In a small, dimly lit space carved out of the ground floor of a bohemian Victorian home in Fruitvale, three young men are hard at work roasting, quality-control testing and packaging responsibly sourced coffee beans. This is the “dojo” where Red Bay Coffee Roasters is getting its start, and from where its owner, Keba Konte, hopes to launch nothing short of a social revolution.
For a start, Konte would like to inject some diversity into the primarily white world of third-wave coffee. As he puts it: “The last brown person involved in your coffee is usually the farmer who cultivated the beans.” Konte thinks there’s a need for a different specialty coffee culture — one that isn’t the sole province of “fastidious white hipsters.”
Secondly, and no less importantly, the artist and food entrepreneur hopes to help transform low-wage jobs by rolling out a business model where the workers keep all the profits. The timing is fortuitous, coming as the country is grappling with what should constitute a minimum wage.
Konte’s concept will be put to the test at the first Red Bay Coffee café that is set to open later this year in a converted shipping container at the emerging mixed-use development known as Hive in Uptown Oakland.
A Kickstarter campaign to get the business off the ground has raised more than $21,000 of its $80,000 goal. Global firm Gensler volunteered to design the Hive café, and pitched a dozen potential schemes to Konte. He chose one where panels on a shipping container, when lifted, bring to mind the Port of Oakland’s iconic ‘Trojan Horse’ cranes.
If the café and its business formula take off, who knows what comes next? Konte believes the concept of training workers to own and operate small, service-oriented businesses built on the foundations of a respected brand is scaleable — why not a chain of bakeries or beer-tasting rooms that create jobs and help underserved communities?
“The measure of success will be if others do it,” Konte said last week, citing as examples of those who could follow suit local companies like Semifreddi’s and Drake’s Brewery.
Red Bay’s employees — there are currently eight full-timers — have been recruited locally. Some of them were formerly incarcerated. Konte is training them in the whole coffee business — from importing, buying, and roasting beans, through the skills involved in being a barista.
Konte understands the cult of coffee: Guerilla Café, which he co-founded in North Berkeley in 2006, was the first coffee shop to serve Blue Bottle, after Konte’s friend Charlie Hallowell (of Pizzaiolo and Penrose fame) pointed him to Blue Bottle founder James Freeman. (Freeman was just starting out then, but, even so, he said he wouldn’t have partnered with Konte if his café had included in its name the word “java” or “grounds” — or any other hackneyed coffee pun.)
Konte also served Four Barrel at his second coffee shop, the Chasing Lions Café at his alma mater, City College of San Francisco — before it switched over to Red Bay. (Red Bay’s whole beans can currently be bought at Berkeley Bowl, Mandela Foods Cooperative and OwlNWood, the store run by Konte’s wife, Rachel Konte; and its coffee can be tasted at AlaMar, Miss Ollie’s and Speaker Box Café, all in Oakland.)
It would be easy to dismiss Konte’s vision as overly ambitious, but he is someone who is willing to try new things, and he gets things done, sometimes on a large scale, often with style.
After he and Rachel — Danish-born and a former design director for Levi’s — and ceramist Andrea Ali took over the Shattuck Avenue space that had housed the vegetarian Smokey Joe’s Café for three decades, they transformed it into a popular fair-trade eatery known for its exciting pop-up events. People went to Guerilla for the buckwheat waffles that Konte had perfected cooking for his family at home, as well as for the café’s cool artist-activist vibe. “Call it ’70s Afro-activist chic with a modern twist. Groovy screened images of black cultural icons adorn the walls, and the café’s logo combines a gorilla-sporting Huey Newton shades and a Che Guevara beret,” wrote Sarah Henry when she interviewed Konte for Berkeleyside five years ago.
The café brought a welcome new energy to the somewhat staid Gourmet Ghetto neighborhood. As Konte says, Guerilla became a community hub where he could show the work of friends and colleagues and hold great parties. (He sold his share of the business to Ali last year to focus on Red Bay.)
In 2009, Konte threw himself into producing fresh produce locally by launching an aquaponic urban gardening company with Kenyan-raised engineer Eric Maundu. The systems they crafted combined aquaculture (growing fish) with hydroponics (growing vegetables without soil). The business did not survive, although Konte is still aquaponic-gardening at his home and at the Chasing Lions Café. “Maybe it was ahead of its time,” he said.
Konte’s career and interests are eclectic. He trained as a photo-journalist and covered the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, then went on to have a successful career as a music photographer shooting San Francisco’s exploding 1990s indy scene. A martial arts aficionado, he became a father at 19. A self-described “community man,” he continues to work as an artist and helps orchestrate large-scale art installations whenever there’s a call for them.
On Martin Luther King Day in January this year, for instance, Konte found himself with hundreds of UC Berkeley student volunteers eager to be put to work. There was only so much weeding that needed to be done, Konte said, so, using spray paint and thousands of small, meticulously tied ribbons, he had them transform a chain-link fence in West Oakland into a shimmering portrait of Oscar Grant. It took two days to complete but was so popular a second fence artwork was created showing an image of a Black Panther.
It’s the sort of project that speaks to Konte’s philosophy about life and work: “Everyone contributes, and at the end you have a community asset,” he said.
But Konte says he always imagined he would end up roasting coffee.
He first learned how from native Ethiopian Mimi Temesjen, owner of the now-shuttered Café Sidamo on Telegraph Avenue, who would roast green beans in a simple wok on a propane stove on the sidewalk, creating the cloud of sweet-smelling smoke that first attracted Konte. “She taught me how to roast beans and I taught her how to make espresso,” said Konte.
Once he had caught the bug, Konte enrolled at Boot Coffee in Mill Valley where he took classes in everything from evaluating beans and cupping, to advance roasting techniques.
Although now fully conversant with acid profiles and the mouthfeel of coffee, Konte thinks there is an unwarranted mystique that surrounds the coffee business. “Making really good coffee is not rocket science if you have a sensitivity around food,” he said.
In Red Bay’s Fruitvale “coffee dojo” there’s a little shrine to George Washington Carver, the botanist born into slavery who became well-known after promoting alternative crops to improve the quality of life of farm families.
“Carver used to say ‘if you love something enough it will reveal its secrets to you,’ and I take my inspiration from that,” Konte said. “I can make coffee and I can make it good.” In homage to the scientist, one of Red Bay’s coffee blends is named Carver’s Dream.
Konte’s campaign to find a new model to change low-wage jobs is picking up steam. Earlier this month he spoke about his work at the New School’s AfroFuturism conference in New York, and a few days ago Van Jones gave the Red Bay crowdfunding campaign his seal of approval: “I know Keba from back in the day. He is the real deal. Do what you can!” he wrote on Facebook.
Konte hopes his vision will become a reality with lasting consequences: “We want to make an impact on gentrification, and we want to make a statement on income inequality,” he said.
In fact, just like a Silicon Valley megastar who fondly recalls the modest garage where his startup took root, Konte is already looking at the little coffee dojo in his garden with a certain measure of nostalgia. “I’m living in the future,” he said, “already excited about achieving the goal of this project.”
Berkeley Bites: Keba Konte (04.09.10)
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