The co-founder of the San Rafael-based specialty coffee company, which has one shop at the Proof Lab Surf Shop in Tam Valley and one on the way in downtown Mill Valley, talks about Equator’s history, its philosophy and her undying love of coffee.
Less than a year ago, Equator Coffees & Teas was a much-loved specialty coffee business, farming and roasting their own beans in San Rafael and selling them at markets and cafes throughout California and as far-flung as Boston and New York City. While Equator, which launched in a garage in Corte Madera in 1995 and later moved to a 5,400-square-foot warehouse near Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, had more than 250 customers that include chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Tyler Florence’s El Paseo in Mill Valley, it was looking to rise above the noise of the explosion of coffee companies in the Bay Area.

To do so, the company founded by Helen Russell and Brook McDonnell doubled down on its roots in Marin, opening up their first retail coffee shop – at the Proof Lab Surf Shop in Tam Junction – and taking over one of the Bay Area’s hallowed coffeehouses, the former LaCoppa Coffee space at 12 Miller Ave. in downtown Mill Valley.

As she awaits the green light from City Hall to begin renovating the former LaCoppa space, Russell spoke to Williams-Sonoma, whose stores carry Equator’s coffee and which hosts a “Meet the Maker” series on its blog, to discuss Equator’s history, its philosophy and her undying love of coffee.

Here’s a taste:

Williams-Sonoma: Were you always interested in coffee? What’s the story behind Equator?

Helen Russell: I’ve always been interested in coffee, even since I was a little girl. The first cup I ever had was instant Sanka; my father would let me have some, I’d add cream and sugar, and I thought it was great. We grew up on instant coffee, and I loved the smell of it when he opened the lid.
As for Equator, you could say it was founded by co-founder Brooke McDonnell and me out of a love for the café experience — hanging out in the Castro and North Beach and world travels as a child, soaking in the café life. The actual back of the napkin writing of a business plan took place at a Starbucks in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, in 1992. Brooke and I sat there musing about the future. I was drinking a mocha and she had her usual double espresso shot. We saw everything that was happening to the Portland coffee scene, and we decided then that we would go back to the Bay Area and start up very our own business. We were flipping houses and working in real estate at the time, but we loved coffee and saw how important the world of specialty coffee was becoming. Then, in 1995, we started roasting in a garage. Brooke wanted it to be a mail order business, but I saw fairly early that we needed to start to selling more coffee to less people – 100 pounds to one person as opposed to one pound to 100 people — or we would starve. So we changed the business to wholesale roasting.

Click here for the full Q&A with Helen Russell, and keep your fingers crossed that Equator gets the green light soon to renovate its space at 2 Miller Ave. and expand its coffee cart into a full-blown cafe!

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