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.
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.
“Definitely!” she hollered.
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