Marin-based Equator Coffees & Teas eyes Sonoma County expansion

Helen Russell, the co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffee and Teas, at her shop on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 in Mill Valley, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


Sonoma County is well-known as a premium producer of wine, but Equator Coffees & Teas CEO Helen Russell sees as prime expansion territory for its premium beverages in 2018.

The San Rafael-based company is looking for retail space to open a shop in the county, and it is drumming up customers to buy its beans and teas wholesale, Russell said. The 22-year-old company already has seven stores in Mill Valley, Larkspur, Oakland and San Francisco.

Out of a few hundred wholesale customers, Equator has a number in Marin and Napa counties in the North Bay, including exclusive The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville.

“We have none in Sonoma County,” Russell said. Cafés, restaurants and hotels would be key potential customers.

The company recently set up a deal to roast coffee at Pulley Collective in New York City to serve wholesale accounts there, and a sales team services 50 such customers in the Los Angeles area.

Equator also supplies cafes and “microkitchens” at major Bay Area employers such as LinkedIn and Google.

Sonoma County also would be a good expansion area because much of the company’s workforce lives there, Russell said. Equator pays $17 an hour, which can work out to $23 including tips, but even that higher-than-$15 pay rate can’t compete with Marin real estate pricing, she said.

Business and life partners Russell and Brooke McDonnell started Equator in 1995 in a Corte Madera garage. They have defined Equator as a boutique “concierge” roaster determined to “wow” wholesale customers with outstanding coffee and service.

Equator buys 200,000 pounds of sustainably grown coffee annually from farmers in Sumatra, Indonesia. 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.

In 2007, Russell and McDonald entered into a partnership to buy a coffee farm in Panama. They supply worker housing and send children to school. They also provide pay incentives and microloans for Central American farmers to ensure a consistent supply of quality coffee.

Equator was the first coffee roaster in California to earn Certified B Corporation status, appointed by B Lab, an international assessment organization.

In May 2016, Equator Coffees & Teas was named national Small Business Persons of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Jeff Quackenbush (, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.