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LONGITUDES

The Art of Getting the Right Blend

Keba Konte

Timing is everything.

As a gardener and artist, I blend photography with random objects from the environment to express my love for Africa, Black culture and design. My work reflects my mother’s eye for photography and my father’s hand for carpentry.

But it wasn’t until I started running a brick-and-mortar store that I discovered how much art and business have in common.

Just like creating art, there are many factors that come together to make a business work. Sometimes it's luck. Sometimes it’s brilliant insight. And the importance of timing cannot be underestimated.

The leap into entrepreneurship

That time for me was 2005 when someone offered me a California coffee shop to purchase. I jumped at the chance, thinking it would be a great opportunity to showcase my artwork.

In addition to developing a palate that can distinguish the subtle yet different tastes of the beans and roasting levels, you have to master what to look for in the final brew, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Really, it’s a combination of skill, science and art.

My wife Rachel and I opened our first coffee shop, Guerilla Café, as a place where coffee connoisseurs could sip and savor the flavors surrounded by art and music. My fascination with coffee’s African roots drove me to learn all I could about the coffee supply chain.

I became a coffee aficionado, using only the premium specialty coffees, and after much independent work and formal training, I received certification as a coffee roaster.

We later opened our second cafe in San Francisco, focusing on expanding the supply chain. In 2014, we launched Red Bay Coffee as a micro-roastery in the garage under our home and called it the Coffee Dojo.

Once we became a full roastery, we converted a factory into a coffee shop and event space where the community could host panels, watch films and enjoy lively discussions. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, we launched our first coffee shops in Oakland — a cafe made from a modified shipping container.

We also opened our headquarters to let coffee lovers see where the magic happens: the testing, roasting, packing and distribution. We took our business mobile, delivering coffee to office buildings and conducting pop-up events.

Going back to the beginning

Coffee comes from Africa, but descendants of Africa have very little stake in this $100-billion global industry.

When we started, we were a unicorn in the industry so bringing some equity to it was extremely important. We’re very intentional about the farms with which we export, import and conduct business, and we want to provide job opportunities for people of color beyond just the roles of baristas, brewers and sales people to sourcing and roasting, marketing and IT.

We hired people from the community, especially the disadvantaged and formerly incarcerated, to give them opportunities for professional jobs and entrepreneurship. Our diverse management team grew to more than 60-percent women.

Now, there is a Black coffee movement in the United States, with at least 10 popping up around Los Angeles since 2014. We’ve even seen a handful of Black roasters across the country established in the last few years.

Along the way, we also built a strong brand with a loyal and diverse following, achieving a goal of serving more beautiful coffee to more people.

Then, the unexpected happened.

Pandemic panic

March 8, 2020, left us scrambling and in shock. That’s when many large tech firms announced they would send their employees home to work because of COVID-19.

The news hit us like a stack of bricks because the tech offices made up about 60 percent of our wholesale office coffee program. We closed all six of our cafe retail shops, which represented 30 percent of our revenue. We were devastated.

A week later, our entrepreneurial spirit kicked in, and we overcame our fear to see what could be salvaged. Being a small business owner means that you have to be super flexible, and you can’t panic and roll up in bed. You have to run the business.

We still had our roasting and production team, and we could open the rollup door. We could actually still sell coffee. And that’s exactly what we did.

We opened our first curbside coffee service and discovered a pent-up demand. Folks came back and wanted their lattes and coffee experiences. Everybody was in line and asking for espresso. We were back in the fight.

At the same time, we hit social media. People from around the nation heeded our call for support and began buying our coffee online, resulting in record-level e-commerce sales from 2 percent last year to about 85 percent now.

Thankfully, we hadn’t put all of our eggs in one basket and had an e-commerce infrastructure in place. Still, we experienced some growing pains fine tuning the software to scale and stage.

Considering that our product is inherently global and tied to global supply lines, we are particularly vulnerable to delays and shipping challenges. This also includes our packaging material and other shipping essentials.

We use UPS when we need reliable shipping to bring our products outside of the West Coast, even more important than ever for us because we are scaling to service a nationwide market.

We geared up automation to make more individual 12-ounce bags instead of big five-pound bags and discovered how fast we can learn from our mistakes. We now host a podcast (Coffee Dojo) where I interview thought leaders and creatives from around the world and around the block, virtual coffee sipping events and tutorials online, and we still have two retail outlets where people can enjoy the coffee experience.

Additionally, our mobile coffee van shows up to bring our “Beautiful Coffee to the People,” which reinforces brand presence.

A community embrace

We’ve had to pivot, and right now, we focus on surviving and then thriving. We’ve adjusted our team from more than 60 to about 30 and found experts in areas where we needed help.

We will continue to navigate as we build and evolve. That’s part of the constant learning to running a business.

You can imagine how excited we were to find out that Oprah Winfrey selected Red Bay Coffee to be featured as the only coffee on her coveted holiday “Oprah’s Favorite Things” list. This incredible opportunity has only further accelerated our e-commerce activity.

COVID-19 leveled the playing field because our digital footprint and e-commerce platforms give us the same opportunity as other companies to grow our business. Because e-commerce drives so much of our business, we are now making greater investments in our digital marketing efforts.

Branding has always been our strength, and now we get to play to our strong hand even more. After years of investing in our brand by providing delicious coffee, supporting community-based events and the hospitality of making coffee more accessible, our community is embracing us even more.

All photos courtesy Red Bay Coffee.

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