Oakland, CA

Oakland's artisan coffee debate

Built in the Bay


(Inti Ocon / Getty Images)

By Huey Bergstrom

(OAKLAND, Calif.) Artisanal products have become all the rage in the past ten years, with consumers opting for a higher price if they can be guaranteed some level of sustainability. A kind of ethical consumerism has grasped most metropolitan areas. One product that has seen some of the biggest influence of ethical capitalism is coffee.

In the late 2000s, Starbucks had a virtual monopoly on the national coffee market. While there were smaller local shops that endured success, in part because of the string of writers that would camp out at their tables to use their internet, the Seattle-based coffee giant didn't have any serious competition in most big cities.

In the 2010s, that changed with the advent of two Oakland-based coffee companys that have made distinct names for themselves over the past decade. Despite their differences, their similarities offer customers a sustainable and tasty choice.

Red Bay Coffee and Blue Bottle Coffee Company both splashed onto the scene around the same time in terms of popularity. Blue Bottle originated slightly before but both really seemed to become a staple around the East Bay in 2015. Beyond their somewhat distinct origin stories, both shops pride themselves on a fresh, well-sourced cup of coffee that, in terms of taste at least, gives Starbucks a run for their money.

Blue Bottle derives it's name from a centuries old story in which Turkish conquerors came into Vienna in the middle 1600s. The beseiged Viennese needed someone who could sneak through the Turkish lines and get a message to Polish troops. Luckily, one Franz George Kolshitsky spoke both Turkish and Arabic so he put on a Turkish uniform and eventually delivered the news of the Viennese rescue.

In mid September, the Turks were pushed back and forced to leave everything they brought with them, including hefty bags of what the Viennese assumed was animal feed. Kolshitsky, however, knew they were coffee beans from his time living in Arabia. He purchased the bags with money from the Viennese mayor and opened cenrtral Europe's first coffee house, calling it The Blue Bottle.

Centuries later, James Freeman, Blue Bottle's founder, named his company after Kolshitsky's business venture as a kind of homage to the roots. Blue Bottle became known early on for it's wholesome and direct connection with it's customers, dropping off coffee to their homes each day out of a Peugeot 505 wagon. They've stuck to some of their roots, offering customers a five dollar monthly subscription box. Now they're international with locations across California and Asia.

Similarily, Red Bay Coffee has it's own unique origin story. Founder and local artist Keba Konte was similarily disaffected with the dreary coffee monopolization and aimed to establish a company that took the care and time to sustainably source its ingredients, ideally making a better cup.

Focusing on ethical sourcing and sustainable harvesting, Red Bay has become a Bay Area staple because of it's quality, care and variety. The focus on quality ingredients with an ethical harvesting is what continues to draw customers to Red Bay. That, and the distinctly personal feel of every location, even the pop-up truck along Broadway in The Hive complex by Drake's Dealership. The focal point for Red Bay, and what distinguishes them from many other imitations is the ethically sourced ingredients paired with the creativity and insight of a local artist like Konte.

In his art, Konte uses a variety of materials including slavaged wood, copper and old furniture parts to create rich images of the African Diaspora. He uses materials that have had a previous life on purpose, as a way of giving the art more texture and life.

This sustainable philsophy stem's from Konte but is felt throughout the organization. Red Bay's newest location at the corner of International Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue is more than just a coffee house, it was intended, prior to covid health restrictions, as a meeting place of like-minded artists or writers. Not with the somewaht stuck-up air of coffee shop typists but with an inclusive aura that welcomes any smart and respectful creative type.

"We’re trying to make specialty coffee and beautiful experiences more accessible, and make this a space where people in the neighborhood and the community have access to coffee experiences like this," said Konte in reference to the new location that, as opposed to other Oakland neighborhoods, has slim if any coffee shops around.

Following a mariachi-themed grand opening earlier this week (see above) Red Bay's newest location is up and steaming.

As Blue Bottle has expanded outward beyond national borders, Red Bay has expanded beyond city borders. Blue Bottle reflects a distinctly more corporate kind of ethical capitalism, they're aiming to be the millenial Starbucks, and there's nothing wrong with that. Their coffee is good, but at the price they charge, this writer would rather give the money to a company like Red Bay that draws from its local roots and is clearly focused on the Bay Area first.

Surely both companies occupy a useful space to consumers and both reflect a growing sentiment among customers of sustainability. It's not enough to have ethically sourced ingredients, people want a gurantee that what they're buying isn't a party to environmental destruction, and why wouldn't they. In an era when automated delivery is as commonplace as touch-less ordering, customers will pay more for peace of mind, even with something as small as coffee.

Both companies offer caffeine addicts a refreshing diffrence from the standard's of Pete's or Starbucks, but with distinctly different strategies. Furthermore, both have shown that they are more than a pop-up and are truly Oakland's own.

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