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New profit-sharing coffee spot to open in October, offering ‘jobs with dignity’

Alameda resident and a warehouse manager-in-training Celeste Freeman, 47, pours roasted coffee beans into bags to be weighed at Red Bay Coffee's roasting lab in Oakland. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Bay News Rising)

Alameda resident and a warehouse manager-in-training Celeste Freeman, 47, pours roasted coffee beans into bags to be weighed at Red Bay Coffee’s roasting lab in Oakland. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/Bay News Rising)

By Michaela Payne, Bay News Rising staff reporter —

At an Uptown construction site, the din of trucks will soon be replaced by the low roar of coffee grinders. Baristas will holler drink names like “Slow Burn,” “Pretty Penny” and “Carver’s Dream.” In a region famously awash in cafes, this one will stand out, and not just because it will be housed in a converted shipping container: all the profits will be shared among the workers.

Red Bay Coffee in Oakland transcends the “third wave” that has swept the coffee industry.

The third wave brought a meticulousness to the coffee scene, with direct purchase from farmers, paying premiums for their highest quality beans and encouraging sustainability on farms. But while the pay to suppliers is higher than the coffee industry’s historical standard, cafe workers and baristas are still typically paid minimum wage, plus earning tips.

“Maybe the fourth wave is not in the coffee itself, but in the structure of our business,” said Keba Konte, owner of Red Bay Coffee Roasters, soon to open at Broadway and 23rd streets. “We will be creating jobs with dignity, and great coffee.”

Unlike a co-op, the five to 10 workers won’t be owners, but Konte believes they will “think like owners” and focus on increasing profits by running the place well.

Konte has been “watching how specialty coffee often moves into communities and the role it plays in gentrification. It’s really a tragedy – it should be a vehicle for progress,” he said.

“There’s an urgent need for living wage jobs in the community right now,” said chief-of-operations Kori Chen.

(L-R) Founder and chief executive officer of Red Bay Coffee company Keba Konte, 48 and chief operations officer Kori Chen, 31, stand in front of Garden Coffee Dojo, the company's roasting lab and production space in Oakland. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Bay News Rising)

(L-R) Founder and chief executive officer of Red Bay Coffee company Keba Konte, 48 and chief operations officer Kori Chen, 31, stand in front of Garden Coffee Dojo, the company’s roasting lab and production space in Oakland. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/Bay News Rising)

Konte and Chen created a new business model which struck them as a quick, simple way to make change – with less time and investment than starting a new cooperative company, Chen said.

As Red Bay Coffee Roasters, the two can easily start up the new bar as a retail location, help get it started, and then turn management and profits over to the workers.

The workers will be paid at least minimum wage until profits grow enough to cover higher wages. They will decide how much to earn versus how much to reinvest in improving the business.

Not all the details have been worked out yet, but will be when the workers are hired and the coffee bar opens for business.

Their production division, the more-traditional Red Bay Coffee Roasters, will profit by taking on the new spot as a wholesale account.

To share the initial investment burden, the founders launched a Kickstarter campaign in the spring, raising more than $87,000 of total costs that Konte estimates at $100,000 to $250,000.

Profit-sharing will allow wages to range from $15 to $20 per hour. Oakland’s minimum wage rose in March to $12.25 per hour.

For single, childless Alameda County residents to adequately meet minimal needs, they must work more than 41 hours per week at $13.25 an hour, according to 2014 standards from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

“We live in one of the most expensive, highest cost-of-living regions in the country. The higher we can get their wages – we want to do that,” Chen said.

Chen has looked to the fast-food workers’ Fight for $15 campaign, pushing for minimum wages of $15 per hour across the country as a benchmark of progress for living wages.

“If that’s a benchmark, let’s try to take it there and beyond,” Chen said. “If you’re making $20 an hour you should be able to live, or at least go a long way toward, being able to live where you want to in this area.”

Konte believes that alternative business models like theirs can be replicated in other industries across the country. Any existing company like Red Bay can start a profit-sharing offshoot, more like “a lightweight franchise, or a ‘friendchise,’” Konte said.

(L-R) Warehouse-manager-in-training Celeste Freeman, part-time roaster Jess Llarinas, and operation manager, Antoine Hicks, work together at production space inside Red Bay Coffee's roasting lab in Oakland. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Bay News Rising)

(L-R) Warehouse-manager-in-training Celeste Freeman, part-time roaster Jess Llarinas, and operation manager, Antoine Hicks, work together at production space inside Red Bay Coffee’s roasting lab in Oakland. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/Bay News Rising)

The founders extend their sense of community to job seekers who are routinely shut out of the job market: the formerly incarcerated. Roaster and part-time inventory manager Jess Llarinas was axed from another job when her employers became aware of her past.

When Llarinas met Chen, he told her, “We’re about second chances. Build that rapport and we’ll see how it goes.”

Delivery driver Harrison Suega drops off coffee at more than 20 spots in the East Bay and San Francisco from Wednesday to Friday. The rest of the week, he’s a case manager for formerly incarcerated folks like himself.

“More people should gain opportunities in the coffee industry, especially marginalized people in the community,” Chen said.

In a cheery room at Red Bay Coffee Roasters Fruitvale hub, dubbed the “coffee dojo,” the production line (of two) measured coffee beans into hand-labeled bags.

“Being mindful is really important, and mindful of wasting. The people out there who are picking this coffee – they’re sweating,” said Konte’s sister, Celeste Freeman, who is training to become warehouse manager.

Coffee is the United States’ largest food import and the world’s most traded product, according to Global Exchange. Alameda County’s weather is perfect for storing coffee beans.

Most of the West Coast’s specialty coffee comes through the Port of Oakland. The converted container’s design will reflect coffee’s role in local industry, with sides that rise up like a Port of Oakland crane.

The container will sit on space leased from Impact Hub, a shared co-working office, where Red Bay can host events, like discussions about profit-sharing and recreating the business model. Sparking others’ profit-sharing businesses is one of their ultimate goals.

“How do we raise up folks who are at the bottom?” Chen said. “We need everyone to be thinking about these issues and thinking about equity.”

Coffee drinkers can find new Red Bay stands at farmer’s markets in downtown Berkeley on Saturdays and Jack London Square on Sundays, starting in July. Until the container is ready, they’ll soon have a mobile coffee cart on-site at 2323 Broadway.

Michaela Payne can be reached at: michaela.k.payne@gmail.com

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