Equator, launched with life-partner
Brooke McDonnell, began out of a love of the
cafe experience and a plan written on the
back of a napkin at a Portland Starbucks in
1992. Back in the Bay Area, the duo noticed an
increased interest in specialty coffee and in
1995 began roasting their own in their Corte
Madera garage, eventually getting into mail
order and then wholesale. The name came
from the place where coffee grows best — the
equatorial zone — and the Bengal tiger logo
represents power and grace and their appreciation of coffee from India.
Equator is the first American coffee company to become a certified B Corporation
(meeting rigorous standards of social and
environmental performance, accountability,
and transparency); it was named California
Small Business of the Year in 2016 — the first
LGB T-owned business to win that award —
and was an early pioneer in building solid
relationships with coffee producers. As if
that cup wasn’t full enough, the company
also finances environmental and social projects in coffee-producing countries and stays
active in environmental stewardship and
What is the Equator design aesthetic?
Our stores reflect the communities they’re
located in. No two Equator stores are alike.
Internally, we call them snowflakes. We
have our surf shop vibe in Tam Valley, and
our flagship store in downtown Mill Valley
has reclaimed redwood and a patio with
100-year-old railway rails that creates bar
seating, giving a nod to how important the
train service was in the ’40s. We have our
cycling-themed store in Larkspur that’s in a
historic building with a wall map carved out
of wood showing local cycling trails. The common thread tying all our stores together is
an amazingly executed crafted cup of coffee,
served with kindness and hospitality, with the
promise to honor our partnering farmers.
Life lessons learned working with millennials?
My young millennial team teaches me something new every day and keeps me on my toes.
They are tech savvy, social and multifaceted.
They also want transparency and feedback,
which can be time-consuming but ultimately
builds a collaborative culture. I have found
the best way for me to connect with my Gen Y
employees is by communicating and identifying shared values.
Most important virtue in an employee?
Trustworthiness, because in retail when
there is cash there has to be trust. When I hire
someone I think: would I give this person a
key to my house? Actually, with our growth
that question is no longer realistic; we now
hire looking for kindness. We may not be able
to teach friendliness but we can teach someone how to make a perfect latte.
What do you think about the #metoo
movement as it relates to the coffee busi-
ness? My personal favorite hashtag is
#shemeansbusiness. This can be interpreted
in many ways depending on the situation.
Recently news was delivered to our doorstep
regarding sexual assault allegations against
the owner of San Francisco’s Four Barrel
Coffee. I thought as an industry we would
somehow be spared this type of behavior.
If you could change one thing about the
coffee business, what would it be? Coffee
growing is a very hard way to make a living. I
would improve access to capital and markets
for farmers and encourage more equitable
What incentives or support to farmers that
the company was part of are you most proud
of? We funded a coffee “pulp to protein” project in Tanzania, partnering with farmer Chido
Govera to teach a group of women in Tanzania
how to grow edible mushrooms from coffee
waste. The women were not only able to feed
their families during the lean months of the
coffee harvest, but were also able to sell the
mushrooms in their village as a cash crop.
What was the scariest thing about opening
your first location? You never know how any
location will truly perform — especially your