Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Lesbian-owned coffeehouse named a Small Business of the Year


Equator Coffees and Teas co-founders Helen Russell, left, and Brooke McDonnell, are all smiles at their Proof Lab Surf Shop location in Mill Valley, California. Photo: Equator Coffees and Teas/Alex Salkever
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Equator Coffees and Teas is the first-ever LGBT-owned business to be named a Small Business of the Year in the U.S.

Maria Contreras-Sweet, the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, announced 54 small businesses, including lesbian-owned Equator, representing the 50 states and four U.S. territories, to receive the honor in a recent news release.

Equator life partners and co-founders Brooke McDonnell, president, and Helen Russell, CEO, will be honored in Washington, D.C. May 2 and will represent California during events celebrating Small Business Week, May 1-7, in the nation's capital.

National events are planned to take place in Oakland and San Jose as well as other cities throughout the U.S.

"Only in this country could this happen where you can have a small business that is also LGBT-certified making history," said Russell, 55. "We are blessed. [We are] so fortunate to be a part of being recognized and making history."

McDonnell, 58, agreed.

"It's pretty intoxicating. I think it's taken a minute to sort of trickle through our consciousness, 'Wow, this is making history,'" she said. "Wow! We are part of something larger. I think everybody craves that. Everybody wants to be connected to something larger."

JP Leddy, president of the Golden Gate Business Association, praised Equator's selection.

"This recognition on a national level impacts all LGBT-owned businesses because it validates the contributions and excellence found in such businesses and their importance as part of our national economic landscape," he said. "It means LGBT-owned businesses have a place at the small business table and we plan to stay there."

McDonnell and Russell also recently learned they are finalists for the 2016 Good Food Awards for the coffees produced from their Finca Sophia coffee farm in Panama.

"It's really not what you do, but why you do it because of its impact," said Russell. "I think that's why we should be here. We are here to make an impact for a short period of time, so wherever we can add value that's what we are going to do.

"This is what business is about. Business for us is about impact," said Russell, who was born and raised in a blue-collar family in Massachusetts before heading west in the late 1980s to be with McDonnell. "At the end of the day it's about people and it's about jobs for us."


Well deserved

Jacklyn Jordan, an ally and founder and president of Capital Access Group, who, along with the SBA, has helped finance several expansion projects with Equator since 2003, submitted the women for the SBA award.

Jordan said the company's tipping point came when it started opening its retail stores.

"They were producing this wonderful coffee all along, but the consumer, the individual consumer, was not so aware of it if they didn't go to the French Laundry every day," said Jordan, referring to one of the many upscale restaurants and companies that buy Equator.

Some of those companies include French Laundry chef Thomas Keller's other restaurants, chef Traci Des Jardins' Jardiniere in San Francisco, and Google and LinkedIn.

Jordan was part of the team helping Equator go to the next level when McDonnell and Russell approached her with plans to open up cafes to bring their craft coffee to the people.

"We are tremendously proud of what they've accomplished, tremendously proud," said Jordan. "They deserve all of the credit that they are getting."

"The bottom line is the coffee is great," added Mark Quinn, a 63-year-old ally who is the district director at the SBA's San Francisco office. "They are successful because they are good at what they do."

In February Equator garnered Internet buzz when it sold a $15 cup of coffee at its San Francisco cafe, an inaugural harvest from the Panama farm.


Number one in many ways

The small business honor is only one of many firsts for Equator, a 21-year-old San Rafael-based company that started out as a coffee roastery and has grown into one of the few fully integrated coffee companies in the U.S.

Equator was one of the first California businesses to become Fair Trade-Certified. It's also an LGBT-owned Business Enterprise and is a certified green business in Marin County. It's a member of California Certified Organic Farmers.

The coffee company has more than 350 wholesale customers, three Bay Area cafes with three more scheduled to open this year, and the coffee farm in Panama. Equator employs nearly 90 people.

"It's really great, especially with all of the things that are going on within the country, to be able to stand up there and say, 'Look, this is how business can be run,'" Russell said.

After more than two decades in business McDonnell and Russell are really just getting started. This summer is already going to be exciting for the coffee company.

Equator is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its first San Francisco cafe in the Warfield Building on Market Street this month. The store is currently only open weekdays, but starting in May it will be open seven days a week, the women said.

Also in May, they kick off a string of cafe openings around the Bay Area. On May 1, Equator will open its third North Bay location in Larkspur, followed by its second San Francisco location in the new LinkedIn building June 1. By the end of the year the company will have a cafe in Oakland, the women told the Bay Area Reporter.


A perfect match

McDonnell and Russell, who will wed in a couple of weeks, met in Palm Springs at the Dinah Shore Weekend in the early 1990s. A few years later they married their two passions creating Equator in their garage in San Rafael, California.

It all came together while they were sipping coffee and espresso on the steps of Pioneer Square in Portland at another then-young coffee company. They were taking a break from buying and flipping real estate when the opportunity hit Russell.

She turned to McDonnell and said, "You love coffee and I love business. We see this whole coffee thing happening. Why don't we put together a business plan and open up a couple of coffee bars in San Francisco?"

McDonnell, who had lived all over the world until settling in San Francisco, was game.

"My first cafe experience was very, very San Francisco-centric," said McDonnell.

In her early 20s hanging out at Cafe Flore slinging back espressos, seeing the late Harvey Milk around the Castro and interacting with all of the activists, artists, and intellectuals in the late 1970s she dreamed of opening her own cafe someday.

"I used to love drinking straight shots of espresso and imagining that someday I wanted to be connected to some cafe and to some coffee only because of the atmosphere," said McDonnell. "It was just a fascinating emergence into consciousness and certainly shaped my world view."

Social justice and philanthropy is very much a part of the company's culture, an added value that hasn't been missed by clients and customers.

"They've poured their hearts and souls into their business and given back to so many people," said Chip Conley, head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb. Conley, the founder and former owner of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, used to stock his boutique hotels with Equator coffee. "It's time they got honored."

Quinn agreed.

"We love that they are an LGBT business, but the fact is they are a community business that cares about community and supports the community where they come from," he said.


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