Equator Coffees & Teas is a woman-owned, LGBTQ coffee roastery weaving a chain of well-being for those in their ecosystem and beconing us all to join in. All the while, they are growing and roasting phenomenal coffee. Join us as we chat with Co-Founder & CEO Helen Russell as we trace their journey over the last couple decades.
Ray: I’m Ray.
Kandace: I’m Kandace.
Ray: Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week-
Kandace: Equator Coffees and Teas.
Ray: Of San Rafael, California.
Ray: We went to La Marzocco Home’s Café in Seattle in the beautiful KEXP studio building to speak with them.
Helen: It’s always about the why. “Why are you doing that?” It’s not about what you do. We all buy coffee, roast coffee, but why do you do that? We do it to raise all boats. That’s what we do, to have some sort of impact, and you can do that if you’re successful. My name is Helen Russell. I’m co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffees & Teas in San Rafael, California.
Kandace: Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell founded Equator in 1995.
Helen: You know, in your early 30s you want to do your own thing. You want to do your own company. You’re really unemployable.
We’re sitting here in Pioneer Square, and I said to Brooke, “Look, you love coffee. I love business. We should write a business plan and open up some coffee shops.” Ended up opening up two coffee bars called Europa.
But what happened was, and this was the pivoting moment here, is that Brooke would ask the roaster, “Where’s the coffee come from? Tell me about the farmer. I want to know about the bird population.”
I said, “You know what, Brooke? They’re never going to tell you this, so let’s sell this business. Let’s start our own business.” Unbelievably, we sold the other half of this diamond ring, and we bought a little table-top Petroncini roaster. Came up with the packaging, and it we were off to the races. But if we hadn’t had that experience of running those two coffee bars, it would have been really, really difficult.
What’s in a Name
Helen: Not only is Brooke the product, but she’s the marketing person. She wanted to name the company Equator because coffee and tea is grown along the equator.
The Bengal tiger has always been part of our DNA. When we think about that quiet strength and that rarity, we think about that as our voice, even as we source coffee and how we go into the world as a coffee company.
Let’s Talk Packaing
Ray: We actually discovered Equator because they were at a multi-roaster in Portland. Why don’t we talk about the packaging for a bit?
Ray: Most of their coffee is in this kind of packaging, which is super fun. The text wraps around it. They’re playful with their tiger. Lots of details about it, and a very, very striking red, all in a nice Biotre bag.
This one is super fun. I love the fact that it doesn’t say Equator, it’s just the tiger. They’re all about the tiger.
Helen: The tiger’s really near and dear to our heart because it’s been poached and because it’s in jeopardy.
Helen: For our Equator Blend, we buy a lot of Sumatra. We probably purchase over 300,000 pounds a year of Sumatra, and we pay a 10 cent social premium to the Tiger Trust. We have rangers right now decoupling traps.
Helen: The San Francisco Business Times interviewed us and they said, “What’s next for Equator?”
I said, “You know, we’re thinking about purchasing a farm in Panama.” So, the headlines say: Equator Buys Farm In Panama.
We traveled down to Panama and we came across this incredible piece of land. It was an unplanted coffee farm. This is what you do when you don’t know any better, right?
Helen: It’s like, “Let’s buy an unplanted coffee farm. Let’s grow the best coffee in the world.”
Helen: What we’re most proud of there is building the worker housing for the folks that we inherited that were on the land. These folks that have embraced us as outsiders and said, “Let’s all get together and grow the best coffee.”
We wanted to come up with worker housing that we weren’t designing as gringos. We were involving the people on the farm to design it, that they wanted to actually inhabit. Because it’s actually one of the highest farms in Central America, so to get people to go up there, it’s 7100 feet. It’s pretty spectacular.
Helen: It’s been a 10-year journey. Unbelievably, we won Best of Panama last year for Washed Gesha. To be a part of it, from shoot to cup, it’s an amazing honor, for sure.
Chain of Well Being
Kandace: There are a lot of reasons for having a coffee roastery, right? One of them is you love coffee, and to be around for this long, they’ve got to be roasting phenomenal coffee. Once you start growing, what do you do with it? I think Equator is thinking about this on an incredibly high level.
Helen: You’ve got the producer, the exporter, the importer, the roaster, the purveyors, the customers, the vendors that we buy La Marzocco machines from. We can make an impact all along that Chain of Well Being by just lifting up our heads and saying, “Hey, there’s an issue here.” That’s what specialty coffee people do.
We were the first roaster in California to become a benefit corporation, be a B corp. Maureen McHugh, who is our employee number one and also is an owner in the company, had gotten her Masters degree in sustainability and said, “We should really do this.”
It’s very similar to any other certification, whether it be fair trade or organic. But to have those 200 questions and get to the very bottom and only get an 80, I was like, wow. I thought we’d be 100 but we got an 80. It really helped focus us on how we wanted to improve all along the supply chain with the farmers all the way to the cup and with our customers.
It’s that early on certification that matters to some folks. It matters to us. And, more importantly, really matters to our employees. That’s really a big deal for them.
Two years ago, we won the small business of the year nationally through the SBA program. There were 28 million small business in the United States. We were the first LGBTQ certified company in the history of the SBA program, which is 61 years, to win that title.
That was a turning point for us, to be able to really take that mantle and stand on that platform as a women-owned business, as an LGBT business, as we layer the company with the next generation of these wonderful young millennials and coffee people that embrace that, and they embrace inclusivity, diversity. They want all those things in their employer.
It’s really very important that businesses, especially being a B Corp, that we’re really using business as a force for good in the world. In our little ecosystem, we’re doing everything that we possible can do. We’re not perfect, but our intention is perfect.
Ray: Kandace, what time is it?
Kandace: It’s Equator time.
Helen: We really want to grow this thing. We want it to be a legacy brand. I think about it, it’s like: respect, appreciation, value, propel. That’s really what we want to be.
Helen: We just did an ad for Barista Magazine that’ll be coming out, and we did this ad because I wanted to put a message out to the readers of Barista Magazine that we are women-owned, we are LGBT, but we’re white and there’s not enough color.
We wanted to set up something that was relevant, authentic, and really like, wow, make you think about it when you see the faces of all of us so that young person in Albany who’s transitioning will say, “Hey, I can move to California, live with my aunt, and work for Equator and be respected, appreciated, and valued for who I am as a human being.” That’s the message we wanted to put out.
We want to be that company that people want to work for and with where they feel safe no matter what their gender, what their background, where they are, their sexual identity, the color of their skin. We want to be that company. We live in a bubble in California, and I want coffee professionals around the country to know that there is a company that will embrace you. Come and help us continue to be successful so we can grow this thing and we can have greater impact.
Kandace: I want to work there. Equator Coffees and Teas-
Ray: Of San Raphael, California.
Kandace: Pretty rad.