It’s time to reclaim the whitewashed narrative of specialty coffee

These Black entrepreneurs are taking back the industry their ancestors started.

Decolonize This

Europe’s influence on coffee culture is undeniable. Walk into any specialty coffee shop, and you’ll probably notice a gleaming, Italian-made espresso machine, and a menu listing cappuccinos, cortados, and other espresso-based drinks. Even specialty coffee’s reputation as “a white hipster thing,” complicit in gentrification, bears a whiff of European colonialism. Yet coffee’s roots in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia — where Black and brown people were cultivating and brewing it long before Europeans “discovered” it — remain largely hidden.

Jonathan Kinnard is flipping the script with Coffee Del Mundo, a specialty coffee shop in South Central Los Angeles that firmly centers these cultures. “What we are doing and continuing to do here is to help people rediscover coffee in the way it was originally intended,” he tells Mic. Coffee Del Mundo doesn’t serve espresso-based drinks — only drip coffee, pour-over coffee, and cold brew. And since many Black and Latinx people, including Kinnard, are lactose-intolerant, it doesn’t offer dairy, either.

Coffee Del Mundo, along with Red Bay Coffee in Oakland, Resistencia Coffee in Seattle, and a handful of other BIPOC-owned coffee shops are reclaiming the narrative of specialty coffee. Instead of turning up their noses at newbies for, say, expecting a Starbucks-style caramel-and-whipped cream concoction when they order a macchiato, they try to make their products accessible to everyone. They hire marginalized people from within the communities where they’ve set up shop, and form direct relationships with farmers.

Photo: Red Bay Coffee

Like many goods exported to the West, coffee has a problematic history, to say the least. Popular legend traces its origins to ancient Ethiopia, according to PBS, and people in the Arabian Peninsula have been roasting it since at least the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 17th century that it arrived in Europe, where the demand surged. To keep pace, colonial governments in the Americas forced enslaved African and Indigenous people to work on sugar and coffee plantations, Eater notes. To this day, many coffee producers work for menial wages.

Over the past several years, consumers have demanded that coffee producers be treated humanely. The industry has responded with initiatives like direct trade and fair trade certifications, and the emergence of small-batch, socially responsible roasters.

When it comes to relationships with farmers, “the coffee industry has done a pretty decent job,” says Keba Konte, founder of Red Bay Coffee, which offsets the risks importers normally take by accepting whatever beans they source, rather than sending them back if they don’t meet expectations. This allows the company to pay importers less, which, in turn, lets it pay farmers more. But that means it also builds direct relationships with the farmers from which the importers source their beans, working with them to create high-quality coffee. “Where the gap lands is more once the coffee hits Stateside,” Konte says. “That’s where you see that the opportunities are lacking.”

Photo: Red Bay Coffee

Indeed, the specialty coffee industry is overwhelmingly white. The racial reckoning that began last summer in response to George Floyd’s murder has drawn more attention to systemic racism in the industry, “but we’re still scratching the surface,” Kinnard says.

Konte agrees. While he’s seen more companies hiring a handful of Black baristas here and there in recent years, the demographics of the rest of the industry hasn’t budged much. “If you look at the executive suite and who’s really running the company, there’s maybe very few, if any, diversity up there at all,” he says. According to Zippia, a website for job seekers, 69.2% of coffee roasters in the U.S. are white. The fact that coffee shops have made headlines for calling the cops on customers of color, among other racist incidents, has only further alienated Black and brown people.

Kinnard, who’s Black and Belizean, experienced this marginalization firsthand almost as soon as he stepped foot in the industry. His foray into specialty coffee started during a trip to Belize while working in sales at an insurance company in Orange County. He visited a colleague’s family farm in neighboring El Salvador, where he learned about their struggles to export their coffee, much of it wiped out by disease. He offered to pitch it to roasters and importers in L.A.

When he did, he faced rejection after rejection. While his sales career had familiarized him with cold calling and the other challenges of “breaking in,” “this industry was very closed off, and it was extremely white dominated,” he says.

Taking matters into his own hands, Kinnard decided to roast the beans himself. He entered an arrangement with a roasting manufacturer, in which he used the commission he earned from selling their machines to buy his own. He studied coffee roasting at their factory in Turkey, bought a roaster, and left his insurance job to pursue coffee full-time.

While Kinnard was trying to sell the company’s machines at a coffee festival in Los Angeles, a Honduran farmer — who he now works with — told him about her struggles with entering the coffee industry. When he greeted her with “Hola, buenas tardes,” she broke down crying as she explained how he was the first person to acknowledge her, the only Latinx in the vicinity.

Photo: Red Bay Coffee

“I really wanted to change that and create a company that is designed for our diets, for people of color, because at the end of the day, all the coffee in America is coming to us through a Eurocentric view,” he says. “The Europeans didn’t even discover it until way later, and they didn’t invent that espresso machine until the late 1800s.”

Kinnard transformed his vision into reality with the opening of Coffee Del Mundo in 2019. Everything about it is designed with Black and Latinx people — who make up the majority of South Central L.A. — in mind. Coffee Del Mundo eschews not only espresso-based drinks, but dairy, as well. Since European colonization introduced dairy to Black and Latinx people’s diets only relatively recently, Kinnard points out, they’re more likely than white folks to suffer from lactose intolerance, or an inability to digest a sugar in milk known as lactose, which can trigger bloating, gas, diarrhea, and other GI woes.

Even Coffee Del Mundo’s South Central L.A location is intentional. Some customers remark that it should be in Santa Monica or some other affluent neighborhood in L.A. “I tell them that’s exactly why we’re here, because normally our community does not get a chance to experience these things,” Kinnard says. His goal is to create a space that both Black and Latinx people can call their own. Although L.A. is diverse, its ethnic enclaves remain largely separate, he explains. The relationship between the Black and Latinx communities has “been very damaged and very misrepresented,” he says, “yet there’s so many things we have in common, even down to the ability to grow this bean.”

Specialty coffee shops are widely seen as harbingers of gentrification. Harvard researchers have the numbers to back it up, correlating cafe openings with a 0.5% bump in housing prices in a 2018 study. But Coffee Del Mundo pushes against this narrative, too, paying it forward to the community it calls home, hiring BIPOC locally and working to create a roasting and barista training academy for BIPOC in L.A. As it stands, “there aren’t really any good entry points for us to get into the industry,” Kinnard explains. And because decades of institutionalized racism have limited community members’ access to fresh produce, Coffee Del Mundo participates in Plant-Based Saturdays, a plant-based street market in South Central L.A.

A few hundred miles north, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Konte found his way to coffee through art. Fifteen years ago, the then-visual artist and photographer opened Guerrilla Cafe in Berkeley, imagining a coffee shop where he could also display his artwork. A few years later, he opened Chasing Lions Cafe in San Francisco. Along the way, he realized that “coffee could be done better and could be done more equitably,” he says. “I saw an opportunity in the coffee roasting world for a new kind of business model.”

That vision came to fruition when he founded Red Bay Coffee in 2014. Earlier this year, he and his team opened cafes in Oakland’s Fruitvale district and San Francisco, and has plans to open a location in L.A., Konte tells Mic. Red Bay Coffee not only pays employees an hourly wage, it also offers them stock options, which companies typically reserve only for executives and upper management. This way, “they have an extra incentive,” Konte explains. “There’s an extra benefit for them when we succeed.” Ideally, he wants all Red Bay Coffee employees to feel like part owners.

These employees — not only baristas and roasters, but also importers, quality control specialists, and everyone else involved in bringing coffee to consumers — include women, BIPOC, disabled people, formerly incarcerated people, and others often shut out of the largely white, male specialty coffee industry. Many former employees have gone on to start their own businesses, some of them coffee companies. “We’re continually trying to broaden out the community who is participating in this industry,” Konte says.

Real talk: The specialty coffee industry isn’t exactly welcoming of the people Red Bay Coffee hires. “The music, the style, the vibration inside of [speciality coffee shops] is very culturally specific,” Konte says. “They’re very white spaces.” Rather than requiring baristas to have years of experience, Red Bay Coffee invests in training programs; the most important qualification is a genuine interest in coffee and customer service.

Red Bay Coffee trains employees not to engage in the pretentiousness that pervades so much of specialty coffee. “We don’t roll our eyes if somebody orders something that you might normally order from a Starbucks,” Konte says. “We see that as an opportunity to turn somebody on to a whole new way of doing coffee.”

Crucially, like Coffee Del Mundo, Red Bay Coffee centers the contributions of Black people to coffee. On one of the walls of its Fruitvale location, plants fill a cutout of the African continent, and the company’s slogan is “Coffee. Africa’s Gift to the World.

Konte believes that, while coffee is for everyone, Black people in particular should claim their share of the industry their ancestors began, and all the career and other opportunities it promises. According to Brand Essence Market Research, the global special coffee market was valued at more than $30 billion in 2020. “I believe that coffee is our inheritance,” Konte says. “Because it’s our heritage, it’s our inheritance.”

Like Coffee Del Mundo, Red Bay gives back to the communities that have supported it by hiring locally and hosting film festivals and other events at its café in Fruitvale, a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood where Konte says there are no other specialty coffee brands. When the pandemic hit, it made its space — and strong WiFi signal — available to youth who’d been arrested so they could videoconference with board members of a local juvenile justice diversion program.

Konte believes that, while coffee is for everyone, Black people in particular should claim their share of the industry their ancestors began, and all the career and other opportunities it promises.

Konte sees signs of more progress on the horizon. Since he launched Red Bay Coffee seven years ago, a new generation of Black Americans has entered specialty coffee, he says. One day, he hopes usher in fourth wave coffee, which emphasizes not only quality coffee — like the current third wave — but also its impact on communities. “If we can prove that you can be successful, make excellent coffee, and have a social impact, that is a business model others can and will follow,” he says.

We see coffee as European and exclusive because a bunch of white dudes marketed it that way. By reclaiming the narrative, entrepreneurs like Konte and Kinnard show us richer possibilities for coffee — that it can be not only delicious, but transformative, too.