The Early Days of Portland Spurs Equal Exchange’s Next Chapter: Roasting
Interview by Jennifer Pruess, Equal Exchange
Welcome to the third installment of our mini-blog series: Equal Exchange Goes Out West to Stay. We now reach a branch in the story where the early days of Equal Exchange in Portland meets with our move to bring coffee roasting in-house. We will begin our exploration into this leg by sharing a conversation I had with Beth Ann, our Coffee Quality Control Manager, back in late November, 2018.
They both mentioned events leading up to bringing coffee roasting in-house. I thought it was time to bring these stories to light in celebration of our accomplishments while simultaneously peering into our future to see what the next chapter may bring.
My first question is how did you get started working with Equal Exchange? How did you hear about Equal Exchange and what was your first role with the company?
I went to Wheaton College in Massachusetts. They started serving Equal Exchange on our campus. This is in 1993 and I was an Anthropology major. They had an essay contest that was basically saying if you win the essay contest you have an opportunity to go and meet small-farmers in El Salvador.
Equal Exchange had the essay contest?
They had it with Wheaton College together, it was basically sponsored by both of them, but the idea was that the trip was sponsored by Equal Exchange. They wanted to take staff and students down to visit farmer coops. I won the essay contest with another woman. So, I went with one of the founders, Jonathan Rosenthal (one of the original founders of Equal Exchange) to El Salvador in 1994. We went for a ten day trip and it blew my mind completely.
It was my first time in a third-world country and it was my first time to Central America. So, I came back sort of transformed. A few years later, I went to do my Anthropology thesis and spoke with folks at Equal Exchange about possibly using Equal Exchange as part of my case study. Which was about specialty coffee and the difference between paying a fair price vs paying a commodity price. Then giving sort of aid money or additional money to farmer groups or to different projects after the fact. So, it was a comparison between those two things and I used Equal Exchange and Starbucks which was a monster compared to Equal Exchange at that time. This was 1995 to 1996.
I got an internship with Equal Exchange during the winter of that year and then they had a sales position open up in Massachusetts. I was the lucky recipient which was awesome, but I was an Anthropology major. I wasn’t quite sure if this was a good fit for me. The company was, selling…not sure what that was. I took the job and did sales for the mid-Atlantic for two years while I was based in the Canton office. I shared an office with Tom (Thomas Hanlon-Wilde, Co-Executive Director of La Siembra, a sister co-op of Equal Exchange based in Canada and the makers of Camino Chocolate). I knew Tom and some other folks like Jessie Myszka (Director of Support Operations). Jessie was hired at the same time as me. We are of the same class- as we like to joke!
Then about two years later, my mom passed away unexpectedly. I decided to leave Equal Exchange to deal with the house and life and I moved back to Connecticut. This is where the story gets a little bit hard to explain. I’m not sure if it’s blog worthy, but it’s kind of funny crossover material.
Anyways, I left for a while and then I ended up in Oregon because I met Todd (Todd Caspersen Director of Purchasing & Production at Equal Exchange) in passing. We fell in love, he moved to Oregon, and I followed him like a crazy 25 year-old! I didn’t work for Equal Exchange when I moved to Oregon. I moved to Oregon first because there were no sales positions which people felt bad about!
I went and worked for a green trading house, an importer called OPTCO (Organic Products Trading Company). They don’t exist very much anymore, I think they were bought. It was a husband and wife team that imported organic coffee. They were also very mission based and really lovely people. I worked for them for about 8 months, but I decided that I didn’t really enjoy the green side of trading coffee. I was really brought up into this world of small farmers, fair trade, and worker coops. I wanted to be back with roasted coffee and customers.
Luckily, a sales position with Equal Exchange opened and I was hired back as a sales rep in March of 2000. I became the rep for Seattle which was really cool! The Northwest was just a very different world compared to the East Coast where I grew up. I was really excited to be there (the West). I represented all of the PCC’s (Seattle area co-ops) and I was on the road a lot. I think the west coast led the way for sales in terms of being on the road much more, not being on a phone. I really believed that we were the trail blazers and I was going to say no pun intended but then the Trail Blazers are from Oregon!
We didn’t have a lot of resources, but there were good opportunities. Sales was much different then. It wasn’t as regimented as it is now. We were sales, we were customer service, and we were demo people. I even helped to do DSD (direct store delivery) at one point. We didn’t have a DSD person, we did DSD. We were trying to figure out how to do that and how to be local.
So, there was the PCC stores and the Nakata Groups. Tom got the Nakata Group, but I helped to usher them in just as I was coming on. Todd got New Seasons with my help as well as Markets of Choice. Those were a few of our big accounts at the time.
One of the smaller accounts at the time, I didn’t really know how to deal with them because they were food service, was Bulldog News in Seattle. They’ve been with us forever and a day! That was one of the accounts that I’d go up and work with them, and do a lot of demos. I was also doing concerts at the zoo, giving out cups of coffee and hauling around machines. It was a fun time but it was a lot different and a lot of work. We were everything, we did everything.
That relays into my next question concerning what a typical day was like back then. Can you remember what the goals were at the time when you were blazing trails?
We had sales goals. Our goals were to grow sales and maintain accounts but really grow by trying to get into more mainstream supermarkets. We’d call them the elephants. Go after the smaller accounts but try to get some of the larger accounts and try to interest people that were more mainstream because the northwest had a different culture around organic. There was (also) a big movement around shade grown. In some ways it was easier to sell organic at the time. To talk about small farmers was a little bit different. I think that is radically different today.
Our office was a one room office in Gresham. I would take the train when I wasn’t going to Seattle or on the road and then you’d be calling people, servicing customers, dealing with maintenance issues with machines if something broke down. We were it! We got to know everything.
To summarize: the west was comprised of a sales team trying to land accounts and grow fair trade?
Yep, exactly. Trying to grow our brand and have people familiar with it.
One of my questions involves remembering some of the challenges. Presently, our challenges revolve around how we tell our story, talk about farmer-partners, current issues with fair trade, and what it means to be local.
Were you facing any issues being considered a national brand or what sort of challenges were typical at that time?
Oh yeah, I think the challenges are very similar today as they were back then. We were three people on the ground and our coffee company was 3,000 miles away.
We were the local presence, we were the humans on the ground. I think that helped tremendously to begin to build those relationships. I credit Tom a lot with relationship building because he was the first one there. Having that consistency is important. That’s one of the reasons we started doing DSD because we could control the product, go into the stores, and be like: “Here we are! We’re bringing the coffee directly from our hands to yours.”
I think at the end of the day, not being a roaster was a larger challenge for Equal Exchange, period. We didn’t manage marketing at the time and there was no marketing team on the west coast. However, there were a lot of things that we would do on our own just very much like what we do today. Each account needs certain needs and we wanted to take care of their individual needs.
There were less coffee companies then there are today. I mean (now) Portland alone has at least fifty roasters just in Portland or the greater Portland area.It seemed really challenging at the time, but the challenges were less back then around locally roasted (coffee).
One of the quotes from interviewing Tom that has stuck with me is this: “When we show up and are present in the stores, we are local.”
We’ve built relationships in Portland over the years. We’ve built partnerships by delivering products and being present on a weekly, often twice a week basis. I feel like that is a relevant part of what helps to define what local is and I like how you describe it as: “From our hands to yours.”
One of the things that I use to try to say is that coffee is not really local. Coffee is roasted. The vast majority of the work that happens in coffee is not in the hands of the roaster and it’s not in the hands of us. I always tell producers: “You do all of this work. My job is to go out there, maintain how delicious it is through our roasting, and sell it.”
We are selling it. Roasting is an important part of that and it is a craft. However, it’s only one step. That was part of my argument when I worked out West. We take such care when we are roasting our coffee, but at the end of the day, most of the work is happening at origin.
Amen! Unfortunately, I think it’s something that gets lost in the fold. I do hope that sourcing of social and environmentally sound products becomes more of a consideration for global products such as coffee and cacao.
Reflecting on your time out west, do you have any highlights that come to mind?
I think it was a really free time. There weren’t any written rules to what we were trying to do. It was really liberating to be out on the road and to be with customers. Specialty coffee was on the rise and we were in a growth period too. It was just so exciting to be able to go out there and tell our story.
Working with Tom and with Todd was fantastic. Having a small team is really exciting and fun. It can sometimes be really hard too. I can remember driving to Seattle with Tom, we would take road trips sometimes. We would spend 6 hours in a car, 3 hours to Seattle and 3 hours back to Portland. During that time you can learn a lot about people and having that connection with your colleagues really helps to build relationships.
I can remember that I was really interested in learning Spanish and I was taking Spanish classes at night. During one of our trips to Seattle we were listening to a song by Mana, a Mexican band and Tom was translating all the words so I could understand what they were saying. To this day, when the song comes on, I always laugh and think about Tom because he literally translated the whole thing!
It was a hard time too because we were disconnected and isolated from the rest of the company. During the worker-owner meetings, it was us calling in on a phone and huddling around hoping there wasn’t any banging from the other offices or that you could hear or that someone was actually paying attention to us.Technologically speaking, it was very hard to be connected unless you were on a phone. I can remember having my first cell phone, and being like wow, we can talk wherever I go! It was both exciting, challenging, and a little more wild westish back then.
I think we’ll go ahead and transition now into the coffee roasting segment of our talk. To begin, how did this project get started? You were out west at this point?
You definitely need to speak to Todd about this! He was such a primary driver for this work. Todd was offered a job to work in purchasing and I was offered a position to come back east to be in sales but also working quality control.
The thing that I didn’t tell you about is that during my first two years at Equal Exchange, I was a trained apprentice. I worked with a well-known professional in the coffee industry in the greater Boston area for two years. This work was supported by Equal Exchange, to learn how to roast coffee, sort coffee, and how to cup coffee. I am very thankful for that opportunity. Those kinds of opportunities these days do not come easily, but this gentleman was looking for someone to roast samples.
The deal was that I’d go there one day a week. I roasted samples and then we’d cup which was an amazing experience because we’d cup coffees from all over the world! He taught me the basics of my vocabulary.
When I left after a couple years at Equal Exchange, I was like how can I do more of that? When I moved out west, I did a little bit of that with a green coffee company that I was telling you about and then I ended up back in sales. I wasn’t really able to use the same skill-set that I had already developed around coffee quality. I wasn’t in contact with the coffee at all except for the finished product.
When I moved back east, part of my job was to work in quality control and to work on what that was. That was another exciting time, that transition back. It wasn’t just that we weren’t roasting our own coffee on the west coast, we weren’t roasting our own coffee at all. There was this incredible boom of craft coffee, beer, everything and we needed to be part of that! For me, the northwest is so special, as far as the craft movement of food and consciousness of where it comes from and how it’s prepared..
It seemed really necessary to be more involved in the quality of our supply chain. It was something I was really passionate about. Todd can obviously speak to his side about how that felt for him going back and becoming the director of purchasing and being able to do that work in a different way. There’s this growth, there’s this movement that the coffee world is changing. What are we going to do about it? Todd really helped to bring these ideas to life and to a new level.
We needed to change or we wouldn’t be able to compete in the market, I could see that as a sales person on the West Coast. I see it as a few ways. One is that I liked roasting coffee, I didn’t want someone else to roast our coffee when we knew what to do on some level, not perfectly, but I was willing to try and figure it out. I was trained on small sample roaster, but I knew the basics and could see that we could do it. The other thing, is that as a business, you’re dependent on another company roasting your coffee. Basically, you have a middle person doing that work for you.
After we moved back, this idea sort of came to light because we were kind of bursting at the seams in the Canton warehouse. Where are we moving to next? I was like, well, why don’t we build a roaster? Why would we build a roaster? How do you do that? And so it became the Buy, Build, Roast Proposal. It was a really big deal for us and it took a lot of work. So, that was a proposal that basically said go buy it, figure out where you are going to move to, get a piece of land or an existing building, and build a roaster. Again, a ton of work and many different people were involved in many different aspects of the project.
For some people, that was a really easy sale. It was like, duh, why wouldn’t we do this? It’s like being a chef and not making your own food. But, it is expensive. It’s an investment, and it is a risk. Others were like “Whoa! Why screw up a good thing? We’re growing, everything is fine.”
It was a big process. It wasn’t just Todd saying: “Hey, let’s do this.” It was Todd and Rink working with a lot of other folks on a proposal of what that might look like and how it made more sense to actually move the company along with building a roaster at the same time. That had to go to the board and at the time I was sitting on the Board of Directors. So, I had to wear many hats: my board hat, I had to wear my worker owner hat, and my QC hat (quality control). I was very passionate about it and I’d say it felt like it made financial sense, but at the same time, there were risks involved. I’m like: “Come on, life is too short!”
One of the arguments that Todd made pretty early on was this was an inclusion of production workers in the worker owner model which was something that was also a little bit scary for folks who were wondering how we were going to be able to do that. I’m like: “Well, you figure it out. This is Equal Exchange, this is what we do. We figure it out.”
Luckily we’re open to making mistakes, talking about it, trying other things. Eventually the proposal was passed in 2003 and then the process started. At the time, Denise (Denise Abbott), was working for us as the Director of Finance. She was with a small committee working on places, going around looking at real estate, looking at buildings, and that’s how we ended up here in West Bridgewater.
Part of it was about the worker owners, most of which were located in Canton. We had to figure out a place that would meet everyone’s needs. So, we had to bring this (to the worker owners). We want to do this, the board has approved it, and now the actual location goes to a vote for the worker owners. I would say that that was one of the hardest parts. People wanted to be closer to the office. What are the compromises?
There was a proposal that said we’re not all going to be in the same building, we could never possibly do that! Which I disagreed with, but, hey, life happens. That was 2003, it was a long time ago and we just didn’t have that culture. The culture back then was that we would have lunch together, we would see each other, everyone knew each other and knew their kids or whatever was happening in their lives.
So, it was never a decision for roasting to happen either on the west coast or east coast. You and Todd actually were back in West Bridgewater when this discussion of bringing roasting in-house started to happen.
Yes, it wasn’t about bringing Todd out to the east coast or me to roast. It was all about the need to amp up. We’re growing a lot and we need to amp up these sections of the company. We need to work on quality. In the Fall of 2001, I basically moved into full-time Quality Control. I wanted to dive into quality work, I was trained to do it, I wasn’t sure what to do exactly, but I wanted EE to take a chance on me.
That’s so cool!
Yeah, I knew how to cup, I knew how to sort, I knew how to roast. So, I developed all the standards and all the practices that we started out with.
Incredible. So you were the only one in the organization with that knowledge?
No. Souza (Mark Souza, Procurement Guy) had some cupping knowledge at the time and then that responsibility was passed to me. Todd basically learned how to cup from me and from others over time. By cupping with producers and such, but most of his time cupping has been with me.
It sounds like this was a time of excitement, that everyone was pretty gung-ho about it while feeling a little nervous about taking a big risk like that. This was such a big change for the company!
I think it was a necessary move from a crafted specialty perspective too. I feel like we were doing ok, but I feel like this helped to catapult us to a different level. We were proud. We are making it, we are owning all of it, when it’s delicious, when we make mistakes, when we mess it up. I think that ownership and that really transferring that into quality infiltrated the whole organization over time. Even today, I think.
If you were here 10 years ago, you would see that transformation, but I feel like today it’s just assumed. There are these assumptions of great quality because of who we are and what we do which are important mission statements. It’s a part of our mission, but I think people are really proud of what we do and I hope that’s translated somewhere down the line. We’re really proud of what we do here and our relationships with farmers..
Do you think there’s anything else that’s happened in the history of Equal Exchange that compares to the decision of owning roasting? Anything that’s sort of been a transformation for the company?
Not on the same level and it’s sort of auxiliary to some things, but I really think that the USAID work that we’re doing is pretty frickin’ phenomenal and that we’re engaging in a new USAID grant has had radical impact that really is wildly understated. We don’t talk about it very much, It’s not written about or marketed but the impact has been unbelievable.
In the first round of the grant, we did seven years and I was a part of it for five. It’s not on the same level for me as Buy, Build, Roast it is just different, it’s development work that compliments all that we do everyday. For me, professionally, I have learned so much, it’s been phenomenal.
And I think many of the farmer-partners too. The support, the love, the care, and helping to develop things that are not just a North/South- East/West-, it’s an all inclusive project where we’re directing the funding and things, but like I said, people don’t even know enough about it. That in and of itself is a blog piece.
Yes, I was just about to say that. We do need to talk more about it.
Yes, there’s been tremendous work.
So, we’re getting down to the last few questions here.
Looking at where we’ve come from and where we’re going, what challenges do you think Equal Exchange faces now with where things stand with Fair Trade versus Authentic Fair Trade? How do you think we are we maintaining our values?
I think some of the challenges are, and I’m speaking specifically to coffee, that’s what I do and I think that I can see it from a larger, ten thousand foot- macro level. I feel like there’s just this changing coffee environment. It’s not just about the small companies getting eaten up by the larger companies. It’s a scale question, right? We’re not a giant at EE, but we’re not tiny. So, you’re not the micro-roaster in Portland, but were not Keurig.
I think that’s a really hard place to be because once you get to that place you have to be more mainstream or you gotta figure out what that means and I think we’re seeing those challenges right now in all kinds of places. I would say we have lots of different people all over the country. I think we can be multinodal which is amazing. I think technology has really helped with that. I go back to that example of us huddling around a phone and being like “What did they say? Who’s talking?” You don’t have that now. You and I are talking on a video screen and we’re having
I think we’re stuck in this place where our coffee is not expensive. In my mind, I think we should be charging a lot more, but, my gosh, someone else might tell me I was crazy. We buy really great quality and I think that farmers would argue that we probably should charge more, but I also think that we are in a sales environment where people expect a good price. I’ve always said to farmers: “We pay you a good price and then we want consumers to be able to pay a good price because we want it accessible.”
We’re not trying to be super snobby about the coffee, but at the same time, I do think that it seems kind of cheap to me! I think about that. I love different kinds of craft beer and some of the larger brands. When I go to buy beer, I look at some of the brands and as my accessible brand, when I can get a 12-pack for a reasonable price and my hyper-local craft brand with a 4-pack that is the same price. Sometimes I wish we had a more differentiation between those two things so that we could at least explore it.
I agree with what you, that there is something to be said about the price stigma. Our coffee is priced considerably lower than our competitors and people will just automatically make assumptions about our coffee based on the pricing.
Right and I understand that it’s worked to our advantage. We’ve gotten into a lot of places, but I wonder if it’s holding us back with selling more coffee because of that perception. We know that we’re buying really great quality and, again, it’s this accessibility question for me. We’re not trying to be these other people. We are who we are, we’re trying to give the farmers a chance to get to the market and access to the market, but we are not buying crap, we’re not buying shit. We hold true to our standards and I am proud of that.
We spend a lot of time and energy to source great coffee. So, I feel like that can be lost in translation from a price standpoint. I’m stealing Tom’s quote: “Our customers get our coffee way too cheap. Our coffee is too good.” We care and we’re trying to bring their yumminess to market.
One of the questions you had here though is around the process of getting the roaster started.I don’t know if you want to hit on that?
Yes, let’s hit on that. I definitely want to talk about the process of getting the coffee roasting started. If you have a way to sum that up, I’d love to hear it.
I was just out in the warehouse chatting with Domingos Do Rosario (Production Mechanic), who has been with us since we started roasting. He was one of the roasters, I was a roaster, Todd roasted, we all were out there roasting. When we installed the roaster, Todd actually did the very first roast. It wasn’t like okay, we hired these people and they know what to do. No, this was very much we hired people and then we had to train, figure this out ourselves. I knew how to roast before we even started this project, but in a really small way on what we call sample roasters. I didn’t know about production roasters, afterburners, and all these other things, but I knew what it should taste like. That was key.
I think that there is a lot more behind the story then me or Todd and how it ended up coming to light because there was a whole team of people. Steve Bolton (Operations Manager), he was a production manager. He was out there roasting forever and most people think of him as an inventory guy. He was a phenomenal roaster along with Domingos and Todd. We would just go out and get it done.
There was a real sense of team and it was really important to me early on that the roasting team was in the cupping room. I’m really proud of that because a lot of coffee companies don’t do that. Where the roasting team comes in and cups the coffee with us and we’ve done that since the beginning. They are the cooks, they are the ones in charge of changing all these profiles, but they need to know how to taste it and vice versa.
We as a quality control team needed to understand how the roasters work. Everyone in QC is well trained to be out on the roaster and can help fill shifts and support the team so that there is this feedback loop. I can’t express enough how Todd’s leadership was crucial, but having that sense of team was really, really important and having what I call the hands on experience.
I can remember we got a really big order and it was Labor Day weekend. It was like…shit! I guess we’ll just come in and roast. I can remember Todd and I roasting. Domingos was there, he’s the mechanic now, and he’s always there. He can fix anything! He’s amazing. We roasted the coffee and it was like, this is what we have to do. Who cares if it’s Labor Day weekend? We’re just going to do it because it’s what you have to do to get it done and to make sure it’s done well.
We are in control of two really important pieces in the coffee chain- roasting is one and importing is the other. People didn’t do that and still vastly do not import their own coffee. That’s still what makes us really different, direct trade or not. You can be a direct trader, but you are buying through an importer. The risks of buying coffee, working with farmers and taking on the financial responsibility are different. I do think there are genuine direct trader’s out there and I do think that there are people that just use it as a marketing term. They don’t realize that they are not being genuine because the whole term has morphed into something it was not intended to be.
I think we are really in this position where we’re importers and roasting was the other piece that we had to do. We had to control those two pieces.
Having that hands-on experience, being out on the roaster, was very much a team effort and it was a little scary. What it taught us was that there were the recommendations from the manufacturer of how to maintain everything, but not as much as we needed to do it. We bought a traditional, gas-fired drum roaster called a Probat- that is an awesome piece of equipment, but it’s a traditional piece of equipment. You have got to get in there. You learn so much because you have to.
At the end of the day, that was the biggest surprise for us. Maintenance not only takes a lot of time, it’s so hard. You are dirty, you are covered in grease, and you’re out there with a crowbar scraping the pipes. And guess what? That’s how we still do it because there’s no other way to do it.
It’s hard. The roasting team has very physical work where once a month you’re breaking down the roaster and you’re scraping it with a crowbar. I’ve done it, Mike Mowry (Coffee Quality Coordinator) knows how to roast as well. He’s been down on the roaster, roasting and many times just scraping to get the roaster clean.
We are really lucky today because we have a really strong roasting team. Ian’s doing an amazing job as a production manager and then Sarah Hrisak (Lead Coffee Roaster & Production Supervisor), who’s our lead roaster, she’s just so incredibly dedicated, but there’s still that sense of team and that’s crucial. We know that when something goes wrong, you just got to go get it done.
On that note, we’ll wind this interview down. Thank you, Beth Ann, for meeting with me today. This has been invaluable and you’ve given me a lot to think about. Any last thoughts?
We’re now in control of all these things and it feels so good to know that you are crafting. It’s changed how I think and it’s changed how I talk with farmers. My role has evolved so much over time. I think it really helped to create that evolution, to empower and build the foundation that has eventually grown so that now there’s a whole other team that’s been doing this work. I’m a part of it and now I can do other things too. So, I feel like it’s everything I wanted, I don’t want to say it’s everything I wanted because, gosh, there must be more, but that step alone is what we needed and I personally wanted to roast the coffee.
Interview by Jennifer Pruess, Equal Exchange Wrapping up Portland’s Early History, Diving Into Roasting…05 August 2019