Scenes from the Equator Coffees & Teas Cafe at 2 Miller Ave. in Mill Valley. Courtesy images.


Equator Coffees & Teas co-founders Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell. Courtesy image.

From Banana Republic to Smith & Hawken and a plethora in between, Mill Valley has a long tradition of playing an integral role in businesses that become household names.

Equator Coffees & Teas, which chose Mill Valley as the place to launch its first two retail cafes (2 Miller Ave. and 244 Shoreline Hwy. @ Proof Lab) since the early 1990s, is the latest local company on the rise, and the San Francisco Chronicle recently spent time with co-founder Helen Russell to chart exactly how we got here.

It’s an excellent read, describing how Russell and partner Brooke McDonnell dealt with the fallout from decision of Pascal Rigo, owner of the chain of 19 La Boulange cafes, for which Equator was the coffee roaster, to sell his business to Starbucks, thus ending the 13-year La Boulange-Equator relationship and gutting 12 percent of Equator’s revenue.

“It may have been the best shock the company could have received,” Chronicle scribe Jonathan Kauffman wrote. He continued:

Three and a half years later, Russell — an extrovert’s extrovert, whose force of personality energizes a room more quickly than a round of double espressos — surveys the state of her business from the cupping station of her warehouse. Burlap sacks of green beans are piled on pallets and shelves. Two roasting machines disgorge beans at a regular clip. Over the whoosh of the machines a tape-dispenser symphony can be heard, played by a dozen workers packing 12-ounce bags into boxes and envelopes. A barista in training brings Russell a cappuccino capped with a perfect foam heart.

Equator has clearly recovered.

“Rigo negotiated a phase-out strategy for Equator that gave them time to adjust,” but Russell and McDonnell dove headlong back into retail, first opening at Proof Lab in 2013 and followed that up in 2014 with 2 Miller, which has become a downtown community hub. They also opened a cafe on Market Street between 5th and 6th streets in downtown San Francisco, and are opening cafes in downtown Larkspur and on Second Street in SF in the the lobby of the new LinkedIn offices.

The cafes allowed the roasters to show off the single-origin coffees McDonnell had been experimenting with for years. “People want authenticity,” Russell says. “They want an experience.” The shift also conveyed to their restaurant clients that the company wasn’t falling behind.

“Retail drives wholesale, and wholesale is our golden goose,” Russell says. Wholesale revenue was up 22 percent this year, she says, and Internet sales have risen as well — particularly the single-origin premium coffees.

The story has an even happier ending that just a well-navigated recovery. In September, Rigo called Russell to tell her that he was buying back some of cafes from Starbucks and operating them under the name La Boulangerie. He asked Russell is Equator would again be his roaster.

“Definitely!” she hollered.

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