The Oakland Coffee Company is a model of inclusion

By Tim Nelson
May 29, 2018
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This afternoon, 8,000 Starbucks locations will close up shop in order to undergo a racial bias training program, prompted by the arrest of two black men in Philadelphia ( though it’s not their only recent issue). Though Starbucks sees the move as a step in the right direction, the founder of one Bay Area coffee chain thinks it won’t be enough, suggesting that inclusivity is less about programs and more about people.

"Until Starbucks makes some deep structural changes to reverse its legacy of racial bias — which is also built into American society — they'll continue to have incidents," Keba Konte, founder of Red Bay Coffee, told Business Insider. "The only way you can reverse corporate culture is by changing the leadership."

Founded by Konte in 2014, Red Bay Coffee is a black-owned coffee roaster with diversity embedded into its DNA. At both of its two Oakland locations and within its corporate structure, employees consist entirely of people of color, women, and the formerly incarcerated, who often experience significant hurdles when it comes to finding employment.

Being a coffee roaster with a staff that’s representative of its Oakland community is more than just a feel-good story for Red Bay: it’s had a tangible impact on their bottom line. In the wake of the Philadelphia Starbucks incident, Konte saw an in-store sale increase of 60%, and online sales shot up 110%. Red Bay also has plans to fan out across the country next year, including new locations in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago.

As he sees it, the success of Red Bay highlights just how much consumers are interested in meaningful minority representation at more than just the early stages of coffee harvesting and at the point of sale. “Once [coffee]’s exported from the hard labor, in terms of the roasting, the branding, the technical education, the designing of the equipment — people of color are underrepresented."

That seems to be the current case at Starbucks, the world’s most dominant coffee chain in terms of footprint. Only 18% of its corporate leadership is nonwhite, compared to 43% of total employees. The company does aim to increase minority and female representation to 50% at the level of senior vice president and above by 2020, however.

For his part, Konte says he and Red Bay will continue to be a part of the ongoing conversation around diversity in the industry. He’s set to participate in a discussion on retail racism at a black-owned coffeehouse in Philadelphia this week, and is continuing to pass on Red Bay’s roasting knowledge to other minority-owned businesses in his Oakland community. The latter is an important recognition that despite its integral role in Red Bay’s success, diversity in the coffee business isn’t a zero-sum game.

“It’s a $50 billion industry, just in the U.S., and we play a very small role in that,” Konte told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I want black people to understand that, and to reclaim that.”