Equator: a local gem for caffeine-lovers

By Luella Searson, Reporter

If you’ve driven around Mill Valley before, chances are you’ve noticed a red or black tiger sticker floating around placed on the bumper of cars, computer covers, and phone cases. Equator’s coffee’s logo; a bright red branding style can be hard to miss, especially driving by their brightly red-painted roadside location next to Proof Lab. When you walk in, the local surf-shop vibe welcomes you. Mill Valley locals chatter, bundled in their aviator nation jackets as they pick up freshly brewed coffee fired out rapidly from the buzzing kitchen.

Everything is so well done. Despite the long morning line of sleepy Mill Valley residents, the specially brewed, nutty coffee hitting your taste buds makes the last 15 minutes of waiting float to the back of your mind as you sip happily and walk back to your car.

It’s hard to imagine that this franchise all started in a tiny garage.

Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell started off on a small coffee shop in San Fransisco called “Eropa.” Soon after opening, the two ran into a problem with their roasters.

“What happened was the roaster wouldn’t tell Brooke anything about the product,” Equator C.E.O Helen Russell said. “[Brooke] would say ‘Well I want to know if the workers are getting paid correctly and receiving a good education. If I ever start a coffee business, I want to be really transparent.’”

Weeks later, the two sold the business (and McDonnell’s mother’s wedding ring) and started their own roasting business in Mill Valley.

McDonnell taught herself how to roast coffee on her very own table-top roaster in her own home. The first Equator roaster and grinder was operated right in her own garage. While she ran production, Russell took on the role of sales and quickly dove into growing the two’s budding business.

“Russell got people to try their coffee. After people started taking a liking to it they opened their first shop which was the Proof Lab shop,” Shoreline Highway location store manager Alicia Reaves said. “Since then they’ve expanded over Marin County, San Francisco, and even expanded into Los Angeles.”

The name “Equator” was chosen from the location of the company’s very own coffee farm named Finca Sophia in Costa Rica.

“The farm only has a certain amount of trees each year, I’m pretty sure they were dwarf trees and nobody wanted them,” Reaves said. “But Equator adopted the trees and now were the only people that make that type of [dwarf tree] coffee roast.”

Along with the unique name, Russell and McDonnell wanted a strong logo for their new brand. “We wanted a strong icon for a logo … the Bengal Tiger for us, because we’re women-owned, [has] rarity, grace and power which we thought represented our brand,” Russell said.

The phrase, “Coffee can be better” is Equator’s company slogan which is painted across the screen when you first open its app and its website. Part of improving coffee is not just about taste, but improving the impact on the environment. In 2011, the company became the first coffee business in California to become “B Corp certified,” meaning that their process of coffee production was equitable to both humans and the environment.

“Sustainability is at the core of everything we do … B Corp. certification measures a company’s entire social and environmental impact making B Corp’s leaders in the global movement for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy,” Equator’s website states.

So what else gets the line going around the block for an eight-dollar latte? “First off, we are women LGBTQ-owned,” Reaves said. “We also roast our own coffee, we have our own roastery on Jordan St. over in San Rafael … Equator really focuses the most on kindness, I was just in a meeting with one of our owners and she said ‘You can teach anyone how to make coffee, but kindness is the most important thing. I want people to think they’re walking into their own home.’”

Since opening in Mill Valley, Equator has thrived with the locals. “I feel like their is such a high expectation for small business here,” Russell said. “I feel like the locals here have accepted and loved us so much because they know the amount of detail we put into each cup of coffee. Mill Valley locals can really tell the difference between a cheap Coco-Cola versus a hand-crafted one from Brooklyn.”

Russell also noted how the morning rush at her stores are usually Tam kids swinging in for a quick cup of coffee before first period.

“One thing I do not like about Tam kids are those silly little e-bikes. However I once spoke to a class [at Tam] and one thing that all the students had was respect for me. When I was speaking, they paid attention,” she said.

After two decades, nine new cafes, and becoming a local favorite to residents of all over Marin, it’s easy to say Equator is a large piece of every caffeinated-Mill-Valley-local’s heart.