Foods & Culinary

How the growth of Oakland’s Red Bay Cafe is changing the face of specialty coffee

Keba Konte started Red Bay Coffee in his garage. Seven years later, Oakland is hard to imagine without Red Bay with five locations – including a mobile coffee cart. and is something of an institution that attracts the coolest and best-dressed cities in town and never lets coffee culture appear elite or unreachable. This is the very deliberate work of Konte, who has set itself the goal of redesigning coffee – the high quality, understandable Stuff, that is – as something that everyone can and should enjoy, not just the domain of stuffy cafes in expensive neighborhoods.

And Konte doesn’t just want to make coffee more accessible: Before coronavirus restrictions made personal collection difficult, he also used his café rooms to hold panels and workshops for color entrepreneurs. As Red Bay grows, he wants to see other local businesses too.

As a county told me during a conversation Last year he focused on making all the café spaces in Red Bay “unologetically welcoming to blacks and browns: by hanging Africa on the wall, by not exploiting our farmers with pictures of sweat and dirty hands smile that they are not directly benefiting from. “Africa is literally on the wall of Red Bay Monastery on East 10th Street in Fruitvale, where a huge living outline of the continent is home to lush hanging vines. Before the pandemic, friends gathered under this living wall for coffee and catching up.

While interior seating remains disrupted, the new Red Bay coffee shop on the corner of Oaklands International Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue solves the problem of seating and space requirements. Located in a former bank, a towering three-story building measuring 11,000 square feet, it hosts panel discussions on entrepreneurship for black and brown business owners, produces videos for Red Bay’s YouTube channel, and offers full meals and hot meals become baked goods. Of course, there is also a beautiful, elegant coffee bar where customers can enjoy an espresso and, at the right time of year, a yam latte – a variant of the pumpkin spice latte that, in the humble opinion of this writer, is only more delicious.

The Red Bay motto is painted in bold white letters on the crown of the pillared building: “Nice coffee for the people,” and these words are a guiding light as the business expands. The towering room, covered with dozens of sculpted gold lion heads, would attract attention in any neighborhood. It is particularly noteworthy that this neighborhood of East Oakland, once a bank and later reborn as a check cashing and 99-cent business, is now the only specialty cafe on the 100-block distance between here and Lake Merritt. Rather than wagering on a neighborhood in Oakland where the third wave coffeeshops are already a dozen or setting foot in an outpost in downtown San Francisco, Konte picked a spot just blocks from Red Bay Convent and five minutes walk from his own home. The choice of this new location was “very deliberate,” says Konte. We try to make coffee specialties and great experiences more accessible and to make this a place where people in the neighborhood and in the community have access to such coffee experiences. ”

After the gentle opening of last week, the new Red Bay location will be officially opened today with a mariachi band, the Afro-Brazilian drum troupe SambaFunk! at 3:30 p.m. and of course coffee all day. Here, Konte gives Eater readers a glimpse into some of the key design decisions in this huge new space and talks about his decision to build Red Bay’s new headquarters in the neighborhood he calls home.

In 2014 the bank building was destroyed by fire, with the superstructure remaining intact – but very little else. “This building has only been a nuisance since it burned down. And to be honest, even before it burned down, it was a plague, ”says Konte. “It wasn’t an inviting room. And this corner really deserves so much more. ”

During the café’s opening ceremony, Konte pays tribute to the neighborhood’s many identities. The celebration, which began yesterday with Chinese lion dancers from the Hung Sing Martial Arts Academy and continues today with a mariachi band and an Afro-Brazilian drum troupe, is a nod to the many communities that have built shops and houses along International Boulevard. “There is no lack of noise in the neighborhood. From the sideshows in the middle of this intersection to the loud ass trains to all the booming car radios. But we just want to bring our own noise with us, ”says Konte. “So we’re going to have this series of live music performances. The thing about International Boulevard is that it was East 14th Street over 20 years ago. But they changed the name to International Boulevard, and I think that’s probably one of the best names they could have given it. Because if you start from the lake on this boulevard, you go through Chinatown and then through Southeast Asian communities and then Latinx communities and then into the black district, all the way to San Fernando, into the whiter neighborhoods. I wanted our opening ceremony to reflect these cultures and these nations. “The opening ceremony, according to Konte, is a representation of the way International Boulevard changes as you move east from the lake and eventually arrive at Red Bay’s new home.

Aside from an 18-inch concrete vault that survived the fire, the bowels of the bank building have been completely reinterpreted and updated. Most of the space was designed by Red Bay’s Chief of Brand Rachel Konte, who is also married to Keba. The open layout is bright, modern, and full of ferns and hanging plants. A long bar with an astonishing number of electrical outlets stretches along one wall of huge windows and offers plenty of seating for those who want to stay a while and soak up the atmosphere.

“As simple as it sounds, we offer a place to sit and have a cappuccino in a ceramic bowl,” says Konte. “We all drank per cup for so long during the pandemic that even the smallest things like this are such a pleasure and luxury.”

Right now the pastry shop is filled with goods from partner bakeries, but soon the new kitchen will be producing freshly baked pies and inviting chefs to pop-up events. “[Our food program] is still under development. In the meantime, we just wanted to open the doors and start the coffee program, ”says Konte. “But we develop African handpies – think empanadas, but a little more inspired by Africa and the Caribbean. Vegetarian, savory pies, which are made here and available hot here, and which we will also have in our other stores. “

The pride and joy of the new space is unsurprisingly the coffee bar. So far, all locations in Red Bay have been built to accommodate the constraints of tight or unconventional spaces. There is a coffee cart, a small storage container shaped like a coffee box, and the location of the monastery in a large warehouse. As Konte puts it, this space has “the necessary freedom of movement”. That means space for a long, beautiful coffee counter. At the heart of the bar is a sparkling Sanremo, an Italy-made machine that is programmed differently for each of the café’s three different espressos. “Espresso is a science and an art. So we try to narrow down the variables somehow, ”says Konte. With this machine, the baristas can “dial in this espresso experience and produce something beautiful”.

When building the long counter, Keba and Rachel had three options: wood, stone or concrete. They decided to go in a completely different direction. Inspired by the design of the cafés in Copenhagen, they decided on a linoleum. “It just has an incredible range of colors,” says Konte. “It feels soft and is an environmentally friendly material. Wood gets kind of sticky. Stone and concrete are always so cold and so hard. ”

On the plum-colored linoleum coffee bar there is a pourover coffee station that Konte built himself. “I built it by hand from rebar and recycled wood. It turned out pretty good. “

The second floor at Red Bay Headquarters in Oakland with seating and potted plants.

Patricia Chang

The second and third floors of the cafe are reserved for Red Bay’s many behind-the-scenes and aftermarket projects. As Red Bay continues to expand, six offices will take over administrative duties. This new space will also allow Red Bay to expand online. “I find the room very, very photogenic. And so we’ll make our own videos with instructions and film things in the kitchen, ”says Konte. If capacity restrictions are further lifted and indoor collecting is considered safer, there will be more in-person events, including latte art throw-downs, according to Konte.

The third floor of the café remains a mystery, and Konte hesitates to say exactly what will soon take up the 4,000-square-meter space. He says Red Bay has been in the last few weeks developing what he calls a “significant partnership” that will come into the picture to support entrepreneurs and young businesses in need of start-ups.

“It’s always been part of what Red Bay is: being a model of entrepreneurship. And we will hold various engagements and workshops around fundraising for startups and entrepreneurs in different business phases. We will involve various partners who will help entrepreneurs either raise capital or develop their business plans. “

A photo on the second floor shows the large windows in Red Bay Coffee's new headquarters in Oakland.

Patricia Chang

Of course, a lot of people who walk into this new space don’t want to start a new business or win a latte art competition – they just want coffee. You will be well served and Konte is hoping they will stay for a while to bask in the light streaming in through the cafe’s huge two-story windows. “We’re just bathed in light, I mean, we basically get light all day,” he says. “I think people will travel far and wide for a coffee experience or tea or juice or some African pies. This neighborhood wants more and deserves more than we got. We’re not breaking the concept because we’re not in San Francisco or Jack London Square. We believe that people in the hood, in the community, want and deserve beautiful things. And we’re here to make it happen. “

Red Bay Coffee’s opening celebrations begin today, Monday, April 12th, with a mariachi band at 12 p.m. and an Afro-Brazilian drum troupe at 3:30 p.m. The regular opening times are 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven days later each week.

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