Meet Helen Russell, co-founder of Equator Coffees & Teas, a specialty coffee business that farms and roasts their own beans in Marin County, California. A love of the cafe culture led Helen to build her own business from the ground up, focusing on quality, sustainability, and impact. Now, Equator is a favorite among some of the country’s top chefs (including Thomas Keller)! Here, we ask her all about how she got started, what’s special about her beans and blends, and how she takes her morning cup.
Were you always interested in coffee? What’s the story behind Equator?
I’ve always been interested in coffee, even since I was a little girl. The first cup I ever had was instant Sanka; my father would let me have some, I’d add cream and sugar, and I thought it was great. We grew up on instant coffee, and I loved the smell of it when he opened the lid.
As for Equator, you could say it was founded by co-founder Brooke McDonnell and me out of a love for the café experience — hanging out in the Castro and North Beach and world travels as a child, soaking in the café life. The actual back of the napkin writing of a business plan took place at a Starbucks in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, in 1992. Brooke and I sat there musing about the future. I was drinking a mocha and she had her usual double espresso shot. We saw everything that was happening to the Portland coffee scene, and we decided then that we would go back to the Bay Area and start up very our own business. We were flipping houses and working in real estate at the time, but we loved coffee and saw how important the world of specialty coffee was becoming. Then, in 1995, we started roasting in a garage. Brooke wanted it to be a mail order business, but I saw fairly early that we needed to start to selling more coffee to less people – 100 pounds to one person as opposed to one pound to 100 people — or we would starve. So we changed the business to wholesale roasting.
We chose the name because coffee and tea is grown along the equator. The logo—a Bengal Tiger—is a nod to our early love of coffee from Sumatra and India. The Bengal Tiger is graceful and powerful, and it’s also symbolic of a species that is disappearing, which is another very important symbol to us that needs to be preserved.
What were some of the biggest challenges of opening your own business? What about the rewards?
Well, as for challenges, I tend to not focus on them – I am an eternal optimist. But the rewards are huge, from the absolute privilege of owning your own business to feeling the pride that comes along with starting and growing a business from scratch. Having responsibilities to employees and customers while building a successful brand is the ultimate. The challenges are always going to be making sure that we stay innovative and authentic and always on trend. It’s so important to stay relevant, not only in specialty coffee but any business — that is our mantra. Personally, you can’t be in specialty coffee and not be transformed on some level. If you’ve been lucky enough to travel to the coffee lands and break bread with your farmer partners, it’s a special experience.
What’s special about your Equator beans?
What’s most special is our connection to and relationship with the farmers who produce the coffees we roast. We’ve been in business for 19 years. Over that amount of time, we have been able to develop a lot of personal relationships with the farmers who produce our coffee for our discerning clientele. We’re always looking for distinctive coffees and long-term relationships in which to invest. We care about quality – we know first hand that quality leads to sustainability, especially now that we have co-own our own coffee farm in Panama. That’s what’s most special about what we do, the relationships with the farmers that we have on the ground. I can sum up our coffee offering in this phrase: relationships plus access equals impact.
Tell us about the growers you work with.
We have so many, and we work for them as much as they work for us. We have a huge banner photo at the roastery of Juan Rocio, the head of the El Batan Cooperative in Equador. We made a decision to work with El Batan a while back, and we’ve funded them through three microcredit loans and visited five times. I wanted my team to know who we were honoring, who we were working with, and what’s important, honoring his work. Sometimes when we’re roasting and packaging and delivering, it’s easy to get caught up in our own process. But we always need to think about the farmer and why we’re striving for excellence. We want to continue to grow and improve our business, and buy more specialty coffee, and educate the consumer around why it’s so important to buy specialty coffee for the future of our coffee farmlands. Juan Rocio is one of our inspirations for remembering that.
How did your partnership with Williams-Sonoma begin? Tell us about the exclusive beans we’re selling.
We were introduced to Williams Sonoma six or seven years ago through our coffee partner, Chef Thomas Keller. At the time, we were working on a commercial coffee brewing unit that we brought to the William Sonoma electrical buyers. We see a lot of the senior leadership team members who live in Marin: CEO Laura Alber has visited Equator’s roastery and our retail location at Proof Lab Surf Shop. We wanted to become their go-to for coffee and education.
As for the beans, we have partnered with William Sonoma on three coffees: the Breakfast Blend, the Espresso Blend, and the French Roast. The Morning Blend is especially complex, balanced with just enough roast impact to be satisfying to fans of roast-forward coffees while keeping enough aromatic nuance to intrigue folks who lean towards lighter roasts. The Espresso Blend is very sweet and very smooth, excellent with milk and on its own. The French Roast isn’t quite as dark as French Roasts can get, but you still get that nice balanced but roasty aroma. We put together several iterations of each blend and then cupped them all together with the Williams-Sonoma team to pick out what we wanted.
I love the relationships and the impact we can make as a profitable coffee roasting company. It can be immediate, and it can be measured. I love that. I love how people seek us out when they discovered our brand over a cup of coffee, like in a restaurant. We’ve built a solid business on embracing quality, and people find us through word of mouth.
Any expert tips for people brewing coffee at home? Common mistakes?
One of the things that has changed is that now there are so many amazing brewing devices you can get for the house. And Williams-Sonoma carries so many of them. Now, you can produce a cup of coffee in your own kitchen that you could get at your favorite coffee shop.
Generally, not paying attention to water temperatures is common mistake; make sure your water is hot, just off the boil. Sometimes you need some turbulence to really extract the flavor – get the spoon out and stir. Pay attention to the amount of coffee you are using, which effects the strength of the coffee. I like three tablespoons to a 6 ounce cup (I drink a 12-oz. cup each and every day). A lot of people end up not actually using enough coffee. In the final cup, the recipe, the cut of the grind, and the brew-to-water ratio are really important.
How do you like your coffee? Do you have a go-to brewing method?
I love my coffee. I use a Hario pourover, a Baratza grinder, and a Breville kettle. I pour slowly to get the bloom. I set myself up in the corner in the kitchen every day, get it going and get it stirring. I take my time and look forward to the promise of a perfect cuppa.
Cream or sugar?
No cream or sugar. Absolutely not for me. I prefer to really taste the coffee and all the different flavor characteristics that my team set out to deliver in the cup. I want to taste every little nuance. I want to challenge myself to write down what I’m experiencing. The berry flavor, the graham cracker, floral notes — I’m educating myself every time and referring to our roasting team’s tasting notes to make sure I am calibrated with the team.