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Founders' Stories: Helen Russell

Challenges were no match for this boss.

by Randy Miller | March 17, 2021

We're talking to the folks behind the coffee you love to find out how they got there. How they turned their individual passions for crafting the perfect cup of coffee into small businesses sharing their coffee within their communities and beyond. The road is long, often challenging, but always well worth it — this is how they made it happen, these are their Founders' Stories.

Building a business from the ground up isn’t easy. No less, a coffee company. No less, as a woman. No less, 26 years ago. But there Helen Russell was starting Equator Coffees in 1995. To get there, it would take hard work and great coffee — two things that Helen and her partner Brooke McDonnell were in no shortage of.

In fact, they more than got there. Today, Helen and Brooke don’t just own their own business, they’re the ones you look to when you’re thinking of starting one yourself. (And they’re more than happy to help the next generation forge its own path). In 2021, Helen is a shining example of what happens when you combine the true spirit of generosity, curiosity, and community (See: Act for All Coffee: Do Good Blend). This is her story every step of the way.

It started with Taster’s Choice… or was it Sanka?

Listen: Helen's first coffee memory

"My first coffee memory — and I had to text my brother this morning, because we went back and forth. He remembered Sanka, and I remembered Taster’s Choice. And it is Taster’s Choice that I remember my parents drinking in the morning. I remember them unscrewing the top, I can hear the spoon going in, and then the water. And my dad would drink it black and my mom would drink it with cream. And then when I tried it, I really, really liked it. I really loved the smell of it. Because I grew up drinking Lipton tea. And so, it's probably about 10 when I had my first cup of coffee, which was Taster’s Choice. Those little crystals."

#BusinessGoals

"Number one, my passion was that I wanted to own my own business. That was absolutely number one. And then meeting my partner, Brooke McDonnell, who's my life partner and coffee partner, and really the North Star of Equator. To be successful in business, you need three components, people, product, and process. And I was always the people person, because I had a sales position, selling voice and data networks — which is very, very different from coffee. And Brooke had travelled around the world — had an amazing palate and always really enjoyed the café scene in San Francisco, being at Cafe Florian, and sitting across from Harvey Milk, and just sort of the early days in San Francisco with specialty coffee. With coffee in general. And that whole community feeling of meeting your friends for a cup of coffee.

We went up to Portland and we were sort of seeing the whole specialty coffee movement taking place. And it was really at that time when I said, 'Look, we're in our early 30's. You love coffee, and I love business. This is our moment in time. If we're going to start a company, we should do it now.' And I can remember, we're sitting there in Pioneer Square at a Starbucks and she was drinking an espresso. She was explaining to me sort of all the flavor profiles and the viscosity and I was drinking a mocha piled high with whipped cream. And I'm like, 'You're so passionate about this product. And we love going to cafés. We should start a coffee company.' And that's really how it started."

Just getting started

"We wrote a little business plan and we drove back to the Bay Area. And we ended up opening two espresso carts. It was called Europa. Brooke was very inquisitive about the coffee. She wanted to know where the coffee was grown. What the elevation was. What was the potassium in the soil? What was the cloud cover? Do the families get a fair price? This is 1993.

And the roaster would say, 'I'm not sure. We buy our coffee from Central South America, East Africa and Indonesia.' This information, it really wasn't available. And I said, 'Look, let's sell Europa and let's start a coffee roasting company.' Having those two coffee bars, really understanding a P&L statement, how to purchase equipment, how to put together a menu, how to pull a shot — how to do all those things.

Brooke said 'Okay.' So she bought a little Petroncini tabletop roaster. And what was fun about it was her mother had this ring that was supposed to go to me. She ended up selling the ring and bought this little tabletop Petroncini roaster. And I went out and learned how to sell espresso equipment. And she started buying coffee from Dallis Bros. Coffee, and this is really early on. She would get five pound bags of Guatemalas, Ethiopias. And then she just started really just working on her blends. We named the company Equator because coffee and tea is grown along the Equator. We chose the Bengal tiger, known for its grace, rarity, and power. And that's been threaded through our brand for the last 26 years.

image (4) Pictured: Brooke McDonnell at the roaster.

And I just started cold calling. And I started writing articles for all the trade magazines: How to choose your roaster? How to set up a menu? What cup sizes do you need? Should you have flavored syrups? And the wholesale business just started to grow. And I can remember the time when Brooke was out there and the smoke was billowing and she came in and said, 'Stop selling coffee. I can't keep up.' And that's just how it was born.

There were days when we would run out and pack up the boxes and I'd miss the UPS truck and throw it in my truck and chase after the UPS truck. These were wild and woolly days. And then we hired Maureen (McHugh). Maureen came in and she said, 'What can I do?' I said, 'Well, we need somebody to do the invoices. Can you do that?' Now Maureen came from the Bronx, she went to Cardinal Spellman High School. I said, 'You know math. You do the invoices. You figure out the P&L. You hire the bookkeeper.' So there it was born. People, product, and process and then it was the three of us.

And at that time, there were only probably five women roasting coffee in the country. And there were probably only about 35 roasters on the West Coast. So, this was very, very early on. And we built a very, very robust wholesale coffee roasting business. Pre-COVID, we had close to 500 wholesale customers. So wholesale is something that has allowed us to be true to our values as a B Corp. It has allowed us to offer health insurance throughout the last 26 years and to have the wherewithal to purchase a coffee farm in Panama (Finca Sophia). So, the wholesale was a really important part of the company."

image Pictured: Helen Russell, Brooke McDonnell, and Maureen McHugh make three.

Seeking transparency

"Brooke was travelling to the farmer’s gate before Direct Trade was even two words that were put together. We were going there and Brooke was meeting with farmers in Guatemala, trying to learn as much as she could about the origins that we were purchasing from. The transparency quotient has really grown exponentially as more and more coffee roasters travelled to origin to meet with the farmers, so they can really bring back their story.

And that's what third wave is really about. When you think about third wave, it's really about the voice of the producer. Right? Well, prior to that there was no voice. You may put up a couple of photos of a couple of different farmers, but to be able to really tell that story. I mean, we just launched our Ecuador El Batan, and we've been there five times. We did a revolving credit loan with them. Why do we do that? Because we wanted to be able to continue to buy coffee from them. And we knew that by working with sustainable harvest, we will guarantee ourselves future coffee from that particular cooperative. It's become highly interactive, whereas before you would just buy coffee from one of the larger importers and then roast it. But Brooke was curious super early on.

And then of course there are so many more roasters now, right? Some of the folks that are in the company that are in that 35 to 45-year-old range, they started out early on at specialty coffee. Then they came to Equator to learn how to buy coffee, to learn how to run retail stores. So, what we have seen the most is the evolution of coffee and the amount of coffee roasters that we have on the West Coast now. And seeing more young people get into specialty coffee has been so great for the industry just in general.

But what's interesting, you’ve got to remember when we started out, we had to raise money from friends and family to be able to buy a roaster, to have a roasting facility. We had to do an environmental impact study. We had to work with PG&E to get the right gas elevation, because we knew we were going to grow. Now, if you want to roast coffee, you can go to a co-roasting space. So, the barriers to entry fell dramatically, which I think has been really, really great for specialty coffee. We have launched many, many a career. We have had people come into the company. And I always say to them, 'We will give you everything that we have. Everything that we have learned.' I remember, Brooke was working with Caitlin McCarthy-Garcia, and Caitlin came over from Peet's. They really wouldn't even let her get on the roasting floor. Then Brooke took her under her wing and she became the first female roaster after Brooke at the company. And now she's a green coffee buyer at Royal.

More people can participate and that's the biggest difference. Because imagine now if you had to raise 150,000 bucks to go buy a roaster and set it up, and get the gas, and get everything, and hire a couple people. You can get in there and learn. Right now our joy is about really lifting people up and showing them an industry that we have really blossomed in. And have done well in. And have a lot of information that we can share."

Who runs the (coffee) world

"Being a woman and also being a queer woman was something that we never talked about. Obviously, we couldn't disguise the fact that we were women. But being queer women, that's something early on that we never talked about. And when I look back on those times, and some of the conversations that we would have, and how we would avoid them — we just didn't want to jeopardize anything. So we steered clear of any of those types of conversations.

Listen: Helen on being a woman in coffee

But being a woman, it seems like you always have to work one and a half times. When you're raising capital, you have to have a better business plan. All the things that we read about, we have experienced. We have been fortunate, because we have an amazing product. We have incredible people around us. We had that expertise of running two coffee bars.

So I felt like we had to work harder for sure, to get to where we are today. But we've been very, very fortunate. We've had amazing customers. We've had great opportunities. And at the end of the day, you have to have a great product. I mean, if you don't have a great product, it doesn't matter if you're a woman, if you're a queer woman, if you're a guy, if you're trans. You've got to lead with the product. And that would be my advice. That's what we have done. And that's why we are still here."

And then came 2020...

"It's been a remarkable twelve months. Equator is very much part of the community, especially with our retail stores. I always say whether you're three or 83, Equator is like a Katy Perry concert, you just feel good in there. And with the stores closing and the community aspect being pulled away, it was very difficult for us. Me, especially, because I'm so connected to the team at the stores, to our customer base. It's just part of everybody's routine and ritual, and closing for a couple of weeks was to sort of figure out what was going on with COVID — to make sure that our team felt safe and that our customers could trust us.

But look, it was on the business side of it. When something like that happens, your wholesale business goes to zero overnight. Zero, because you're no longer sending coffee to Google, Twitter, Slack. It's zero. They're working from home. Fifty percent of your business goes away overnight. So you're sitting there, as the CEO and Founder of this company, that part of the mission is human connection and kindness through that portal of coffee. And then you have to make a decision, because the company must be kept intact. And the companies that will survive are the ones that preserve cash immediately. You want to make sure that we have a company to come back to. And the only way that you can make sure of that is you have to make some very, very difficult decisions.

At that time, we had 150 employees. I closed the service department. I closed the roasting operation in New York. I closed the roasting operation in LA. I had to meet with my account managers and say there is no one for you to go and train. And fortunately for us, because we've had such good financial hygiene, we were able to lay people off in a way that we could give them a little bit of a bridge until they were able to be taken care of. So, we were lucky that we were able to do that.

We have a smaller team now. We're a lot closer now, because we've been through things together, whether it be retail or wholesale. The omnichannel aspects of the business have completely flipped. It was always wholesale, retail, grocery, direct to consumer. Direct to consumer went to number one. And going forward, that's the way it'll always be now. We've never shut down the roastery. They've come to work, they put their masks on, and they stood six feet apart, we moved equipment around, and they trusted us. And the company that they helped us build, they were there for us.

image (2) Pictured: Helen and Caitlin McCarthy-Garcia at the roastery.

Priorities have shifted. We had this beautiful new headquarters with this incredible training lab and there's nobody there. So, it's been challenging. It's been humbling. I think everyone has learned a lot about themselves, and how they run a company, and they think about their people. We're working as hard as we can, as best as we can, but everything takes twice the amount of time. Because you're putting gloves on and you're wiping down tables. And try to really communicate to our customers to have patience and communicate to the team that we've got your back. So it's been humbling, is the word for it.

People are on edge, right? We're just trying to give them something else, because it just means everything to them. Because everything else is just so hard. So we're being very open and gracious with that surprise and delight. Give that child the little baby cappuccino. Give them a little bit of an extra thing of whipped cream. The Johnny Doughnuts with the sprinkles, save it for that young child that you know who loves it. So, it's been wonderful because it makes us feel good, [and] makes the customer feel good. So it's been something that we initiated to help us all sort of stop and remember. But it's not easy for anybody. This is not easy. That's been the biggest thing I think we've done is making sure they're okay."

We all need somebody to lean on

"I was on my bike and I went over the Golden Gate Bridge. And I am just racking my brain and like, what can we do? How can we keep going forward? And then all of a sudden, I was thinking about Chef Dominique Crenn and Tyler Florence. I came home and I called Chef Crenn. And I said, 'Look, we have a coffee that we put together for you. If we send you coffee to the house, we build out a product page, and you put it on Instagram, we will send dollars to whatever hospitality group you want.' They were just like, let's do it, Helen.

We have sent over $10,000 to Restaurants Care, because of Tyler Florence. We know the hospitality industry is getting pummeled. And we know that they have their own individual organizations. And it absolutely worked.

What I always tell my people is all I think about 24 hours a day, seven days a week is 'How do I sell more coffee?' Because if I can sell more coffee, I will be able to create a greater impact. It is that simple. Whatever we can do to continue to create opportunities to sell more coffee.

Listen: Helen reflects on the future of specialty coffee

And the future's bright. Owning your own company and having your own mission in life to create something, and coffee is the vehicle for that. Human connection and kindness through the portal of coffee. Whether you're at the farmer’s gate, or you're at the entrance to your roasting plant, or you're at the entrance to your retail store, it matters. Because that's a threshold that you will cross — that if you do it in a way of purpose, you will change yourself and the people around you. And that's the promise of specialty coffee. And that's why I welcome as many folks, young people, that can go out there and roast coffee. Let's do it!"