Early rendering of the Red Bay coffee shop that will be at Hive in Uptown Oakland. Image: Gensler:NAF Korea

Red Bay Coffee is on a roll. The socially conscious East Bay roaster is working on opening its first café in Uptown Oakland, having exceeded its $80,000 Kickstarter goal last month — the most successful coffee campaign ever on the crowdfunding site, according to Red Bay founder Keba Konte. Shortly afterwards, the startup emerged victorious in a hotly contested race to be the sole coffee vendor at Berkeley’s downtown farmers market — the place Blue Bottle, now a poster child for third-wave coffee, got its start.

In addition, Red Bay has launched a regular coffee popup on Fridays on the patio at Miss Ollie’s in Swan’s Marketplace, following a guest appearance at the Caribbean soul food spot during a shoot with TV star Anthony Bourdain.

It’s no wonder that Red Bay is busting out of the cozy ‘coffee dojo’ which is the heart of the startup’s operations.

“We’re remodeling now,” Konte said of the workspace which he carved out under his Victorian home in Fruitvale to house the company. “We need to maximize the space until we can get proper location.”

Keba Konte walks through the ‘coffee dojo’ HQ of Red Bay Coffee on May 7, 2015 . Photo: Tracey Taylor
Keba Konte walks through the ‘coffee dojo’ HQ of Red Bay Coffee on May 7, 2015 . Photo: Tracey Taylor

Konte, the former co-owner of Guerilla Café in Berkeley, has ambitions for Red Bay that go beyond serving a good cup of Joe. He wants to help transform low-wage jobs by rolling out a business model where the workers keep all the profits. In doing so, he also aims to inject some diversity into the primarily white world of specialty coffee.

Konte’s concept will be road-tested at the first Red Bay Coffee café that is set to open in a converted shipping container at the emerging mixed-use development known as Hive in Uptown Oakland. Konte said work has begun on Treasure Island to transform a container into the Red Bay coffee shop. Other tenants opening at Hive, which is on Broadway at 23rd Street, include Drake’s Brewing Company, Calavera restaurant, Firebrand Artisan Bread and Numi Tea.

While waiting for the shipping container to be ready, Red Bay will set up a full-service coffee cart at Hive as an interim operation. It should be up and running by mid-August, Konte said.

As for the Berkeley Saturday farmers market, Red Bay has replaced Blue Bottle, which had its genesis there in 2002 but has grown into a global company underwritten with hefty venture capital backing.

Taste testing Red Bay and Highwire coffee at the Berkeley farmers market on June 6, 2015. Photo: Galen Panger

Amanda Gordon, lead market manager and special events coordinator the Ecology Center, which runs all Berkeley’s farmers markets, said she thinks Red Bay is the perfect fit for them.

“We love what Red Bay is doing. Its mission aligns with ours in a lot of ways, in that they bring sustainability and health and vibrancy to the local community and to the local economy.”

That doesn’t mean Red Bay was a shoo-in. The Ecology Center had many “excellent” candidates, Gordon said, once word got out that Blue Bottle was ceding its place to a smaller coffee company on the rise.

After reviewing all the applications, which included documentation on sourcing and mission statements, the Ecology Center narrowed the list down to two: Red Bay and Highwire Coffee Roasters, also Oakland-based with retail outlets at Rockridge’s Market Hall, and in the former Local 123 spots on San Pablo Avenue and at Flowerland Nursery in Albany.

Red Bay Coffee Roasters serving coffee for the first time at Berkeley’s Saturday farmers market on July 4, 2015. Photo: William Newton
Red Bay Coffee Roasters serving coffee for the first time at Berkeley’s Saturday farmers market on July 4, 2015. Photo: William Newton

There followed a blind tasting at the farmers market in June, to get as much community input as possible, according to Gordon. Red Bay won “by a small margin,” she said.

Gordon said the ethos, and sourcing practices of both final candidates were impressive, but that the Ecology Center felt Red Bay went “above and beyond” in terms of its social mission.

The North and South Berkeley markets don’t have a standalone coffee provider so as not to compete with nearby brick-and-mortar outfits, such as Sweet Adeline’s in the case of Tuesday’s Adeline Street market.

As well as serving pour-over hot coffee and its own cold-brew, Red Bay is offering a bulk coffee bean swap-out service at the Civic Center Park market, using reusable quart-sized jars. 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.

Going forward, Red Bay clearly has its work cut out, not only getting its employee-first business model off the ground but also scaling it successfully — and it’s still a fledgling company, albeit one with a networked business operator at its helm. But its fans will hope the future is bright for the East Bay company.

As Gordon said: “Blue Bottle blew up. I’m excited to see what happens next for Red Bay.”

Red Bay and Highwire vie for farmers market spot (06.09.15)
Keba Konte: Serving coffee with color, social justice (05.14.15)
Berkeley Bites: Keba Konte (04.09.10)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...