclusive values and show respect for their community.“