After 25 Years, Equator Coffees Remains Committed To Justice

Written by:
Gray Van Dyke
Photography By:
Equator Coffees

How is it that the core values of a 25-year-old coffee company remain relevant –– even novel? In an industry characterized by fleeting trends and over-saturation, most contenders still haven’t figured out the numbers, much less how they fit into the overall equation. However, that’s what sets Equator Coffees apart.

Few business owners have been as willing to stand by — and take risks for — the sake of their values as are Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell. Going on two-and-a-half decades of operation, Equator Coffees continues to shape the industry in positive ways.

The Origins of Equator Coffees

Equator Coffees Co-Founder Brooke McDonnell on Equator's first roaster

Equator Coffees Co-Founder Brooke McDonnell on Equator’s first roaster

As far as origin stories go, you’d be hard-pressed to beat this one.

In 1995, Equator Coffees began as a garage-based business venture between a pair of longtime friends in Marin, California. Its reason for being? The mutual dissatisfaction with the state of coffee that Russell and McDonnell discovered while outside of a Starbucks in Portland, Oregon.

When it came to partnership, the pair seemed to offer the perfect match.

As a product of Boston’s Northeastern University and a self-taught entrepreneur, Helen Russell took care of the business side. Brooke McDonnell, a Skidmore College grad from New York drawn to creative expression, flexed her foodie inclinations to deliver great tasting coffee.

Lacking the capital to get them off the ground, McDonnell pawned her mother’s wedding ring to fund a humble little Italian coffee roaster.

Money and equipment in hand, the pair bought green coffee and experimented with roasts. Eventually, they drew up a plan and introduced their first two coffee bars in San Francisco under the name of Europa. The company would later take the name Equator Coffees.

The Company That Changed The Coffee Industry

Ted Stachura of Equator Coffees planting a coffee tree in Colombia

Photo by Bryan Clifton

While opening their Europa locations, Russell and McDonnell uncovered some troubling realities in the industry. No one seemed concerned about sourcing.

Sure, suppliers could tell them a little about the beans’ growing conditions. But they got nothing about business relationships. If someone wanted to know about her coffee’s origins, she might as well throw darts at a map. Or maybe someone would mumble “Arabica” or “Robusta.”

Out of such darkness emerged a core mission of Equator Coffees: to tell people exactly where the hell their coffee came from, and what made it taste so good. While this now seems fairly commonplace, Russell and McDonnell helped pioneer transparency.

From the very beginning, Equator cared about more than the coffee in your cup. Russell and McDonnell wanted to cultivate a sense of community and improve the livelihoods of everyone involved in the experience, from the grower in Guatemala to the sipper in San Francisco.

Socially-Conscious Superheroes

Members of the Equator Coffees roasting team doing a cupping

Laying the foundation of a company on lofty bedrock requires a heavy commitment to activism. However, these values have always set Russell and McDonnell apart from their competition.

Even when it came to deciding on a logo, the pair carefully chose something representative of value-driven business. Their red Bengal Tiger gives a nod to the origins of their coffee as well as one of their longtime projects, the Sumatran Tiger Trust.

In 1999, Equator Coffees became the first California coffee roaster to sign on with Fair Trade, a movement that put living wages for growers above the pursuit of profit.

In 2011, after cultivating a multiple decade-long relationship with Fair Trade, Equator became the first certified B Corporation coffee roaster in the United States. The accolade speaks to their capacity as a business to empower change by putting the lives of others above the lining of their pockets. It also puts them in good company, from The Alchemist Brewery to Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s.

Coffee With A Purpose

Michelle Fleming of Equator Coffees roasting beans

Photo by Nicola Parisi

In 2015, with the help of the Golden Gate Business Association (San Francisco’s LGBTQ chamber of commerce––the oldest in the U.S.), Equator became a certified LGBTQ-owned business. This step made them the sixth-largest LGBTQ-owned business in the Bay Area.

Additionally, Equator Coffees maintains a commitment to its employees since. Even in times of tight finances, Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell provide 100% health insurance for their employees.

What’s Next?

General Managers at Equator Coffees

Photo by Jordan Rosen

With everything that Russell and McDonnell do, how could they possibly have time for more? At Equator Coffees, they seem to find extra hours in every day.

Upon opening a retail location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, Russell and McDonnell initiated a program to combat homelessness and support those living in public housing.

In practice, this means fostering diversity in their own staff. They’re actively hiring ambassadors and employees in order to provide gainful employment and meaningful representation within the community.

By staying true to their roots, Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell have managed to survive for twenty-five years. And not just survive, but flourish and build something entirely their own.

The success of Equator shows us that you can be bigger than a business; you can be an unstoppable force that makes a real difference in the lives of those you touch.

Where to Buy?

Roasting beans at Equator Coffees

Photo by Nicola Parisi

You can purchase Equator Coffee online here or from any of its retail locations, which are listed below:

Proof Lab, 224 Shoreline Highway, Mill Valley, CA
Miller Avenue, 2 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA 94941
Magnolia Avenue, 240 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur, CA 94939
Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd, Fort Mason Center Gatehouse, San Francisco, CA 94123
Lake Merritt, 175 Bay Place, Oakland, CA 94610
Sausalito Equator, 1201 Bridgeway, Sausalito, CA 94965
Warfield/Mid-Market, 986 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102 (CLOSED DUE TO CORONAVIRUS)
2nd Street/SOMA, 222 2nd Street, San Francisco, CA 94105 (CLOSED DUE TO CORONAVIRUS)

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