Equator Coffees And Teas Wins National Small-Business Award

By Janis Mara
The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  For women starting a business who need a little inspiration, look no further than small business owners Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell, the founders of Equator Coffees and Teas. As they put it, they built “something out of nothing.” Actually more than something, Equator is an award winning coffee and tea company that now has 350 wholesale customers, including the prestigious French Laundry.

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell of San Rafael-based Equator Coffees and Teas have added one more award to their already-bulging trophy chest. They’ve captured the California Small Business Person of the Year 2016 Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Russell and McDonnell will fly to Washington, D.C., on May 1 to receive the award at events and ceremonies marking Small Business Week and feting the honorees. The company also won the San Francisco SBA District Office’s Small Business of the Year 2016.

“This is an acknowledgement of all our hard work. Only in the United States can you start out with nothing and build something that people appreciate,” Russell said. “It reminds our customers they have made a good decision going with us.”

The company has 350 wholesale customers, including the prestigious French Laundry.

Equator also has cafés in Marin and San Francisco, a roastery and a bean-growing operation. Over the years, the company garnered honors including a 2012 Good Foods Award recognizing its commitment to environmental and social responsibility.

Now it is the first LGBT-owned business to get the state’s Small Business Person award.

Like many Bay Area entrepreneurs, Russell and McDonnell started their business in their garage. But unlike many Silicon Valley companies, they eschewed venture capital funding, turning instead to the Small Business Administration. The rest is history.

“On two occasions, we’ve been able to secure a SBA loan,” said Russell. “The first one we did in 2003 when we purchased our roasting facility.

“The building cost $1.1 million. It seemed impossible that we could buy it. We saved the down payment, which was 10 percent. We purchased the building with an SBA loan. Six years from now, we will own it,” Russell said.

The standard commercial real estate down payment is generally in the neighborhood of 30 or 35 percent.

Three years ago, the company got a $250,000 loan from the same agency to build out its café in the Proof Lab Surf Shop at Tam Junction.

“We consolidated that debt and paid it off. We got a good rate and a good loan from the SBA,” Russell said.

The 90-employee company had $5 million in revenue in 2010, $12 million in 2015 and a projected $15 million this year.

“All the years I have run this company, we have seen the best, the strongest companies,” said Jacklyn Jordan, president and chief executive of Capital Access Group in San Francisco. “Equator checked all the boxes in terms of what they are doing and what they are giving back to the community.”

Capital Access Group is an SBA 504 lender that partners with banks. The bank will loan the business 50 percent and Capital Access loans 40 percent at a below market rate. Capital Access recommended Equator for the small business award.

“They are a remarkable story on so many levels,” said Mark Quinn, district director for the San Francisco District of the Small Business Administration.

“They give back to the community and overseas. They have a location in (San Francisco’s) Tenderloin and they hire people who live in the Tenderloin to work in their café,” Quinn said.

Small businesses like Equator are one of the elements that make the Bay Area special, Quinn said.

“The fabric of the community is tied together by small businesses that have so much personality,” Quinn said. “Equator handcrafts its wares. It’s not a processed, manufactured thing. It’s tied to a genuine commitment to people.”

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