Interview by Jennifer Pruess, Equal Exchange
Wrapping up Portland’s Early History, Diving Into Roasting, and Pondering the Future with Todd Caspersen
With Todd (Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing and Production), we reach the final stretch in our blog series concerning Equal Exchange’s early Portland history. We had a truly engaging conversation covering activism, inclusion, proposals, Portland’s coffee culture, and building a roaster. And not just any roaster, a 1986 Roaster Probat from Germany.
Todd: Have we met before?
JP: I think so, but it was briefly. I’ve been back to West Bridgewater, at company retreats, and up at SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) in Seattle. So, I think at one of those events, we have met.
Todd: How long have you worked at Equal Exchange?
JP: Over five years.
JP: Yeah! I started off in the warehouse here in Portland and then I transitioned into doing a combination of warehouse and customer service, then DSD (Direct Store Delivery) . DSD is what I’m currently doing. I also do demos and help with special events like hosting folks here in our office.
Todd: You’re the DSD for New Seasons?
JP: Yep! One of them. There’s three people on my team doing DSD to New Seasons Market, local co-ops, and stores.
Todd: That’s funny. I use to do the DSD there. Many, many years ago.
JP: Right after this interview I’ll be doing a full day of DSD at New Seasons. Anyways, that’s who I am. And for some context as to why I wanted to sit down and talk with you, since being here for the last five years and getting to know the many nodes of our company, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at Equal Exchange Portland and dig into our Oregon history. I think moving out West was a big deal for Equal Exchange at that time, similar to the decision of owning roasting.
There were risks involved with these decisions yet it was also an exciting time for the company. Luckily, there’s still plenty of people for me to connect with in this journey of revisiting our story. As I was talking to Tom (Thomas Hanlon-Wilde, Executive Director of La Siembra) and Wells (Wells Neal, Director, Equal Exchange West) your name popped up quite a few times. They recommend that I get your perspective on things and I agreed! Then from that initial conversation about Oregon, came the other story about how you helped to bring coffee roasting in-house with Beth Ann (Beth Ann Caspersen, Quality Control Manager).
So, here’s a typical first question: How did you get started at Equal Exchange? And what initially interested you about working out in Oregon?
When I was in college, I was a member of the Mifflin Street Food Co-op, which is in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember reading the Equal Exchange coffee bag and thinking huh, I bet somebody has the job that has to go buy coffee. I thought that that was pretty cool, I’m going to get a job like that. It didn’t even really occur to me to try and get a job at Equal Exchange. I just thought okay, I’m going to learn Spanish, I’m going to travel around and get a degree in Agriculture. Then I’m going to get a job doing something like these people must do. So, I did that, and then I went into the Peace Corps. I’ve known about Equal Exchange for a long time.
Then, I was living in California and my mom sent me an ad from a newsletter for the Resource Center for the Americas which was in Minneapolis and Equal Exchange was hiring for what they called an Organizer to work in Minnesota. I thought: great, I’ll go back to Minnesota. I’m originally from Minnesota, I’ll go back and I’ll live in Minneapolis. I applied for the job and I interviewed and whatnot. They said: “Great, we’re going to hire you, but we’re not going to hire you to live in Minnesota, you can come live in Massachusetts.” At that point I was sort of couch surfing in San Francisco so I said okay.
I went to Canton to work as a sales representative. I didn’t want to be a sales person, but my friends were like you need a job so just take the job and something else will happen after that. So, I moved from California to Massachusetts to work in the Canton office. I started in October of 98’ and by March of 99’ I was in Oregon. Right after I started there they had started the Oregon office, I think the summer after coming back from Nicaragua in 98’.
They were like: “Hey, we need more people. Do you want to go to Oregon?” That sounded like a great idea to me. I didn’t have any particular attachment to Massachusetts or New England. So, I moved to Oregon. That’s sort of my spiel about how I got started.
Move out to Oregon and do what exactly?
Do sales, do whatever basically. Go make Equal Exchange successful in the West. It was a great time, me and Tom. Tom rented an office in Gresham, which was a horrible place, but whatever. I could take the train into town and we just started selling coffee.
Describe a typical workday for you at that time.
We always had service calls. There was an existing customer base, so we would do all of the customer service for existing customers. Then we would do cold calls essentially to anybody and everybody that we could.
Right when I got out there, Wild Oats had been sold. We knew they were going to open a new grocery store chain and New Seasons was starting. We got Markets of Choice, it wasn’t called Markets of Choice, but we picked that up and we started doing DSD to the co-ops in Oregon. In the beginning, it was a bunch of sitting in the office, doing a bunch of calling people and taking orders, then processing those orders to get them shipped out from the east.
Eventually, to better serve the Portland area we were like let’s get inventory. At that point, I rented a house on Hassalo Street (Portland, OR) that had a big garage. I had a pickup truck and I would go to the UPS terminal on the north side of Portland. I would pick up pallets of coffee in my truck and take them to my garage. I would keep all of the inventory in my garage and drive around and distribute the coffee from my garage!
Really? Working like seven days a week then?
Six days a week. So, it was a lot of office stuff to begin with and then it was delivering stuff. Then we hired Roxanne (Roxanne Magnuson of Life Source Natural Foods) and the team got a little bit bigger. We hired Beth Ann (Beth Ann Caspersen, current Quality Control manager for Equal Exchange) but it was traveling to accounts, delivering coffee, cold calling people, and that was pretty much it. It’s not that much different from what folks do now it’s just bigger.
You just mentioned a few accounts you worked with back then. Do you remember what key accounts were back then?
We had Food Front Co-op (Food Front Cooperative Grocery), there were some grocery stores that weren’t New Seasons, and there were smaller grocery stores we’d deliver to.
We’d also go up to Seattle. Bulldog News was the first food service account that we actually landed. I was super excited when we got that. I don’t know if you know, but food service accounts are very difficult accounts to get, so that was a good one and we use to be at a restaurant called Higgins. They were slow food folks and we sold them coffee for a while. We had Marcos Café in Portland that we serviced, I think that’s still one of our customers.
Yes, Marcos Café is still one of our customers.
I also had the whole Southeast: California, Idaho, the whole nut out there. Tom and I were trying to open up stuff there for a long time. Those were busy days just dealing with the accounts that we had. Then when we added new things like New Seasons Market and Nakata (Town and Country). They were both building stores and growing fast…yeah, that’s a long time ago.
Sounds like things were really busy even to the point of needing more people than you had at the time. With that being said, what were some of the bigger challenges for Equal Exchange working in Oregon? Were people not really familiar with the company yet or the Fair Trade movement?
I mean it was just trying to grow a business, managing a business, adding people, trying to figure out what is good business and what’s bad business. Those years were years of high growth for Equal Exchange. You’d go around and tell people about Fair Trade coffee and they’d have no idea what you’re talking about. I mean, it was really the beginning of specialty coffee.
Those were sort of years of really aggressive growth. I think in 2001 we hit ten million dollars and so we were growing by millions of dollars every year. It was really just managing growth, customers, and volume. Getting stuff shipped out to us, where to put it, and what to do with it. Do we get a bigger space? Why are we living in Gresham?! Those kinds of things.
In the end, I decided that if we didn’t roast coffee then we couldn’t compete. If we don’t roast, this is going to be bad for us. There was no way that Equal Exchange was just going to let us build a roaster in Portland by ourselves. Everything was back in Canton (Canton, Massachusetts). I set out to convince everyone that we should do that and I had to move back to the East. Plus, I wanted to be closer to the green coffee and buying. They didn’t hire me to go come back and roast coffee. They hired me to go back and work in the purchasing side of things.
That was definitely one of my questions. Considering what a vibrant coffee culture we have in the Pacific Northwest with small batch roasting being a strong theme here, I’ve always wondered about what drove that decision to roast out East as opposed to the West.
It makes sense that roasting should happen where the green beans are landing. Especially with the operational undertaking of owning roasting and the space needed to do something like that on the scale that Equal Exchange exists on.
Well, the board, the management, everything was in Canton and no one knew how to roast coffee. It wasn’t a for sure go, but, basically, I was like if we don’t roast than this isn’t going to work. That was sort of my own personal agenda. I got hired to buy green coffee first and then once I was doing that I was working with Mark Souza (Procurement for Equal Exchange) and Rosario Castellon (former Producer Relations Coordinator for Equal Exchange as well as an activist during the 1970’s Nicaraguan Revolution), asking what are we buying and where are we buying it? It was also a lot of systems work.
You asked about challenges and I think those are some of the same challenges we have today: systems. How do we work systems? How can we improve systems? How come different people do things differently? Why do you fill out the green paper and what happens to the green paper? We spent a lot of time doing systems development stuff and while I was doing that, we were having someone else roast our coffee. Everything was going well, but it was clear to me that you needed to be involved with the coffee. There seemed to be a lot of money on the table that we could take by roasting it ourselves and it would just be way better and cooler to do it.
We put a proposal forward and that ended up turning into the Build, Buy, Roast Proposal. We were renting. We were like: “Can we rent and roast coffee?” We can’t roast coffee here in Canton and we were growing like crazy. What should we do? That led to buying the place in West Bridgewater (MA).
Aha! So that’s how you got that conversation started about bringing coffee roasting in-house and making the decision to do so?
Can workers of Equal Exchange still look at that original proposal? The Build, Buy, Roast Proposal?
I was looking for it on one of my computers. I have a couple old computers opened up, but I couldn’t find it on the computers that I have. I’m sure that Rink has it because he has a huge file cabinet and actually, the first proposal was called The Means of Production Proposal. Most of the argument was not economic it was more of including production workers in our coop. It was more of a worker owner coop democracy Marxist argument which turned into let’s go buy this because we’re going to make money, but that was the basis of the original argument.
Wow, interesting stuff! I love hearing about this. So, back to Oregon. What was the scene like then? The coffee scene and the Fair Trade movement in Oregon while you were working there?
When I first started it was really nascent. It was not like it is now right? You had your sort of food coops, grocery stores. There wasn’t Whole Foods, there wasn’t fancy grocery stores, there wasn’t cafes on every corner. It was more of what you would think of as traditional diners type coffee. There was a couple nice cafes, but nothing at all like it is now.
In that time, Duane Sorenson, the ex-owner of Stumptown (Stumptown Coffee) had just started Stumptown and was roasting in this little place. It was kind of a café but more like a little roastery and he was having a lot of success. You were just beginning to see the beginnings of people roasting with a lot of smaller roasters. The traditional industry was disaggregating and you were having a lot of smaller roasters start to pop up. Starbucks was beginning to acquire some of the bigger roasters and specialty coffee was becoming way more popular.
One of the big things that started happening was all of the drive-thrus (coffee stands) that’s still kind of unique to Oregon, the number of coffee drive-thrus. We had an account on the coast that was owned by these two women, Tom would remember what their names were, but that was all the rage. Coffee People was all over the place, that’s an old brand that I think got bought out, but I remember those little drive-thrus were really the hot ticket. I was looking around and I was like if you don’t roast your own coffee you’re going to have a really hard time competing or even just being real in the coffee scene. Watching Stumptown just really convinced me that we had to do this.
Portland has changed a lot for sure.
A lot a lot.
Switching over to the internal sentiment regarding bringing coffee roasting in-house, what was the general sentiment within Equal Exchange about being out in Oregon and branching out like that?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask them! I think people were excited about it. It was exciting to have another office in another place. We were growing all over the country really. I think it may have been a little bit weird to have us be out there and be worker owners. There was no Zoom meeting, you’re on the phone shouting through the phone, you’re sending faxes back and forth. In some ways, we were way more isolated and more of an idea. Like the whole West Coast office was like yeah, we got something out there, but you didn’t have the same level of communication or integration. We were just kind of out there doing our thing. We would check in with Rink or whoever it was we had to talk to and that was pretty much it. We weren’t really that involved with other people, it just wasn’t like that.
Were worker owner meetings happening regularly?
Yeah, there were meetings and you could go to board meetings, you could call in, it was just a very different experience you know?
I’m trying to remember how many people actually worked at Equal Exchange at that point. I think it was probably more like when I started, maybe 20 people in the whole thing. So, yeah, we had worker owner meetings, we elected board members. There was a lot less structure to everything. There was no real worker owner coordinator…now we’ve got committees and blah-blah-blah and processes, and all kinds of bureaucracy.
Are there any highlights for you with your work out in Oregon?
The Battle for Seattle! Which was a huge anti Free Trade WTO (World Trade Organization) protest. Do you know about that?
Yes, I was there too.
You were there too?
Yeah, the Battle for Seattle, man. I still have a teargas canister from that in our cupping lab! We also have one of the (protest) signs. We were giving out coffee in a church basement and we were a part of the whole riot. That was part of our messaging was that whole movement. We also brought coffee to the tree sitters in Eagle Creek. I climbed up to one of those tree sitting places, we were donating coffee to them at that time!
Those two things for sure and when we landed New Seasons Markets, Markets of Choice, and Vitamin Cottages. We were growing, it was a really exciting time of growth out there. It was fun! It was sort of Wild Westish in that way and because we were not here (Massachusetts) we were sort of free to do whatever we wanted. There wasn’t a whole lot of structure or supervision as long as we got accounts and took care of people. I remember the first August I was there, I made 350 cold calls!
Whoa! That is a lot of phone calls!
You’ve already mentioned this, but it sounds like you were the one to really get the conversation started around in-house roasting. So, how exactly did this conversation get rolling?
I moved back (Massachusetts), got involved in the green coffee purchasing side of things and just did that for a while, but I was pretty consistently thinking we have to roast coffee, we have to roast coffee, sort of beating that drum, talking to people saying: “We should do this, let’s do this.”
I remember the first day I got to Equal Exchange and I showed up and I asked: “Where is the roaster?” The answer was we didn’t have one. I couldn’t believe it! What? What do you mean you don’t have a roaster? It just seemed unreal to me and so when I came back I spent a couple of years just sort of talking it up and then eventually I wrote a proposal on it, on an electronic typewriter!
I can still see the thing typed out and called: The Means of Production. It was the proposal that we submitted to both the board and the worker owners. Eventually everyone talked about it and said it sounded like a good idea, but then it had to morph. We had to do more work and then it turned into Build, Buy, Roast which was a worker owner vote as well as a board vote.
It was a process. I think it took a little bit longer than a year before it was approved.
Who was working on the proposal with you?
We had a consultant named Willem Boot who runs Boot Coffee Consulting (of Boot Coffee Campus). He’s super well known now. He helped us speck out if you do x or y this is what’ll it’ll cost. He helped us come up with some economic scenarios and Rink was pretty involved in that proposal process as well.
I’m just sort of mystified with just the overall undertaking of a project and proposal like this. Especially considering that at that point, no one in the company really had much experience with roasting yet?
Well, we had Beth Ann. Beth Ann started working at Equal Exchange before I did and during that period Jonathan (Jonathan Rosenthal, co-founder of Equal Exchange) decided that she should learn how to cup coffee. She went off to apprentice with George Howell, who was a really well-known coffee guy back in the day who had these cafes called The Coffee Connection. That ended up getting sold to Starbucks.
Anyways, she apprenticed with him to cup and so she worked in his lab for free. She would roast his coffee, prepare the cuppings, clean it up, but she was an employee of Equal Exchange. It was kind of a weird arrangement actually, but we had a sample roaster. We did sample roasting and we had a little tiny lab with a couple of things. We were roasting coffee on a tiny scale. We still have the roaster that we started roasting samples on.
It’s not rocket science. It’s hard and there’s a lot to it. There’s a lot of science and a lot of alchemy to it, but people have been doing it for a super long time. I was convinced that we could do it, that I could do it and I convinced everyone else that it was a good idea. It was a big move, but it was fun and it was exciting and people wanted to do it.
Just like now. People want to roast coffee in the West. I mean, most of the people I talk to say that we should have a roaster here (in the West and owned/operated by Equal Exchange) because there is a physicality to it that is different than just moving boxes, when you’re engaged with the product. Even being a DSD Rep, you’re actually touching the product. If you’re just a sales person and you never touch a box or open a bag, you just sell it it’s just a theoretical thing, but when you’re actually involved in the chain it just has a different feeling to it.
Agreed. I recently took a trip to source and it had a similar impact on me. I felt like I could engage with the community at large concerning the supply chain, the farmers and producers that we partner with and in general, have a closer relationship with the products that we sell.
That being said, as a DSD & Demo Rep, I see that we still face steep competition because we are not a Portland centric roaster. Similar to how you were feeling when you were in Oregon observing that if we didn’t roast, we were going to have a hard time keeping our place in the marketplace. We can still be treated differently even when we are in stores every week merchandising product and building long-term relationships with our accounts piece by piece that the market we are advocating for depends on.
I think the thing about projects like roasting is that it’s big, it’s scary, and it’s exciting. So, once everyone is on board there’s this feeling when everyone is pulling in the same direction. It’s motivating, it’s galvanizing, it’s cool. We’re going to do this! It’s exciting to have a clear direction.
Like you said, there’s something about owning that part of the process. Logistically, it didn’t make sense for Equal Exchange to start the roaster in the West as it was so far removed from our products and production out East at the time.
Well, there was just no way that people were going to vote for me and Tom (to start roasting out West). There was just no way. It was too important of a move to just hand over to two kids three thousand miles away. They weren’t just going to write a check for however much the first roaster (was going to cost). I mean, I think the first project in the beginning was about a million dollars of stuff, maybe a little bit less. That just wasn’t going to be a thing (out West). I knew that to make it happen it had to be back here (West Bridgewater).
Right. Beth Ann mentioned that our roasters came from Germany? Tell me more about the process of acquiring the roasters and getting them running.
Once it (Build, Buy, Roast proposal) got approved, we had to go buy a building. There was a whole process around buying a building and a whole process around moving the workplace which is actually detailed in our bylaws about how far can you move, where can you move to. You can only move within a certain radius without a vote of who wants to move there. There was a whole internal process about where we were moving first.
Once we had the place, we hired some consultants who were mostly ex-Starbucks executives to sort of help us set things up, do the engineering work, get us permitted, stamped, improved, and help us decide which roaster to buy. We worked with Probat (Probat Burns Commercial Coffee Processing Equipment Manufacturer) and ended up with a traditional drum roaster. We thought that if we are going to buy a roaster, let’s not buy a cheap thing. I’m kind of like if we’re going to go buy a car, let’s buy a Mercedes not a Hyundai. We went out and bought the best roaster we thought we could buy and that turned out to be a 1986 Roaster Probat that was from Germany.
Probat brought it over, we got an old packaging machine from the York Pennsylvania Starbucks plant. So, our first packaging machine was a used packaging machine from York. And that was it. It seems like a big thing, but it really wasn’t. At that point you could walk into a coffee roasting company, say Stumptown for example, I think they had a small Probat and there they are roasting coffee. It’s not that complicated. And so we had a biggish machine and then a packaging machine which was actually more complicated than the roaster to some degree because it was sort of finicky.
The consultants came and we had a bunch of people bring the machine into the building. They set it up, plug it in, run all the gas, run the electricity, put everything together and then they left. I remember the first day Probat came. We went out for a week with the crew to California and roasted coffee at different coffee roasting places, had coffee roasting classes for a week, then we came back. Then everyone left. There we were with our machine and I remember we were all like: “Oh my god, what do we do now?”
We decided to roast a French roast. We turned it on and roasted a French roast, packed it up, and sold it! I can remember that day, turning the thing on. There were no consultants, there was no engineers, and we were like: “Let’s do it.” It was scary. Everyone thought we were going to throw it out or wreck it. I was like: “No, no, no, we’re going to sell this coffee.”
That’s a cool story to hear about the roaster landing and that our first coffee ever roasted was a French roast!
Sometimes when the worker owners bring proposals forward these days, it can be hard to tell what the general consensus is. Maybe because we are bigger, there’s more people and more insights. It’s nice to hear about a time when a proposal was brought forward that really brought together the worker owners and then went full steam ahead.
Well, we haven’t really done anything like that since. We have proposals about this and that, but not on spending a couple million dollars to go buy a building and machines. The kinds of proposals (now) are a different animal. Once people were in favor of the Build, Buy, Roast proposal it was exciting, it was a unifying activity. Plus there was a lot less of us right?
Right, around twenty or so worker owners?
We actually didn’t get the roaster running until 2005. So, I don’t know how many people worked at Equal Exchange at that time. It was more than 20, maybe 50 people. You’d have to ask someone else.
Well, it really was just a monumental moment in the history of Equal Exchange.
Those were the times. In those years where we had our first million-dollar month. I can remember when we had our first million-dollar month. I can’t remember what year it was, but I remember it was a big deal. That was exciting. Rob (Equal Exchange’s co-director) brought champagne and we toasted (the occasion). So, it was just an exciting time, those years from 1999 to 2009 were basically crazy mad growth, 25-30% a year.
Before NAV, we had Dynamics. In Dynamics, when I came back, there was a million of everything! So, the inventory, they just put a million of everything because we didn’t really use it, we’d do inventory by hand, you didn’t use it as an inventory system. It was just crazy, it was a whole different world back then.
As we move forward as a company from being Fair Trade Pioneers to Fair Trade Maintainers, so to speak, the movement has been established yet its intended standards have been watered down over recent years. With that being said, what current challenges do you think Equal Exchange faces as a company?
Well, I think the market is a big deal. The amount of money that is in the hands of our competitors is outrageous. Like the amount of cash that is flowing into coffee and especially the specialty coffee sector is just…you can’t even count the zeros, but staying independent and staying at the size we are or even getting bigger is really complicated. Most companies would have sold out by now and been a part of a much bigger conglomerate that buys shelf space and does all of that (Equal Exchange has a Never Sell Out clause built into the business model).
I think that the environment in which we are talking is really crowded with ideas and there’s a lot of competing ideas. To some degree our success is that we’ve been so successful that everyone talks about farmers and how close they are to farmers. You’ve sort of lost your north star to some degree because so many people are saying they’re doing what we’re doing whether they are or not, that’s another question. You’re not the only guy in the room anymore going: “Hey, I have organic coffee or what do you think about organic?”
This is a part of the whole artisan food, local…like all of that happened during this time and now it’s everywhere. You go to Panera Bread which is owned by the same people that own half of the coffee companies in the world and you get “artisan” this, “local” that. It just didn’t exist like that. Now, in that environment, I don’t think we’ve found that new something that makes us that different. We are different, but it’s crowded. The space is crowded and there’s a lot of money. It’s really hard to compete and it’s really hard to keep your place.
We haven’t really grown, particularly coffee sales, in quite some time. We’ve kind of been spinning the same hamster wheel. So, how are you going to go from six-million dollars and now we’re at, depending on how you count, call it 60-million. How are you going to get to a 100? Where is the magic bullet? I don’t think we know yet.
It’s a crowded space and there’s so many ideas in it now. Before, it was not like that. People weren’t talking about where their coffee was coming from, they weren’t talking about the environment, they weren’t talking about local roasters. Now it’s so hard, it’s just a cacophony of sounds. People are very hyper focused on this sort of weird fetishisms about coffee and consumption. I think it’s hard to be in that environment and not have a true north star.
If you ask: “What are we doing?” And you ask ten different people (worker owners of Equal Exchange), you’re going to get a lot of different answers. Before, I think it was much clearer. I think everyone had a more shared vision of what was happening and I feel like we’ve lost that a little bit.
Well said. There’s a lot of truth and challenges to dig into the material you just presented. On that note, we will wrap up the conversation here for now. Is there’s anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to meet with you. Thanks again for sitting down and chatting with me about the early days of Oregon and the birth of roasting at Equal Exchange.