Nancy Langer still remembers her first cup of coffee. It was hardly love at first taste.
Sipping the steamy brew from a melamine mug at her family home near Palo Alto, Calif., a young Langer was taken aback by the bitterness of the drink she saw her mother regularly consume.
“It didn’t taste like I thought it smelled,” she recalls.
She remembers her first espresso, too. Just 13 and tagging along with her brother to a “beatnik” café in North Beach, she gulped it down in an effort to look more grown up. It wasn’t easy to drink.
Langer – whose family now operates its own Albuquerque-based coffee roasting business – wasn’t truly smitten with coffee until years later. She learned to appreciate it as a college student and fell in love as a young woman. Living in the Bay Area in the 1970s, she had access to what she says was some pretty good coffee – from the famous Peet’s coffee shop to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.
“There was very good coffee available in the ’70s,” she says. “Excellent coffee.”
She had no inkling back then, of course, but coffee eventually became her livelihood.
When Langer and her husband David moved their family from California to New Mexico in the early 1990s, they unknowingly began laying the groundwork for today’s Red Rock Roasters. David, who had lived in Italy, started a business importing and selling espresso machines. The enterprise slowly evolved to include coffee distribution and then roasting. Langer, who had run her own Rio Rancho cafe for five years, came on board full-time in 1998.
Today, Red Rock roasts 110,000 pounds of coffee each year at its Albuquerque facility, selling its product under private labels and its own label. Red Rock’s coffee is found in various restaurants, coffee shops and hotels around the state.
Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.
A: Rebel without a cause.
Q: Did you get into trouble?
A: Well, I just was, you know, wearing thrift-store clothes and pretty much breaking the rules, but I was actually a fairly good student, so that’s why I mean rebel without a cause.
Q: Did you do any demonstrating?
A: Yes, which my parents weren’t very happy because some of the demonstrations were happening in the industrial park there in Palo Alto and my father was working for one of the electronics companies. The Vietnam War was a big influence, I think, and really a lot of us were so young. It was almost a social thing to be rebellious.
Q: You studied theater history in college. What were your goals with that?
A: I just loved it. I always loved it. I decided that I should really study something that I loved and so that’s what I did, and I have no regrets. I got a liberal arts education and I think if you’re only going to get four years of college, it’s a good degree. You should study what you want to study.
Q: What’s your favorite play?
A: I don’t really go to a lot of theater anymore that’s spoken, like plays, spoken word. Of course, I love Shakespeare, but I really love opera, especially Romantic. I’ve always loved Romantic period so (it’s) ballet and opera from the Romantic period.
Q: What was it like running your own café (Red Rock Café in Rio Rancho)?
A: It was very difficult. It was really physically taxing and I still had kids at home, so after four years I just decided that I needed to sell it and do something that wasn’t quite as demanding. I’d get up really early and get up and go to bake before my kids were up and at night sometimes I would fall asleep before they did.
Q: What were your expectations when you started Red Rock Roasters?
A: (Her husband David Langer) just had an idea that he could see an opportunity to sell espresso machines in this market, so that’s how he started. And then you’re always looking for new opportunities (and) your business sometimes kind of takes its own form if you’re open-minded and flexible. So we added coffee, and we just started adding products and it naturally grew. When we started the roaster, it almost doubled the business.
Q: How has popularity of the Starbucks of the world affected your business?
A: Oh, it’s been great. Yeah, because when I first had that café, for the most part, coffee was something that people in New Mexico drank in the morning. And it was a much weaker beverage. It took some education to show people what coffee could be and open their minds a little bit about trying different origins. I used to put out different air pots with different varieties and encourage them to try them, but often I used to have to cut the coffee with hot water, like half and half, because they weren’t used to it. I think now there’s a completely different degree of sophistication, so Starbucks has created an appetite for, I think, better coffee and also a lot of the drinks and beverages that aren’t really what I would consider strictly coffee. But it’s inspired all these people to open their own businesses and their own shops, some of which are successful and some of which aren’t.
Q: You have a trained therapy dog. How did that come about?
A: I’m quite a dilettante. I’ve always enjoyed training animals for fun. I’ve had quite a number of dogs and this particular puppy just had potential because he’s just got a great middle way personality, so it was suggested to me that he could be a therapy dog. We did the training and it’s just something that comes very easily to him. That’s one of the drawbacks of working as much as I do, is that I wanted to do volunteer work – my mother was a lifelong volunteer – but it was hard to figure out where I was going to fit that in my schedule and this dog provided the opportunity to go out once a week to visit the memory unit in assisted living. I found I can volunteer and I can work.
Q: What is something most people wouldn’t know about you?
A: Probably that I watch Bollywood movies.
Q: What was your last splurge?
A: A night at the opera.
Q: What would you do with an extra hour every day?
A: Ride a horse.
Q: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
A: I’d have to say that my favorite compliment probably is “I love your salad dressing.” … I make a Dijon dressing that my French grandmother made, and I get a lot of compliments on that dressing. It’s proven. (laughs)