Evolving to Survive
The dream of working in coffee is indivisible from the dream of teamwork. For me, anyway. My first coffee job came with a built-in motley crew of friends, often misfits like me. We tasted espresso together, understanding for the first time what tasted “good” and what did not. We went out for Chinese food. We slung affable insults, danced after-hours to Michael Jackson, bought a swaying dashboard flower to place atop the old espresso machine. I fell in love with this family of weirdos, and it centered over a shared love for a singular yet very ubiquitous beverage. The origin of my coffee romance isn’t unique—I think a lot of us get into it for similar reasons.
Deeper levels of coffee work take us incrementally away from that rambling fellowship. Sales will put you in front of a screen or on a call; business ownership comes with a whole list of administrativa; roasting plants you firmly next to a very loud giant machine that inhibits any personal interaction. Still, the teamwork is at the center. At a roastery like Equator in California, cupping coffees is often the only time to come together, literally and figuratively. “We used to be shoulder to shoulder at the cupping table,” muses Equator’s Director of Coffee Ted Stachura. “Now it’s not uncommon for us to have three separate cupping areas.” For the uninitiated, this is no small thing. Cupping already involves a lot of cups, a lot of coffee and water, a lot of dishes. Unsurprisingly, Ted notes that now “there are a lot more dishes.”
Equator Coffee has always thrived on adaptability. The company has been roasting coffee for the better part of three decades. For a while, they were the only and obvious choice for restaurants and offices. Then a few little roasteries like Blue Bottle and Sightglass added a competitive edge to the Bay Area coffee game, and Equator evolved — acquiring their own Farm in Panama, expanding roasting operations, and opening cafes. Ted Stachura embodies that adaptable spirit perfectly — the role he was hired for had evolved from the time he was hired to the time he started. This entire last year, adaptability has been a crucial skill for essential businesses like Equator. “Morale has been remarkably good. Everyone’s happy that the company has survived such a difficult time. Everyone wants to contribute.” For many in coffee work, the company is a chosen family — a home. When that’s what’s at stake, there’s little you wouldn’t do to keep it alive.
Back to the aforementioned dishes — there’s more to a sinkful of cupping bowls than meets the eye. It’s a signifier of collaboration, of calibration. It’s a marker of the hard and often undefinable work of coffee roasters and buyers and directors and baristas and Q-graders. There’s a common language that a coffee team shares, one that is often mystifying to outsiders. It’s paramount to the operation, keeping the senses informed and keeping a collective understanding of quality and taste. It’s another of those niche ecosystems that’s been battered by the pandemic. Equator’s team is poised to survive it, though. Adaptability is in their blood.