Does anyone remember the Fifth Dimension, the sunshine pop group who popularized champagne soul and recorded “Up, up and away…in my beautiful balloon”?  Seems only a handful. Granted, I have eclectic musical tastes, but folks, that was a classic, even if it dates back to 1967.

And so was RCI’s Fall Regional Conference in Albuquerque, N.M., this past October (4-6). A classic, that is. The event was timed to conclude at the beginning of the city’s annual Hot Air Balloon festival, which saw 575 balloons from all over the world do a mass launch on Saturday morning (Oct. 7) at sunrise.

Granted, I was one of those who opted out of the 4:30 a.m. bus ride to the fairgrounds to see this spectacular event. Having seen an early morning balloon launch at a previous RCI event in Napa Valley many, many years ago, the thought of forgoing sleep and shivering just didn’t appeal to me that day.

Moreover, I counted on having the opportunity to see all those balloons lifting off from the fifth-floor restaurant rooftop at Hotel Chaco. There’s something to be said about sipping coffee, having breakfast and warming oneself by a gas fire while watching balloons slowly — and I do mean slowly — slip across the sky.

Mind you, I wasn’t the only one to take this approach amongst those attending RCI’s fall regional. There were quite of few of us adopting a “civilized” balloon-watching tactic. That’s no disparagement to those that got up that early; I’m sure it was spectacular.

But let me turn back the clock a bit and start from the beginning. It all kicked off with an optional tour of Santa Fe, which commenced at 8 a.m. from the Hotel Albuquerque/Hotel Chaco parking lot on Wednesday, Oct. 4. 

Yes, that’s correct, there were two conference hotels. The welcome reception, suppliers’ show ‘n tell, educational seminars, Candy Clinic, Kettle Talk and Flamenco Tableau were held on the Hotel Albuquerque site, a traditional venue featuring Spanish and Native American motifs. 

Breakfasts and the Sweet Meet event were at the Hotel Chaco, a brand new and modern hotel incorporating elements of the Chaco Canyon and literally just across a parking lot to Hotel Albuquerque.

And now back to the parking lot. It was a full bus, about 50-plus RCI members, spouses, children and yes, even members of the media. Luckily, Gail Shippman, senior editor for Manufacturing Confectioner, and I aren’t regarded as pariahs, even though we are members of the press.

Given that we’ve both paid our dues covering the confectionery industry, we’ve built up our candy cred. No fake news from us.

So it’s about an hour bus ride to Santa Fe, but our tour guide, Clay Benard, did a fantastic job filling the time with an ongoing discourse involving history, folklore, clever quips and sage (how appropriate is that adjective?) advice. Our first stop before entering the city was to see Reynaldo Rivera’s bronze sculpture group depicting travelers approaching the end of the Old Santa Fe trail. 

The life-size depiction in the middle of a desert made a great backdrop for a group photo. Ironically, the end of the Santa Fe Trail was the beginning of our adventure as we returned to the bus. Passing by million-dollar homes inhabited by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Robert Redford, we headed toward the Santa Fe Tourist Center to disembark and begin the walking tour. 

After the obligatory “pit stop,” Benard led us to San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the United States. It is, as the pamphlet asserts, “one of the best examples of preserved adobe architecture.” Once inside, there was a bell dating back to 1356. Legend has it that whoever rings the bell comes back to Santa Fe. I rang it pretty hard.

Next stop, the Inn and Spa at Loretto, a charming boutique hotel featuring adobe architecture that’s become a landmark for the area. It was also a great place to explain the tradition of luminarias, paper bags filled with sand and a votive candle used during Christmas to welcome the Christ Child. 

Adjacent to the hotel was the famed Loretto Chapel, you know, the one with the wooden staircase built with no nails and seemingly nothing to anchor it. They only allow newlyweds married in the church to stand on the staircase. It’s a great photo op.

Once outside the Chapel, Benard shared an interesting story about the rationale for the Jewish symbol for God gracing the entranceway of the St. Francis Basilica, which is just a few steps away from the town’s main plaza. It involved adultery, murder, ambition, money and clever negotiation, but I’m told it’s just folklore, i.e., potentially fake news, so I’ll move on.

From the Loretto Chapel, we moved onto the town’s main plaza, which features an obelisk honoring those who gave their lives in battle. Benard explained the various architectural features surrounding the plaza, including the Palace of Governors and the Native Americans selling their wares on the sidewalk. 

He shared tips about local restaurants and candy/chocolate shops in the city, strongly urging us to gather again around 2 p.m. for the bus ride back via the scenic Turquoise Trail. Lunch was definitely a pleasant affair at La Plazuela, a torta de Borrego (braised lamb shoulder), followed by mocha coffee and apricot tart at the French Pastry Shop, both of which were located in the famed La Fonda hotel.

Back on the bus, we all enjoyed the scenic ride back, stopping at Madrid (pronounced Ma’ drid), an old coal mining town transformed into an arts colony that reportedly has the world’s longest standing bar at the Mine Shaft Tavern. It also has a chocolate shop, Schugarman’s Chocolate Shop. 

A former restauranteur from Baltimore, Harvey Schugarman offers high-end chocolates and confections at this artsy wayside. More importantly, it seems he’s doing so with great success.

Upon arriving back at the hotels, there was just enough time to freshen up and prepare for the welcome reception and suppliers’ show-n-tell. Naturally, chocolate suppliers such as Barry Callebaut, Blommer, Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate, Guittard Chocolate, as well as wholesalers such as Birnn Chocolate of Vermont, Jelly Belly Candy Co. and Linnea’s Cake & Candy Supplies had something delicious to offer. At my table top, I could only provide food for thought with issues of Candy Industry.  Still, excellent nourishment for the brain.

It was easy to reacquaint myself with many candy makers and chocolatiers we’ve done stories on, such as Jeff and Jane Birnn of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont; Barry and Jean Bomboy of Bomboy’s Home Made Candy; Pam Dolle and her family from Dolle’s Candyland; Beckie and Robert Untiedt from Graham’s Chocolates; RCI President Steve Vande Walle from Vande Walle’s Candies; and Joe and Laurie Reiser from Winans Fine Chocolate. 

Heck, there even was the visit from Debbie Ball, The Candy Lady of Old Town Albuquerque. You know, the one that stirred up a bit of commotion with her “Breaking Bad” Candy Meth. And yes, she’s still going strong, taking advantage of the show’s never-ending popularity and its recently launched prequel, “Better Call Saul.” 

Following dinner at the Albuquerque hotel, this editor made a beeline for the Hotel Chaco. Although the offsite tours started at 9 a.m., an early bedtime seemed appropriate. Must have been the altitude.

Our first stop the following day involved a visit to the New Mexico Pinon Coffee facility. Twenty years ago, the original owner started roasting coffee out of the back of his classic red pickup truck in Albuquerque. He added pinon nuts, a staple in New Mexico, to cut the acidity and add flavor. It worked. Today, New Mexico Pinon Coffee is one of the largest coffee roasters in the state, roasting over 1 million pounds of coffee in 2015.

To keep up with demand, the company just recently installed a new coffee roaster from Portugal capable of handling 1,500 lbs. per hour. And, as we found out in the tasting room, sourcing coffee beans bares a very close resemblance to cocoa beans.

The crop is grown in warm climes, requires care and nurturing, remains very labor-intensive and goes through a drying and roasting process. Sold nationally in Costco and Trader Joe outlets, New Mexico Pinon Coffee is one of the Hot Air Balloon Festival sponsors. 

Upon finishing my cup of Joe, I and the rest of the group got back on the bus and settled in for our next stop, which was the Popcorn Cannery.

Like the New Mexico Pinon Coffee Co., the Popcorn Cannery, which is part of Buffet’s Candies, has become a local institution. Buffet’s Candies was founded by George Buffet in 1956. From humble beginnings, George built up his candy business while simultaneously venturing into related but separate enterprises, such as B&H Wholesale, a concession supply company, and The Popcorn Cannery, a — no mystery here — popcorn production facility. 

I have to admit, there’s nothing like consuming freshly-popped corn directly from the line. The RCI group  — there were two full buses that day, with each visiting different venues to facilitate touring — I was on got to see poppers popping and caramel corn cooking first. We sampled green chile popcorn and then were given a complete tour of the B&H Wholesale warehouse by George Buffett II, or “G-2” as he’s known, the founder’s son. 

Upon leaving the Popcorn Cannery, G-2 made sure we didn’t depart empty-handed, a parting gift filled with loads of flavored popcorn. 

Despite gorging on popcorn treats at the Popcorn Cannery — the green chile proved to be my favorite — it was time for lunch. We arrived at the famed El Pinto restaurant, where Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have visited and dined. 

During a splendid buffet of New Mexican cuisine, the restaurant’s specialty, we had an opportunity to listen to Jim Garcia of Hospitotality and famed chile expert Dave DeWitt provide insights on chiles and tequila. 

Although there was no tequila sampling, the restaurant’s famed salsa was wonderful. In fact, there’s a 5,000-sq.-ft. salsa manufacturing plant right behind the restaurant.

Our final stop took us to Buffet’s Candies, the facility sporting a large candy cane on the roof. Here, Patty Buffet, George Buffet’s daughter, and her crew provided an upfront and personal tour of the facility.

During the walk-through, we learned about pinon nuts — they make a great pinon nut roll — and saw candy makers pour out some brittle. Despite the goodie bag all of us received — again, thank you Buffets —  I just couldn’t resist adding to my collection of sweets, purchasing a box of pinon nut and dark chocolate assortments.

It was time to head back to the hotel then, and dinner on our own. Oh, wait, there was that nightcap I had at the Sweet Meet, hosted by RCI President Steve Vande Walle. The suite had a spacious outdoor balcony, complete with a gas-burning fire pit and exquisite views of the Albuquerque skyline. A harvest moon provided a wonderful backdrop against the Sandia Mountains.

The next day, dubbed Education Day, provided learnings for all those in attendance. Keri Stewart, president of Results 4 Business, kicked off the morning session with a peppy talk on keeping a positive and focused leadership role. She also added some additional tidbits about Albuquerque and New Mexico during the course of her presentation. 

Jenna Derhammer, R&D manager, innovation for Blommer Chocolate Co., made sure we all knew how to speak chocolate in her “Learing the Language of Chocolate” presentation. Her talk covered more than just technical terms, encompassing such hot topics as sustainability, GMOs, added sugar and consumer buying habits.

Deirdre Lane, the pastry chef at Hotel Chaco, finished up the morning session by demonstrating how to prepare some interesting truffle recipes using local ingredients, such as chevre, lavender, honey, red chile and mescal. Naturally, there were samples, and everyone came away impressed.

After the lunch break, I had to attend to some pressing e-mails and the like, so I missed two sessions: Optimizing Sales by Targeting Mobile and A Fresh Look at Growing a Business. Both I was told were very informative, and I sure, readers can get more info from RCI if they’re interested.

I did get a chance to see a variety of clever ideas demonstrated at the Candy Clinic, everything from a Irish Car Bomb truffle recipe presented by Cargill Chocolate & Cocoa’s Joe Sofia to Barb Baue from St. Louis-based Kakao Chocolate discussing how to use Tomric’s Quick Ship mould program to create customized bars inexpensively. 

Judy Hilliard McCarthy talked about creating “Boo Baskets,” a new Halloween tradition that’s catching on while Keith Alesse showed off the C-Shop’s Fudgiscle, a big hit for the company. 

Patty Buffet showed candy makers can capitalize on tourist traffic by offering goodies in a state-shaped basket. And Garbusjuk revealed how some leftover mushroom salt from a special gourmet project became a Pacific Fantasia truffle.

To provide a spectacular cap to the conference and the evening, RCI provided attendees with a Flamenco Farewell at the Hotel Albuquerque. A cozy theatre environment featuring a tapas-style dinner that preceded the performance set the mood.

Personally, I’ve never experienced a flamenco performance. Heritage Hotels & Resorts, which owns the Hotel Albuquerque and Hotel Chaco, partnered with The National Institute of Flamenco to allow guests to see this Old World Spanish dance artistry. 

At this evening’s show, there were three performers from Spain accompanying local talent. Wow. I got goosebumps. And yes, the video of “Despacito” certainly is sexy enough, but flamenco demonstrates the passion and sensuality of dance in a syncopated and sophisticated manner that’s truly worth seeing. 

I think that covers it. Now where did I put that pinon nut roll?