What started 20 years ago in a Marin County, California garage has grown into a thriving company that brings a social conscience to every sip of its tasty beverages.
Equator Coffees & Teas, owned by Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell, now has 83 employees, more than 350 wholesale customers—including the renowned French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif., cafes at LinkedIn and micro-kitchens at Google—and three retail stores in Northern California with a fourth on the way. Equator also, thanks to an SBA 504 loan from Capital Access Group, owns its own 5,500-square-foot roasting plant in Marin County, CA.
Not bad for the partners in business and in life whose coffee adventure began with the simple acquisition of an Italian roaster, using proceeds from the sale of Brooke’s mother’s wedding ring.
Helen and Brooke first mulled the coffee business idea—perhaps not surprisingly, over coffee—in Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s, just as the specialty coffee industry was heating up. They launched their first two coffee bars named Europa in San Francisco, with Helen providing the business acumen and Brooke, the discriminating palate. A foodie with natural curiosity about the provenance of the beans, Brooke became frustrated when roasters offered little or no information with regard to the farms, farmers, elevation, and climate where coffee was grown. That’s when she decided to buy the roaster and began roasting coffee in her garage in Marin. The business became Equator Coffees & Teas in 1995.
“Brooke started ordering green coffee…and put together the blends,” said Helen. “I just started sending out coffee samples to anybody that would listen.”
Equator Coffee & Teas takes its name from the geographic area where coffee grows, and its logo – a Bengal tiger – from the graceful animal native to that region. From the beginning, the women wanted to do things differently, and that meant learning to be a good partner to the various communities with which they engaged: customers, farmers, wholesalers, and employees.
In 2011, Equator was the first U.S. coffee roaster to become a certified B Corporation, meeting rigorous environmental and social performance standards and by supporting the growers around the world and everyone involved in the supply chain. The company has been working directly with its farmers for 17 years—the owners regularly visit their growers, offering incentives and micro-loans—and was one of the first roasters to support the Fair Trade Certified label to gain better wages for the growers. It also co-owns a sustainably planned farm, Finca Sophia, in Panama, which has been selected a finalist for the 2016 Good Food Awards. Equator, as part of its social mission, provides 100 percent health insurance to all of its employees.
Being mindful of the social mission is one thing, but Equator Coffee is still a business, and a business needs to grow in order for the social mission to be sustainable. “I’m a capitalist like anybody else, right? In order to make an impact, you have to be profitable,” said Helen. “That just makes sense. The more business that we can attract, the greater the impact.”
Fifteen years ago, Equator’s accountant encouraged the business owners to invest in a building by setting a 10% down payment aside and obtaining an SBA loan through Capital Access Group. With a down payment of $150,000, they were able to purchase a building then valued at $1.1 million. “It was something I never had dreamed would be possible,” said Helen. “We wanted to have the security of owning that building. And we only have six or seven years left on it.”
Calling the decision to purchase “one of the best decisions that we’ve ever made,” Helen said Capital Access Group “made the process very, very easy, and really walked us through the process.” What wasn’t easy was setting aside $150,000 for the down payment, but because it was a priority, they made it happen. A conventional loan, with a down payment between 20 and 35 percent, would have made it impossible to own.
“Jacklyn Jordan (President and CEO of Capital Access Group) visited us and explained the 504 program,” said Helen. “She looked at the building and laid out the options. I think the education was the most helpful part of the process. That, and Jacklyn’s interest in our business. She was totally interested. And we were little guys.”
“It has been a pleasure watching Equator’s growth over the years,” said Jordan. “This is a clear example of how building ownership can determine the trajectory of a business. We are proud of their success, and we are so happy that we could help them purchase the building that helped to secure their future.”
Though it started out as a boutique “concierge” roaster for wholesalers, Equator would have to enter the retail market in order to expand the reach of the brand, so in recent years, the owners opened shops in Mill Valley and San Francisco.
“Unless you really have a retail store for people to experience your brand, you’re not going to have the growth, given the competition that we have with a lot of great local roasters,” Helen said. For example: A customer who visited their first store, Proof Lab Surf Shop in Mill Valley, was a LinkedIn employee who liked the coffee, and now Equator is in two LinkedIn cafes. The retail exposure also led to accounts at Google, for 200 of its micro-kitchens.
In addition to its B Corp. status and farm ownership, the business has many honors and distinctions that make it unique. Equator is a member of the Golden Gate Business Association (San Francisco’s LGBT chamber of commerce), a certified LGBT-owned business by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), and for 12 years, it has been included in the San Francisco Business Times Top 100 Women-Owned Businesses in the Bay Area. This year, the SF Business Times also included it as No. 6 in the Top 25 LGBT-owned businesses in the Bay Area.
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