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Crowdfunding for a Profit-Sharing Café 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2015
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The ceiling of Red Bay Coffee's headquarters is so low, my guess is that anyone a little over 6 feet tall would need to duck. Owner Keba Konte pours me a cup of coffee as I inhale the freshly roasted beans and late afternoon Fruitvale sun. 

"In three years, we'll have plenty of room for everybody," Konte says.

He's speaking literally, but it might as well be symbolic. Last year Konte started Red Bay Coffee Company, and has prioritized hiring people with barriers to employment. Now he's crowdfunding to build a shipping container café that'll share company profits with the people working it. 

Artist, community activist, and album cover photographer for my favorite mid-'90s Oakland hip-hop artists, Konte has made an interesting route into coffee roasting. Berkeley residents may recognize him as the co-founder of Guerilla Café, a busy breakfast joint where table number stands are replaced by cards of revolutionaries. Specialty coffee was just picking up when it started, and Guerilla Café was Blue Bottle's first café account. 

Five years later, Konte opened Chasing Lions Café at San Francisco's City College. Early last year, he started roasting and now has 10 employees serving about 40 accounts. While the Kickstarter is timed well with minimum wage debates, Konte's mission has always been about using coffee to further social and economic change, from creating fair relationships with farmers to transforming low-wage jobs at home. 

"We hire folks who have high barriers to employment. Whether that's formerly incarcerated, people of color, or folks with disabilities. And that just comes to us naturally, but what comes to us naturally is different from most other coffee companies," he says. 

Solomon Tyson met Konte at an after school arts program when he was 16. After Konte hired him as a cashier with no previous experience, he became a barista and eventually a lab assistant. He's 23 years old now, roasting all of Red Bay's coffee — and doing it in a wheelchair. 

"I'm still working my way up, but I'd like to get my roaster certification in the next few years and be a roastmaster," Tyson says. 

For Konte, hiring people with no previous experience in the industry means what he gives in extra training he gets back in enthusiasm. Meeting that enthusiasm with livable wages and ongoing training is where the Kickstarter campaign comes in. 

In the profit-sharing business model, Red Bay's new shipping container coffee bar would be scalable, alongside roasting labs called coffee dojos that would provide professional training for workers. Designed by the architectural giant Gensler, the coffee bar's transformable panels, when opened, take the shape of the Port of Oakland's shipping cranes. Construction is set to begin in July at the Hive, a 100,000-square-foot commercial and retail micro-neighborhood development in Uptown. 

"Oakland has a long tradition and a rich history of thinking about social justice issues and it has a lot of do-it-yourself-spirit. It's just in the DNA of Oakland to be thinking differently around social justice and new business models." says Konte. "This is just one small contribution I can make to preserve that culture."

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Ferron Salniker

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