They're certainly not resting on their laurels.
In fact, while Russell and McDonnell ran their wholesale coffee business for nearly 20 years before deciding to dive into the retail world by opening their first two cafes in Mill Valley in 2013 and 2014, they're now dramatically expanding their brand again by making a giant leap into the food business.
To do so, Equator has hired Jennifer Bushman, a renowned, James Beard Award-nominated chef, author, TV producer/star and food industry consultant to head up Equator Cater and Equator Pantry, a pair of new divisions that seek to make their mark on the food business – namely, their event catering and food programs, respectively.
And although she was only started with Equator in mid-March, Bushman has already made major strides, catering 25 events in a single month at LinkedIn’s new office in downtown San Francisco and partnering with a host of Mill Valley- and Marin-based businesses.
“Equator does coffee better than anyone,” Bushman says. “In what is the third wave of coffee culture, food has been a bit of an afterthought. We want to change that.”
Russell and McDonnell hired Bushman nearly one year after the most serendipitous of home purchases. Bushman has lived near downtown Mill Valley for three years, and though they didn’t know each other previously, Russell and McDonnell, partners in life and in business, moved in next door a year ago.
“Over the course of many, many dinner parties and discussions – it was the longest, most fun job interview I’ve ever had – we decided to make this leap together,” Bushman says. “I’ve been involved with the food community for most of my life, and this is an amazing opportunity for me to be part of a company that has built a brand that I’m honored to be a part of.”
The vastly expanded food and drink program has two components: a much broader food menu at the cafes to stretch well beyond the morning cup of joe, including a wine bar and savory bites throughout the day, as well as significant “grab ‘n go” program designed to appeal to those looking for more than a pastry as they head out with their coffee for the day. For the latter, Equator is expanding on its partnerships with Mill Valley resident Neka Pasquale’s Urban Remedy, which will provide an array of grab ‘ n go salads, as well as MH Bread & Butter, which will continue to provide pastries and will add a number of sandwiches, including roasted butternut squash with fresh mozzarella and broccoli rabe pesto and roasted chicken and roasted red bell pepper.
Rustic Bakery, which opened its own commercial kitchen facility in Petaluma and thus significantly increased its output, is now making quiches for all Equator cafes and providing bread and crackers for many of its to-go items.
While Bushman is on the hunt for those strategic partnerships, she’s also overseeing Equator’s efforts to produce its own food – think to-go frittata breakfast sandwiches, hummus & cheese cups and using the kitchen in the back of the Honeymoon Ice Cream shop further down the block on Miller Avenue. The kitchen was built in 2011 when Beth’s Community Kitchen opened there before moving to Bolinas in 2015.
The Equator Pantry also seeks to transform the cafes throughout the day, offering many of the aforementioned items on the eat-in menu and much more. Starting May 9, that food will complement a vastly expanded selection of wine at the 2 Miller and Larkspur cafes in the hopes of giving people a place to grab a glass of wine on their way to dinner.
“We want to see the arc of the cafe change through the course of each day,” Bushman says.
Bushman says Equator’s event catering has been an unexpected, hugely successful rollercoaster ride. Given their work at the new LinkedIn building, they partnered with Bon Appetit Management Company, which operates more than 500 cafes across the country, including at offices for tech heavyweights like LinkedIn, Google, Adobe and Uber, among others, as well restaurants at nearly 100 universities and museums. Because Bon Appetit has been so busy running the huge restaurant/cafe on two floors at the new LinkedIn space, they called on Equator to cater myriad events in the building.
The move has put Equator Cater in the rare air of generating revenue immediately for a nascent division.
“We monetized a new division in Equator Cater that wasn’t even fully formed yet,” she says. “It evolved very quickly. The Equator name brand opens a lot of doors now.”
In doing so, Equator has called on its Mill Valley neighbors – Mill Valley Market’s catering department for its array of salads, and Prabh Indian Kitchen for its naan bread – to create parts of those event meals. “It’s incredible to be able to source products from places within eyesight,” Bushman says at the 2 Miller cafe. “We’re leveraging every partner we can find in Mill Valley.”
Bushman, who has run her own consulting business for years, written five cookbooks and was the producer and star of the Nothing To It! gourmet TV news segments. For her television work, she was nominated for the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the IACP/Julia Child Electronic Media Award and the James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Award.
Her latest role “has already evolved multiple times in less than three months,” she says with a laugh. “It’s been so exciting. And Helen and Brooke are like family.”
“For many years, wholesale was the robust driver of the Equator business,” Bushman adds. “And the thinking with the new cafes has been that retail would then drive the wholesale growth, and that has happened. And now we hope that Equator Pantry and Equator Cater will drive that retail growth even more.”
The 411: More info on Equator Coffees & Teas.