Equator Coffee: Going Full Circle

Helen and Brooke

Twenty years ago, in the back of a small garage in Marin County, CA, Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell were working on a big idea. Brooke had pawned her mother’s wedding ring to buy a small Italian coffee roaster, and Helen was fine-tuning a marketing plan for their new wholesale coffee roasting company. Brooke held a creative vision, and Helen distilled it into a business plan. Together, they were about to launch Equator Coffees & Teas, one of the first coffee projects of its kind. Eventually, it would grow into something larger than they’d ever imagined. But first, they had to start small.

The idea came to Brooke and Helen when they were still flipping houses in the Northeast. “We were sitting in front of a Starbucks in Portland. Brooke was having an espresso and I was having my mocha, and she was describing all the nuances of what she was drinking. I said ‘I love business, you love coffee. Let’s do this.’ So we wrote a business plan for a café; we drove down to San Francisco, and we opened up two coffee bars,” Helen recalls.

Now, twenty years, 88 employees, over 350 wholesale partners, three retail cafés, an SBA loan and one coffee farm later, Equator has made its indelible mark on the American coffee scene. In some ways, they’ve come incredibly far, in others, Equator is right back at the beginning.  

“We've gone full circle. We started with a coffee bar, went to wholesale, back to retail, and then farming. It's been an odyssey of gratitude and discovery,” says Helen.

Before launching Equator, Brooke took to the field and spoke to as many other roasters as she could. She had a hard time finding answers; no one spoke about individual farms, named producers, or knew anything about elevation, fermentation, climate, birds, or cultivation methods. Back then, coffee was either Central or South American, East African, or Indonesian. But that was all.

It was enough to inspire the two to take a different direction—to build a coffee company dedicated to telling the world where coffee is from, how it’s grown, and why it tastes the way it does. They needed branding that sent a message of power and grace, that pointed to the origins of their coffee. For that, they chose a striking logo: the silhouette of a Bengal Tiger. The tiger represents that power and grace, but it also reflects one of the company’s favorite projects.

“Right now, one of our initiatives is to buy a container of coffee per year from Sumatra. We pay a twenty cent premium on that coffee, which we donate to the Sumatran Tiger Trust.  They pay a ranger who goes out and decouples the poachers’ traps at night to protect the tigers,” says Helen.

From the beginning, Equator set itself apart by focusing on a triple bottom line that weaves social responsibility and sustainability into its metrics of success. It was the first coffee roaster in the US to become a Certified B Corporation, and the first in California to sign on with Fair Trade USA. Remarkably, they even offered 100% health insurance for all employees from the very beginning. Along the way, Brooke and Helen sought advice and mentoring.  They have been working with Pacific Community Ventures (PCV) for over a decade, and even gained an investor as well as their part-time CFO through their relationship with PCV.

When Helen and Brooke mentioned to their accountant that they’d like to buy a roasting plant in Marin—a formidable investment for a fledgling business—he suggested they look into the SBA 504 program. When they discovered they’d only have to put ten percent down, they were sold.  They worked with Capital Access Group, a Certified Development Company, and Wells Fargo to secure the loan. They put aside ten percent in cash flow and bought a 5,500 square foot building for $1.1 million dollars.

“We wanted to have the security of owning that building. That's a retirement plan in and of itself, and the SBA allowed us to do that,” Helen explained.

For a long time, wholesale was the heart of Equator’s business, but moving into retail meant that Equator could serve its own coffee just as it always wanted to: direct and unadulterated. Brooke and Helen believed it was the next, best step to continuing the company’s growth, and nurturing the experience of the high quality coffee that Equator had been cultivating for almost two decades. To codify the dream, they needed to find the funds to build out their brick and mortar cafés.

To start, they got a 7(a) loan for $250,000 to finance the first retail location, a buildout that ended up costing $300,000 in its entirety.

Expanding into retail broadened the company’s visibility, but it also sparked growth in plenty of unexpected ways. “As soon as we opened up our first retail store, at Proof Lab Surf Shop in Mill Valley, one of our first customers was a gentleman from LinkedIn.” Now Equator has two cafes in LinkedIn, and provides coffee for over 200 micro-kitchens in Google.   

Helmed by Brooke and Helen, who are partners in life as they are in business, Equator recently took another pioneering step to become certified as an LGBT-owned business, assisted by the Golden Gate  Business Association (GGBA)—the nation’s oldest LGBT chamber of commerce. In 2015, they were named the sixth largest LGBT-owned businesses in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Times.

When asked if being gay had been a barrier to doing business, Helen believed it had not. Although they were always out to friends and family, Brooke and Helen—who have been together for 26 years—never emphasized their personal relationship when speaking with potential customers. But Helen does believe that being both business partners and a couple has been an advantage over the years:  “When you work seventy hours a week, having your partner in the business is great because you don't feel guilty, because you see them. Sometimes it's not easy, but when she walks in the door my heart still lifts, because I'm like ‘Ah, she's here, even if we've got to talk business.’”

Drawing on decades of experience, Helen is now playing the role of a mentor herself.  She wants to help other small business owners create jobs and to pass on her knowledge about the tools she used. As integral stepping stones to Equator’s success, SBA loans are a natural part of her story: “I'm all about the Small Business Administration, because I think small businesses in the United States are keeping the economy on its feet. We're creating jobs and the government is helping us.”

Their latest retail shop opened in the Tenderloin, a challenging neighborhood for new businesses in San Francisco. They are working with Bevan Dufty, the Director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement (HOPE) to participate in the city’s programs to provide services to the homeless and those living in supported housing in their neighborhood.

Equator hires “ambassadors” and employees that live in the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the community, and they’ve made an effort to hire people of color to represent the local population. Many of the café’s customers are workers in the blossoming tech community, and new to the neighborhood. Making both communities feel welcome in the space is a unique challenge, but Equator practices the most inclusive of models, and a retail cafe is perhaps the most exciting opportunity to provide a welcoming place. To help integrate the diverse communities that patronize the café, Equator will soon participate in the Suspended Coffee movement that allows any patron to buy coffee in advance for the men and women of the neighboring SROs.

Equator’s desire to integrate diverse communities in one space is reflected in a beautiful, sprawling mural on two of the café’s walls. Painted by the illustrious Mona Caron as part of her Weeds Project, the mural depicts a weed sprouting from the ground and curling up the walls.

“In the Tenderloin there's always some green shoot that will come up through the cracks. You can't keep it down. You can't keep it out. The best thing is to bring it in,” Helen said as she explained the metaphor behind the large, colorful painting.

As part of a uniquely global industry, Equator Coffees & Teas is as committed to its community at home as it is to the ones it works with abroad in equatorial coffee-growing regions. Equator facilitates microloans and revolving lines of credit in Ecuador and Guatemala, which cover farmers’ expenses ranging from buying equipment for tasting their own coffee to irrigation projects that improve efficiency.   

“When you're supplying coffee for Chef Thomas Keller, Chef Traci des Jardins, Chef Morimoto and Chef Tyler Florence and our own retail customers, it's important to have relationships. The best way to have relationships is to secure the best product. By helping the farmers reinvest in their own land, we help them improve their product and stay on their land.”

Equator Coffees & Teas is an inspired company with a formidable impact, but it had to start small. By staying true to its mission, resisting compromise, taking care of its employees and growing step by step, Equator has built a sustainable, empowering model that continues to shape the coffee industry today.

Company Name: 
Equator Coffees and Teas Inc.
Location: 
San Francisco