Keba Konte started Red Bay Coffee in his garage. Seven years later, it’s hard to imagine Oakland without Red Bay, which has five locations — including a mobile coffee van — and is something of an institution, drawing the Town’s coolest and best-dressed, never making coffee culture feel elite or out of reach. This is the very intentional work of Konte, who’s set on reframing coffee — the high quality, traceable stuff, that is — as something everyone can and should enjoy, not just the domain of stuffy cafes in expensive neighborhoods.
And it’s not just coffee that Konte aims to make more accessible: Before coronavirus restrictions made in-person gathering difficult, he also used his cafe spaces to host panels and workshops for entrepreneurs of color. As Red Bay grows, he wants to see other local businesses coming up, too.
As Konte told me during a conversation last year, he’s focused on making all of Red Bay’s cafe spaces “unapologetically welcoming to Black and brown people: By putting Africa on the wall, by not exploiting our farmers with pictures of them smiling with sweat and dirty hands that they’re not directly benefiting from.” Africa is, quite literally, on the wall at the Red Bay roastery location on East 10th Street in Fruitvale, where an enormous living outline of the continent houses lush hanging vines. Before the pandemic, friends gathered below this living wall to drink coffee and catch up.
While indoor seating remains paused at the roastery, Red Bay’s new cafe, at the corner of Oakland’s International Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue, handily solves the problem of seating, and space. It’s housed in what was once a bank, a towering three-story building that now features 11,000 square feet equipped to host panel discussions on entrepreneurship for Black and brown business owners, produce videos for Red Bay’s YouTube channel, and turn out full meals and warm baked goods. Of course, there’s also a beautiful, sleek coffee bar, where customers can enjoy an espresso, and during the right season, a yam latte — a take on the pumpkin spice latte, only more delicious, in this writer’s humble opinion.
Painted along the crown of the pillared building in bold white lettering is Red Bay’s motto: “Beautiful Coffee To The People,” and these words are something of a guiding light as the business expands. The towering space, crested with dozens of sculpted gold lion’s heads, would draw attention in any neighborhood. It’s particularly notable that in this East Oakland neighborhood, what was once a bank, and was later reincarnated as a check cashing business and a 99 cent store, now houses what Konte reckons is the only specialty coffee shop along the 100-block stretch between here and Lake Merritt. Instead of betting on an Oakland neighborhood where third wave coffee shops are already a dime a dozen, or setting down roots in a downtown San Francisco outpost, Konte chose a space just blocks from Red Bay’s roastery, and a five minute walk from his own home. Choosing this new location, Konte says, was “very intentional. We’re trying to make specialty coffee and beautiful experiences more accessible, and make this a space where people in the neighborhood and the community have access to coffee experiences like this.”
After last week’s soft opening, Red Bay’s new location will have its grand opening today, with a mariachi band at noon, the Afro-Brazilian drum troupe SambaFunk! at 3:30 p.m., and, of course, coffee all day. Here, Konte gives Eater readers a look into some of the most significant design decisions in this enormous new space, and talks through his choice to set Red Bay’s new headquarters in the neighborhood he calls home.
In 2014, the bank building was gutted by a fire, leaving the superstructure — but very little else — intact. “This building has just been a blight since it’s burned down. And quite frankly, even before it burned down, it was a blight,” says Konte. “It was not a welcoming space. And this corner really just deserves so much more.”
During the cafe’s opening festivities, Konte is honoring the neighborhood’s many identities. The celebration, which started with Chinese lion dancers from the Hung Sing Martial Arts Academy yesterday, and continues today with a mariachi band and an Afro-Brazilian drum troupe, is a nod to the many communities that have built businesses and homes along International Boulevard. “There’s no shortage of noise in the neighborhood. From the sideshows in the middle of this intersection, to the loud ass trains, to all the booming car stereos. But we just kind of want to bring some of our own noise,” says Konte. “So we’re going to have this series of live music performances. The thing about International Boulevard is that 20-plus years ago, it was East 14th Street. 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 when you start on this boulevard from the lake, you’re going through Chinatown, and then Southeast Asian communities, and then through Latinx communities, and then into the Black neighborhood, all the way into San Fernando, into the whiter neighborhoods. I wanted our opening celebration to reflect those cultures and those nations.” The opening celebrations are a representation, says Konte, of the way International Boulevard changes as you move East from the lake, eventually arriving at Red Bay’s towering new home.
Save for an 18-inch-walled concrete vault that weathered the fire, the guts of the bank building have been completely reimagined and updated. The space was largely 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 astounding number of electrical outlets stretches along a wall of huge windows, offering plenty of seating for those who want to stay for a while and enjoy the atmosphere.
“As simple as it sounds, we’re providing a place to sit down, and have a cappuccino in a ceramic cup,” says Konte. “We’ve all been drinking out of paper cups for so long, during the pandemic, that even the smallest things like this are such a pleasure and luxury.”
Right now, the pastry case is filled with goods from partnered bakeries, but soon, the new kitchen will be churning out fresh-baked hand pies, and welcoming in visiting chefs to host pop-up events. “[Our food program] is still in development. In the meantime, we just really wanted to get the doors opened and launch the coffee program,” says Konte. “But we are developing African hand pies — think empanadas, but a bit more African- and Caribbean-inspired. Vegetarian, savory hand pies, that will be made here and available here hot, and we’ll have those available in our other shops as well.”
The pride and joy of the new space is, unsurprisingly, the coffee bar. Until now, Red Bay locations have all been built to fit the constrictions of tight or unconventional spaces. There’s a coffee van, a small storage container fashioned into a coffee “box,” and the roastery location, set in a large warehouse. This space, as Konte puts it, has “all the needed elbow room.” That means space for a long, beautiful coffee counter. The centerpiece of the bar is a sparkling Sanremo, an Italian-made machine programed differently for each of the cafe’s three different espressos. “Espresso is a science and an art. So we’re trying to sort of narrow the variables,” Konte says. With this machine, the baristas are able to “dial in that espresso experience, and produce something that’s lovely.”
When building out the long counter, Keba and Rachel were presented with three options: wood, stone, or concrete. They decided to go a different direction entirely. Inspired by the design of cafes in Copenhagen, they chose a linoleum. “It has just an unbelievable array of colors,” Konte says. “It is soft to the touch, and an environmentally friendly material. Wood gets kind of sticky. Stone and concrete is always so cold, and so hard.”
On the plum-colored linoleum coffee bar is a pourover coffee station, which Konte built himself. “I hand built it out of rebar and recycled wood. It did turn out pretty nice.”
The cafe’s second and third floor are reserved for Red Bay’s many behind-the-scenes and post-covid projects. As Red Bay continues to expand, six rooms of offices will handle administrative tasks. This new space will also allow for Red Bay to take its expansion online. “I think the space is very, very photogenic. And so we’ll be shooting our own how-to videos, and filming things in the kitchen,” says Konte. When capacity restrictions are lifted further and indoor gathering is deemed safer, Konte says there will be more in person events, including latte art throw-downs.
The cafe’s third floor remains something of a mystery, with Konte hesitant to say exactly what will soon occupy the 4000-square-foot space. He says Red Bay is in the final weeks of working out what he describes as a “significant partnership,” that will move into the space and act as a support for entrepreneurs and fledgling businesses that are in need of a jumpstart.
“That’s always been part of what Red Bay is: being a model of entrepreneurialism. And we will have various engagements and workshops around fundraising for startups and entrepreneurs in various stages of business. We will bring in various partners that help entrepreneurs, to either raise capital or build their business plans.”
Of course, plenty of the people walking into this new space aren’t looking to start a new business, or win a latte art competition — they just want coffee. They’ll be well served, and Konte hopes they’ll stay a while, to bask in the light that pours in through the cafe’s enormous two-story windows. “We’re just bathed in light, I mean we basically are getting light all day,” he says. “I believe people are going to travel far and wide to come and enjoy a coffee experience, or tea, or juice or some African hand pies. This neighborhood wants more and deserves more than we’ve been getting. We’re not dumbing down the concept because we’re not in San Francisco or in Jack London Square. We believe that people in the hood, in the community, want and deserve nice things. And we’re here to bring it.”
Red Bay Coffee’s opening festivities begin today, Monday, April 12, with a mariachi band at 12 p.m., and an Afro-Brazilian drum troupe at 3:30 p.m. Regular hours will be 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week.