Visitors and locals alike treasure both the coffee and the community they find at the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co. With two locations, Napa and St. Helena, the company is the quintessential Napa family-run business, now in its second generation.
“This is not just a business to me, but instead it’s more about the people,” said Nancy Haynes, president, co-owner and mother to Ben and Charlie Sange, who, along with Haynes’ husband, Brouck, now run the 32-year-old business.
“We are passionate about our coffee and believe it’s the best, but it’s really the connections between people — our customers and employees — that make the roasting company what it is.”
Founded in 1985 by the now-deceased Leon Sange, the first location in Napa became an instant hit with many locals, prompting the opening of the second in St. Helena in 1991.
I spoke with Nancy and her son, Ben, on a crisp fall morning at their St. Helena location.
Ben had been up late roasting just a few feet away from their office door, using their impressive Probat L12 gas-fired drum coffee roaster, and the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans was still thick in the air.
Music from the ‘80s and the chatter of customers mixed with the grinding, humming and whistling of specialty coffees being made.
“Leon was still working as a lawyer when he started the coffee business,” Haynes said.
“But by the mid-‘90s it had become his life, and by the time he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in early 2000, our son Ben was practicing law, but he and his brother Charlie came back to help us run the business.”
Nancy and Leon had divorced years earlier. But even so, she and her new husband Brouck helped; Charlie roasted the beans and Ben managed the Napa location, while Nancy continued to do the books and Brouck oversaw retail.
Ben often helped out with the roasting, too, having learned to roast coffee beans in the Napa store when he was going to high school. He was attempting to balance his law practice with the demands of the coffee business and his father’s worsening condition.
“One night, we received a phone call from one of our customers in St. Helena about Leon,” said Nancy. “They said that he was standing out in front of the coffee shop waiting for it to open. But it was 8 o’clock at night, so of course nobody was coming to open the store. So they called me and Brouck, and we came down and got him. He wouldn’t believe us that it was not daytime. That was one of the first big clues.”
The family continued to pitch in, taking care of Leon and the coffee shop.
“Taking care of Dad meant taking care of the coffee company, too,” Ben said. “It was important to him.”
When Leon eventually died from his disease in 2006, Nancy, Brouck, Ben and Charlie had fully taken over the operations. Ben left his law practice behind but still retains his license.
“It was about doing what was the best thing for Dad,” Ben said. “I didn’t really think about it. But the company had just become a giant extended family to me by then anyway. I started to notice the people that had been coming into the store for the last 25 years and the second generation of baristas working, and that’s when it turned for me, becoming something more than just my Dad’s business.”
For many employees of the roasting company, the connection seems like family.
“I started working there when I was a sophomore in high school and then worked there on an off until September of 2014,” said Tayler Petersen, a second-generation roasting company employee.
“It really felt like family. My mother worked there, too, for at least 10 or 15 years. She always spoke so highly of it and how nice everyone was. She worked there until she passed from cancer in October of 2011. They even closed the stores so that the staff could attend my mom’s funeral which really reinforced the family aspect to me.”
The customers feel connected to the roasting company, too.
“I’ve been coming in for 28 years,” said Rick Strathdee, a Napa resident and nurse at the Queen of the Valley Hospital. “I am a bit of a coffee snob, and their coffee is the best. I also like that it can be quiet and a peaceful place to sit and read and that they play live music a couple of times a week. But it’s really the people and the family who inspire my loyalty.”
When the 2014 earthquake hit Napa, Strathdee headed downtown to assess the damage to his favorite coffee shop and to see if he might be of some help.
“All the windows were broken and there was a huge mess, so I just grabbed a broom and started to help a few of the employees that were there already,” said Strathdee. “A few reporters came up to me and asked what I was doing, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. A couple of days later when I came in for coffee, Amber (now the manager at the St. Helena store) said, ‘Hey, look who’s here, the boss,’ she said and then laughed.”
The barista was referring to an article in the New York Times that referenced Strathdee as the owner of the NVCR.
“I never said I was the owner, but maybe they thought, ‘Who else would be helping clean the place up?’” Strathdee said.
“Rick is one of our many wonderful customers,” Nancy said. “We feel honored that many of our customers and employees feel a sense of place here. It’s what makes this place special, and we are so grateful to the whole community for their support.”
Another time the community came out to support the coffee shop was when Starbucks built a store across the street from their Napa location.
“Officially we have no comment about Starbucks,” she said.
“Since they’ve opened our business has actually increased, but I can tell you that we are in complete awe and so appreciative for all those people who spoke out on our behalf. What we’ve found is that there are many locals and tourists out there that really value a local family-owned business that is making a hand-crafted product. I can also say that our ‘David and Goliath’ blend has been a big hit.”
As a part of NVCR’s commitment to all things local, they’ve supported many causes over the years by creating special coffee roasts.
“We donate 20 percent of the proceeds from the sale of our ‘Coffee for a Cause’ beans for various local charities,” Nancy said.
“A few of our current causes include the Vine Trail, police, firefighters, the Pathway House and Jameson Animal Rescue. There are many worthy causes, and we want to do our part.”
Ben and Nancy are adamant about not moving beyond the Napa Valley.
“We don’t want to do anything that will compromise our coffee or our Napa Valley hometown connection,” Ben said.
“We do offer wholesales beans and many local restaurants serve our coffee, but we currently have no plans to expand beyond the valley.”
Charlie has left the day-to-day business, now consulting while living in San Diego with his wife and two sons. Ben and Nancy continue their active involvement, as does Ben, each envisioning a day when a third-generation Sange might step in and lead the company forward.
“The future is never certain,” Ben said. “But what I’ve learned is that this business is not just about making the best coffee we can make, but instead it’s really about making emotional connections with people.”
Originally published in the Napa Register, December 2016