Rio Lobo: Small Town Roaster

Feb 6, 2014

Artisan coffee is a trend that’s has pretty much swept the nation's cities.  It’s no surprise to find local roasters in Milwaukee or Madison.  But where you might not expect to find one…is in a garage in the tiny town of Hiles, Wisconsin.  

Dave Roberts is working on an espresso blend for his company Rio Lobo coffee.  But he hasn’t always been a roaster.  At the age of 55, he made an unusual career change. 

“My family had a logging business, and a sawmill business," Roberts explained. "We were about to sell that – that’s when I kind of gravitated toward coffee roasting."

"So you used to operate the sawmill?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, "and logging, hauling pulpwood."

"That’s an interesting switch," I said.

"Yeah I guess it is, from something that’s really really industrial, to something more artsy you could say!” 

His brother had a coffee roasting business on the West Coast, so Roberts says he already knew his way around a bag of beans.  Rio Lobo, which means Wolf River, started out as a hobby, a way to make a little extra money.   But it wasn’t easy to find a market in the Northwoods, where artisan coffee wasn’t exactly booming. 

“And it was just really difficult getting any customers at all," Roberts said.  "The first few years, it was just ridiculous.”

Existing coffee houses were reluctant to switch to a new brand, and Roberts wasn’t interested in starting his own shop. 

“So what I did was, I thought if I want to roast any coffee at all I’ll just appeal to the people, I’ll go around to individuals," he said. "And that’s what I’ve been doing.” 

More than ten years later, he has about a hundred customers.  A few are businesses but most are individuals – who call up and order a few pounds at a time.  Roberts’ only advertising is word of mouth – but those who know about him are loyal.  Some who have moved out of the Northwoods continue to order Rio Lobo Coffee from faraway states like California, Massachusetts, and Iowa.  

But Roberts is humble about this loyalty. 

“And I don’t think that it’s – I don’t think that it’s so special that it’s better than what can be produced, but they’re getting good coffee for a good price, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.

With several orders lined up for his espresso blend, Roberts fired up his boxy metal roaster. 

“It's tricky to roast the lighter, smaller batches," Roberts explained over the roar of the machine. "But I have to do that."

The roaster heats up to about 500 degrees.  After about 10 minutes the beans start to darken and the air fills with a toasted smell.  Roberts quickly shuts off the gas and out pour the beans.

Roberts never roasts more than customers have ordered – he won’t let coffee sit on the shelf for a minute longer than it has to.  That’s part of what keeps his loyal customers coming back.  But apparently it’s not a hit with all Northwoods residents. 

“There are people that do not like fresh coffee," Roberts laughed, "As funny as that may sound!"

But isn’t fresher coffee better coffee?  For Roberts, there’s no question that it is.  But he admits it is a matter of taste.

“I have friends that just will not – I mean they’re very close friends," Roberts chuckled. "And I’ll just tell em, I know what you want.  You want me to take my coffee and set it on the shelf for about three months at least, and then you’ll like my coffee because it’ll be quite stale, that’s what you want.” 

And despite specialty coffee’s rather bourgeois reputation, Rio Lobo beans don’t break the bank.  Roberts does everything he can to keep the price down – using the cheapest bags and boxes, and selling it for between six fifty and eight dollars a pound.

“Some coffee, and there are certain items that people think if they pay an exorbitant price they’re really going to get the best," he said. "I know you can attract customers by having a real high price, but it’s not what I want to do.” 

For Dave Roberts, doing what he wants to do, is working out just fine.