Pursuit of the Perfect Cup of Coffee Is a Serious Business for Two Rutgers Alumni
Red House Roasters sells coffee at the Alexander Library’s Scarlet Latte Café and elsewhere around New York and New Jersey
Stacey Feder fell in love with coffee during the year she lived in Costa Rica after graduating from Rutgers. She started teaching at a progressive school, but soon decided she wasn’t cut out for the job. She instead got involved in planning events to benefit farmers and getting to know the coffee growers.
“Growing up in New Jersey you don’t ever think about where your coffee comes from,’’ said Feder, a 1997 graduate from Demarest. “Living in Costa Rica, I got really into the different elevations, the tastes and soils.’’
Her husband Richard Seidenberg became passionate about coffee even earlier, when he still was a Rutgers student working toward an art history degree.
“I was up late studying, or up early studying, and drinking a lot of coffee,’’ said Seidenberg, a 1994 graduate from East Brunswick. “I started thinking about some variations – dark roasts, lighter roasts, and origins.’’
Although the couple was like minded in their pursuit of an exceptional cup of coffee, it took Feder and Seidenberg several years to realize they could turn their interest into a business. Red House Roasters – the small batch artisan roasting company the couple opened in 2010 – now sells its coffee to Cool Beans in Oradell, Raymond’s in Montclair and other locations around New York City and New Jersey. Rutgers students can grab a cup in New Brunswick at The Scarlet Latte Café in the Alexander Library.
In their first careers after college, Seidenberg entered the corporate world and Feder, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications and English, worked in marketing and event planning. The couple traveled through South and Central American on vacations – visiting farms and bringing back small bags of raw beans. They bought a small roaster for their house that they eventually replaced with an even bigger roaster.
“We realized the beans were better than anything we could get around here,’’ Seidenberg said. “I barely knew what I was doing, but I realized we could do something special.’’
Then came the moment, now nearly a decade ago, that changed it all: During a trip to Bruges, Belgium the couple walked into a small coffee shop that roasted its own beans.
“We were like: Oh, my God, people do this for a living,’’ Feder said. “This was before roasting was a common term here. We roasted for friends and family but it never occurred to us to make a business out of it."
Feder and Seidenberg began writing a business plan on the trip home. They started saving money, took roasting classes and traveled to meet coffee growers. The couple developed a scoring system to help select coffees and create their own blends. After about eight years of planning, the couple opened Red House Roasters in an old industrial building in Union City near their current home in Weehawken.
Seidenberg, who is in charge of the roasting, says that seeking out the perfect high-quality cup of coffee involves never-ending exploration: coffee beans don’t come with a recipe or handbook. Seidenberg has to find the right level – roasting a bean very light or until it's very dark – to bring out its best flavors.
“It’s not about settling for any old El Salvadorian/Guatemalan/Panamanian coffee,’’ Seidenberg said. “We strive to have the very best from each origin. We take a lot of pride in our blends and work to create something that we feel is extraordinary. That is how we try to differentiate ourselves.’’
Feder kept her full time job in New York and cares for the couple’s 15-month old daughter. But she also helps with Red House Roasters packaging, marketing and product development.
“There are a lot of Saturday mornings where we have 12 cups of coffee in our house,’’ Feder said. “We make a lot of coffee to see which one pleases the palate the most.’’
Red House Roasters also promotes sustainability, which is one of the reasons why Scarlet Latte Café chose to buy the company’s coffee.
The couple gets to know many of the small farmers from whom they source their beans. They prefer to work with farmers who don’t use harmful pesticides, give back to their communities and pay their workers fairly.
Seidenberg and Feder also apply sustainable principles to how they do business in New Jersey. They donate the outer skins that fall off the beans during roasting to a farm in Hawthorne for compost and fertilizer. The burlap bags the beans are transported in are donated to a local beekeeper to use for making honey. The couple also donates any beans that aren’t roasted perfectly, but would still taste great to most coffee drinkers, to a local soup kitchen.
“If we have a certain quality, and we are willing to pay for that quality, then every farm we work with and every mill we work with will be dedicated to that quality because they know it sells at a higher price,’’ Feder said. “If they make a little bit more money, and they pay their farmers a little bit more money, then they are doing better. That trickle is huge.’’
Rebecca Sloat served on the management committee for The Scarlet Latte Café, which re-opened in the fall in the Alexander Library. She said that choosing Red House Roasters was a way to set an example for students because of the company’s dedication to sustainability.
“The taste of the coffee stood out, we felt it was superior,’’ Sloat said. “We also wanted to support a small business and the fact they were Rutgers alumni was kind of a big deal. Add to that the fact that they were working with small farmers, are organic, free-trade – that was something we wanted to support.’’