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The Roaster's Daughter: Coffee Lessons from My Father

This post was first published June 16th, 2016. 


I’m a second-generation roaster who grew up in the business. I’ve been learning and thinking about coffee my entire life. While many new coffee professionals build the bulk of their coffee knowledge with Google’s guidance, I have been lucky enough to have had years of hands-on training from my own parents. Here are some of the lessons my father taught me:

1. Starting your own business is one of the hardest and most rewarding career paths out there.

My parents always worked very long hours. When I was in elementary school, and they operated the original Red Rock Cafe in Rio Rancho (Home of the Flaming Turkey!), my mom would leave for work in the dark so she could start baking. My dad got us ready for school and then hit the road to sell coffee and espresso machines all over New Mexico and Colorado.

My brothers and I helped out at the Red Rock Cafe in Rio Rancho as kids. My duties as a first-grader included peeling chiles, bussing tables, and endorsing/listing checks for deposit. Later, I got to stick labels on the coffee bags—I was pretty into stickers at the time, so that was a dream come true.

Working together was our chance to spend quality time with one another. It also taught me a lot of responsibility and patience. It takes a long time for a business to take off. Once it is well-established, it is still hard work. But the opportunity to work together with my family toward a common goal is what made me want to join the business after college.

2. Good generals must first be good soldiers.

This is related to the first point. Sometimes the boss has to jump in and bag coffee or grab a mop and clean up (my dad actually loves carrying the mop around, grumbling about how he’s the maid and no one appreciates him). Oftentimes an employee calls in sick, which means you (regardless of your title) have to fill in. Everyone in the family has to be trained in every position and willing to do whatever it takes to get orders out.

Many people become involved in coffee roasting because they like the idea of being coffee artists, but the roasting itself is the fun part. Making payroll, keeping clients happy, and fixing mechanical problems in the warehouse keeps the whole operation going so we can roast another bag.

3. Different strokes for different folks.

I don’t like dark roasts. My dad DOES. This has been the main aesthetic tension in our working relationship.

While it’s true that this is a broad generational issue (light roasts are the trend now, dark roasts used to be), I have learned over the years that roasting into second crack (what we call a French, but what is technically a Full City +) is completely legitimate. It’s a style of roasting—a traditional European style, in fact.

Roasting very, very lightly saves roasters money (light roasts weigh more than dark roasts, so you need fewer beans to make up a pound, thus saving up to 10%), but it’s not always good for the bean.

My father taught me that there’s a chemical reason that you might want to roast coffee for longer—even if it’s not a dark roast, it’s important to develop the sugars in the bean.

Today’s cohort of reactionary anti-Starbucks third wavers assume that lighter is always better. That’s fine. Trends come and go. It's this appreciation for a diversity of roast styles, born of many impassioned conversations between my dad, my mom, and me, that makes Red Rock Roasters less ideological, less exclusionary, and more delicious.

4. Customer is King

My dad is extremely customer-oriented. All his working life he has made special weekend trips to open up the warehouse and grab some coffee for a little café somewhere that has run out of beans. He gives people every bit of business advice he has, and never charges for it. He’ll drive two hundred miles for the grand opening of a restaurant just to show his support. (As of this writing he is renting a van to haul 60 cases of frappe mix a hundred miles. See?)

Most important, he will not change a product that people have come to depend on. There are so many forces in the coffee world pulling a roaster in different directions. My dad will not chase a trend. He knows he can’t be everything to everybody, but what he can do is be consistent. He buys from the same farms and estates he’s bought from for fifteen years, roasts in a traditional/European style to allow each lot to reach its own roast peak, and delivers fresh product every week, rain or shine.

Honest business and excellent coffee. It’s actually a pretty simple recipe for success.