The Birth of Portland, Equal Exchange Goes West to Stay Series

Frankie Pondolph
September 10, 2018

By Jennifer Pruess, Equal Exchange 

Equal Exchange has been operating in the Portland, Oregon area since the mid 1990’s. As a worker-owner of Equal Exchange, I was curious about this transition of the company from being east-centric to bicoastal. How did it all begin? Who was involved? What is the unfolding story and how did it take shape? Where did we come from and where are we going?

Luckily, Equal Exchange still has several key figures in its ranks to speak with, so I first spoke to fellow coworker and co-owner, Tom Hanlon-Wilde. Through this process, many more names have risen to the surface, bringing with it the opportunity of sharing many more stories of how Equal Exchange has grown over the years. I hope to share the story of Equal Exchange and its presence, purpose, and mission in an ongoing series. To start things off, here is the conversation Tom and I had late July, 2018.

I want to hear about how you started with Equal Exchange. What was your role in the beginning?

I started when we were in Stoughton.  I had worked for the government on Latin American economic development and activities and then I went to work for a private company startup importing fresh produce, alternative trade with Latin America.  It was nice to do a government job but depending on tax money was a downside.  Working in the private sector was good but there wasn’t as much a development aspect in just the business side of it.

When I was done with the produce job, I was out shopping at the local co-op near our house out here in Allston, Massachusetts.  and there was a sign up for Equal Exchange hiring a sales rep and one of my friends was like you should apply for this and when I came here I was like “Oh, this is where all my folks are.”  I interviewed and started in March 1995 at Equal Exchange and we were in a small warehouse in Stoughton, Massachusetts.

Ok, Wow! That was even before we were located at what I refer to as “Head Quarters” out in West Bridgewater. You started off as a sales rep and then how did the topic of Portland or going out West emerge?

We were doing a four-year strategic plan at that time and we kind of broke up the work to draft different ideas on what could be in the Strategic Plan.  We had had a really good group of co-op customers out West -- Bellingham and PCC, Food Front, Rainbow, and Olympia.  We even had the second privately owned grocery store to ever carry an Equal Exchange bulk bin unit, a coffee unit, that was Storman’s Thriftway Bayview Market in Olympia.

Rink (Dickinson, co-founder and co-executive director of Equal Exchange) and Mark (Sweet, previous board member) and I included having a regional office in the West as part of the strategic plan just to be out there more with more people, on our customer’s own time zone and everything.  Jennifer, my wife, and I were willing to go because we were at a point where we were willing to try living somewhere else.  When opening an office in the West was approved as part of the strategic plan, Jennifer and I took a small leave of absence because I had never really had lived at origin with small scale farmers. My wife and I stayed in Condega and Estel√≠, Nicaragua, with PRODECOOP – a coffee co-op EE still buys from – for five months and then flew from Nicaragua right to Oregon to open the West Coast office for Equal Exchange.

I was just working out of our apartment at that time and I visiting accounts and we definitely got new customers. There was a need for more work, it was drafted, it was put in the strategic plan and then it got done.  It was one of those weird things – a plan that went according to plan.

So, it started because you had accounts out here, it sounds like. Big supporters like Storman’s Thriftway, PCC Markets, and local co-ops.  Equal Exchange landed some accounts out west and, if I understand correctly, you all thought strategically that it would be good to have more presence out here where you were starting to get these accounts?

At that time on the West Coast, Equal Exchange and fair trade was kind of a new idea for those accounts. We talked to them, introducing them to the idea of fair trade with democratically organized, small scale farmers. We were calling them from Massachusetts, but, you know, we were three hours away in the time-zone and ten days away with deliveries.  Not that many people were willing to go through all of that. But when I could visit accounts personally and sign up some new ones, things grew faster.  I think one for me, a real breakthrough was Nature’s Northwest, a chain in Portland (part of that group, later formed what’s now New Seasons Market).   All the consumer co-operatives made things possible, then Nature’s was an important breakthrough account for me and a bunch of the Thriftway’s, family-owned grocers in the Seattle area were also super supportive.

Shortly afterward, Todd (currently working as our Director of Purchasing and Production) and Beth Ann (currently working as our Quality Control Manager) moved out west. Todd had gotten hired at Equal Exchange out here in Massachusetts and then he came out to Oregon, and he won a bunch of accounts. Beth Ann happened to be living in Oregon at the same time, so we brought her over from the company where she was working back to Equal Exchange. She got new accounts for us, like Bulldog News up in Seattle, and it kept rolling from there until we needed a warehouse.

The first warehouse location was actually out in Gresham, correct?

I lived out in Mosier, because that’s where my wife got her job, and I was just working out of the home. Todd wanted to stay in Portland, so we rented a small place in Gresham which was not a great space, but, it got us through until kind of the next stage. Then Todd and Beth Ann moved back to Massachusetts to get the roaster started at what you would call “headquarters.” Rink proposed having them do that, which was brilliant.

At that time, you know who else was really key?

There was a person who is now at Life Source Natural Foods in charge of marketing, Roxanne Magnuson, she had been working for a food broker that represented Frontier Coffee.  We always won accounts away from Frontier except in Portland. I remember wondering “what’s going on?” But then Roxanne and I had lunch at Marco’s Cafe and I figured out it was her that was basically doing that. When she came to Equal Exchange, then we got all kinds of stuff. We got New Seasons private label, she was a big part of that. Natural Grocers, to me, she won that account single-handedly, and that was a major one. Back when Roxanne started at Equal Exchange, she not only just got us new accounts for the bulk side of things, she helped develop our entire grocery strategy. All the retail packaged coffee, tea, chocolate bars. She was really good at using brokers and distribution systems and figuring out that system.

It sounds like it was a time for really laying the foundation for introducing fair trade out here in the west to accounts and getting that off the ground, slowly kind of building momentum? Hood River for four years, was that next to the brewery downtown?

We were in Gresham and then Hood River for four years. In Hood River, the Equal Exchange warehouse was there, Island foods was right there, and Full Sail Brewery, which was worker-owned at the time. We definitely had a nice little enclave of progressive businesses.   That’s how the Provender Conference ended up being in Hood River.

We started shipping coffee, people were getting accounts their orders in a day, instead of three days from the east coast or ten days from the east coast. That was super key for us in improving that level of service the customers received, allowing us to focus more on talking about the farmers and what it’s about. We were just going through a big boom. Coffee was going through a nice wave, fair trade and organic coffee was gaining popularity, so, as you approached stores, you could just switch them over from what they were doing to what we were doing.

The other key people in all of this was PCC. Rink and maybe even Michael had set them ups as customer when EE started.  But they were key to our evolution.  You know how there are friends that say nice things to you, but your really good friends that will say mean things to you that you need to hear.  Well, PCC was one of those really good friends.  At some point, they were like: “You know what guys? This is nice, but if you’re not going to come deliver to the store, we’re not going to carry it. Everybody else comes in and puts it in the bins and cleans the bins.” They said: “You’re going to have to do that or get out.” They gave us a long lead time and we started running a truck and making a delivery system.

You ran a truck from Portland to Seattle to get to them?

No, we hired somebody in Seattle, Scott Serchen. That was great. He did that for years and got us into Madison Market as well and was our Seattle delivery person.  He really helped us get our delivery system going in the West and almost nationally, right? It was one of the biggest, highest volume route for a while. So, he stayed with us for many years, and bless his soul, after he left Equal Exchange he only lived five more years. Young guy, but yeah, that was one person who I got to work with and is no longer here.  Jim Feldman is another person. He was a community organizer.

Go ahead and speak about Jim. I definitely wanted to make sure to ask you about Jim today and his work with Equal Exchange, especially in the early days.

He was one of the community organizers we hired to really do some outreach and grow what was going on at the grassroots level.  Jim helped us develop some grassroots organizing in the West and build some momentum.   And he was a key person when we outgrew the Hood River office and moved to Portland. Those two, Scott and Jim, are really key figures in what happened out west and yeah, I miss them both.

Then you all are hanging out in Hood River while Equal Exchange was experiencing really steady growth locally. Operations were expanding and the momentum was building.

We had to move every four years because we kept growing! We outgrew the office and went to a warehouse and outgrew that. We signed a lease for five years and outgrew it in four years and moved to the Portland building on Main Street. I think we signed a five-year lease and outgrew it in four years and had to come over to Northwest Industrial.

I would argue that Equal Exchange West has way outgrown Northwest Industrial.   Now that we have all the chocolate for shipping to distributors in the West in the Portland warehouse, it’s going to be bursting at the seams. If you look at the coffee roasting in the west, we’re not roasting in the West. If we brought that in-house, you know, then that building wouldn’t be big enough for us.

Absolutely, I think it’s something to think about as we are in such a coffee mecca. One of my questions I have on here is the line of products and main customers. I feel like you got to that already. It was definitely coffee and then you started in on the grocery set. Is that correct?

From what I remember, and I might be a little off by a year or two, we really focused on placing bulk bin units of coffee, bulk coffee because that was a real way to get a store to make a real commitment to what we were doing.  For me, that argument that I would give to the stores and I would still make here is if you dedicate a four foot display of bulk coffee in a supermarket, basically that bulk unit will move as much coffee as a farm-family grows. It’ll move a ton of coffee through there and that’s about what a farm-family produces in a year.

So, get a family-owned grocery store, community-owned grocery store to dedicate, at least do one farm-family’s harvest for your set here, to do fair trade, co-op supply chain. Of course, some stores do much more than that. One bin at Rainbow Foods does as much as a farm-family grows in a year. And as you add cashews, almonds, and other things, you can really capture that average farm-family’s growth. Like 6,000 chocolate bars, that’s what the average farm-family grows in a year using cocoa beans. So, that’s a real way to kind of make it real for the store, but also get the store to dedicate something substantial.

To really focus on the bulk side of it was good, and after Equal Exchange did well, we started to say: “Hey, let’s try to relaunch package coffee, relaunch packaged tea, and let’s expand the chocolate bar line.” How do you get that to stores if it’s one of thousands of grocery items they carry inside their stores using the existing distribution system, using the existing broker network? Roxanne helped me really think through that piece of it and I think that you could argue that went really well between 2005 to 2015. We really ramped that side of it up and that grew real strong. It always felt like it was never as successful as it should be and I think looking back, it probably was just ahead of its time. Whereas now, that tea line and that packaged coffee line does quite well and I think all that footwork that Jim, Roxanne, Todd, Beth Ann did in years past is starting to pay off.

Just reflecting back on our presence in Portland over the past roughly twenty years, do you have any highlights, moments that still stick with you to this day?

To me there are a few. One of Juana Pezo Suero, who was vice president of the women’s group of a coffee co-op from Cusco, Peru. When she was standing at a PCC store speaking about the importance of fair trade during the WTO, that was a time when I felt like we had very strong presence. A farmer, to my knowledge, the first woman coffee farmer in the fair trade system, at a store in Seattle, was just great. She was touring northwest. This was 2000, WTO is going on, and I remember Todd came back with a pin from a teargas grenade from that weekend up there. So it was a major time I think in people’s consciousness of trade and they realized Equal Exchange was way ahead of the curve, having Todd and Juana up in Seattle speaking at PCC, at Olympia Food Co-op, and other places at that same time that was fantastic.

And then we started taking our customers down to live and work with the farmers for a few nights every other year and we did that every other year from 2001 to 2017.  Overall, managers and owners of grocery stores that sell half a billion dollars a year have traveled with Equal Exchange to live and work with farmers in their houses. Those are the things that I remember and that seem super important. Bob from El Cerrito, Mike from Bellingham, Sanya from Ashland, Bill from Briar Patch, it’s been decades of these relationships, that’s what I think about.

I did want to take this opportunity to talk about Jim and the work he did for Equal Exchange, especially in those early days. Again, it sounds like you did cover that a little bit. Is there anything else you’d like to share about Jim and the work he did?

I would certainly say Jim was so caring for his coworkers, our customers, the activists who supported Equal Exchange.  That care just came through and people remembered it. And for me, one of the things that I really remember is him calling me from Seattle and saying: “Hey, I just found out that Seattle’s Best Coffee is getting out of the bulk coffee business.” So, he and I talked about what to do.  Then he very carefully and respectfully went around to all the family-owned grocery stores that had a Seattle’s Best bulk coffee unit, Starbucks was discontinuing that program, and he had to tell them: “Hey, you’re not going to have this in your store anymore.”

They didn’t really believe him because they hadn’t heard it either. He heard it before the customers even heard it. He then very carefully brought them up to speed on what was happening in a compassionate way, letting them know what was happening and of course that lead us to placing eight Equal Exchange bulk displays in a three-week period. To switch all of that over, he took really good care of those family-owned grocery stores in such a respectful way, but in such a way that a lot of volume moved over to co-op supply chain. It’s just had this lasting impact so, yeah, I still think of that key time when because he was taking care of people really well, he was way ahead on what was happening out there and was able to help people make a really positive transition.

So, Tom, you’re like a moving piece in the Equal Exchange story, like you seem to go where you’re needed and where Equal Exchange needs you the most. Do you still consider yourself rooted in the Portland office? Your work has taken you many places. Do you want to reflect on that at all and maybe where you see the Equal Exchange presence in Portland continuing to grow?

Yeah, one of the many, many things I love about working at Equal Exchange is that you work as an owner. So, you get to act as an owner and I think when we’re discussing how to support, how to keep the worker-owned co-op dedicated to fair trade in Canada going, I was able to be like yeah, I think I can spend some time there to do that. My family all moved with us for a year to do that and I still go up there every month.  I like that about Equal Exchange – work like an owner. When I think about it right now, I’m an owner of Equal Exchange and I work for La Siembra to kind of bridge the gap between our two co-operatives and I think that’s really fabulous.

As I think about the West piece of it, there are so many great opportunities. Not just on the sales side, but on the community outreach side and on the production side of things. That it really makes for an exciting place. You and everybody else in the Portland team haven taken the thing way further than I’d taken it. The warehouse has been great in moving it forward and I hope that all of us, me included, get to have those chances to keep acting like an owner as things grow and new opportunities develop. We can build an authentic co-operative supply chain that puts people before profits.

Is there anything else you’d like to add to this conversation about Portland?

Yes, I think the other really neat thing about Equal Exchange West that not many of the other divisions of Equal Exchange has, but not many other companies do, is that we have drivers. We’re a team that gets out to the stores every week.  We’ve always dedicated a bunch of time for that.   At first we were kind of forced to by our good friends, but we tried it and it has worked. We have people that are in the stores all the time with our Equal Exchange hats on. That changes the dynamic, it changes the conversation, and I think that’s been one of the things that provides some opportunity going forward. If you’re there, you’re local and if you’re local, people appreciate that.

Fun questions, Jen!

Good! Thank you so much, Tom!