San Rafael’s Equator Coffee & Teas brands itself via its purpose-driven values

Helen Russell, co-founder and CEO, Equator Coffee & Teas, speaks on a panel at Impact Marin Conference at Embassy Suites in San Rafael on March 2, 2017. (GARY QUACKENBUSH / FOR NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)


Helen Russell, Co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffees and Tea, maintains her firm’s brand promise by telling stories. “It’s not about what we do, but how we do it.”

She and her team talk about how they support coffee growers and create stakeholder value in the coffee supply chain, while helping to protect endangered species as well as respecting people, the process and preserving the environment.

When she and Brooke McDonnell started the company in 1995 in a Corte Madera garage, they defined Equator as a boutique “concierge” roaster determined to “wow” wholesale customers with outstanding coffee and service.

Over time they realized that their brand identify involved building relationships with four stakeholder communities: Farmers cultivating the coffee, wholesale customers buying it, employees helping to grow the business and local communities supporting Equator cafés.

McDonnell’s trip to Guatemala to meet with coffee farmers was an eye opener. That visit was the starting point for leaning ways to establish lasting relationships with producers, and gain a better understanding of the struggles and challenges coffee farming communities face.”

Equator routinely pays quality incentives to farmers, supports farming community initiatives, and provides micro-loan credits to ensure that it has a consistent supply of quality coffee.

Determining how to be a good partner is a motivating force for Equator and an essential part of its brand, forming the base for a more constructive, realistic, and sustainable way of doing commerce. It does this by redefining impact and business success while valuing everyone in the supply chain.

Equator buys 200,000 lbs. of sustainably grown coffee a year from farmers in Sumatra. Part of a premium paid for its coffee goes to the Indonesian Sumatran Tiger Trust fund used to hire two rangers that patrol tiger terrain to prevent poaching and protect the remaining habitat. From the beginning Equator has used a red Bengal Tiger image as part of its logo and branding to start a dialogue about the tiger conservation program and to symbolize the tiger’s grace and strength it hopes to embody as a company.

Employees embrace the company’s mission. Equator’s barista in the lobby of the Embassy Suites Hotel conference site for Impact Marin March 2 eagerly retold the company’s save-the-tiger story to everyone waiting for a fresh brewed cup. Russell’s sincerity and truthfulness is key to Equator’s credibility.

“Brand promise is everything, including holding on to core values. What we don’t do is ever cut health insurance for our 106 employees, no matter what it costs.”

The company was founded on the principles of preserving the environment and fostering greater social justice. “Why we do this is our passion, we embody our brand through our stories, and consumer loyalty – including a growing number of millennials attracted to us because of our purpose-driven values.”

There are some 300 coffee roasters on the west coast. Success in differentiating our business is due to transparency, satisfying customer needs and by providing the backstory of what goes on behind the scenes to help coffee growers and environmental preservation.

Russell said, “Building consumer loyalty, and informing people about how to discern a company’s true and earnest efforts from a mere marketing scheme, are as important to our company as ever!”

Equator’s commitment to a sustainable, transparent approach is at the heart of the company’s fair trade model. “We don’t expect blind trust from our customers. Our coffee cooperative publishes all pertinent documents associated with every coffee transaction. Customers can trace our beans from farmer to roaster, at”

Next steps for Equator include “being in a place where we want to grow by sourcing capital from private family funds, and establishing a legacy known for creating jobs so our people can buy homes.”

Today, the company operates five cafés in the Bay Area and markets its products through over 150 wholesalers. In 2011 the company became the first coffee roaster in the nation to become a certified B Corporation. In 2016, the U.S. Small Business Administration honored Equator by naming it the “National Small Business of the Year.”