A Fine Cup O' Joesphine
In today’s world, women have made their mark in almost every industry you can name. Yet according to statistics from national business associations, certain bastions of male hegemony remain. Rates of female ownership and/or significant participation are perpetually and disproportionately low in freight transportation, sewerage engineering and steel manufacturing, just to name a few.
Oh, and here’s one more: coffee roasting.
As many women as we see opening cafés or expertly pulling espresso at the bar these days, they have been slow to take the helm in the procuring of green coffee beans and the roasting and distributing of coffee under their own labels. In fact, in my research for this story I could only track down about a dozen female coffee purveyors and roasters in the entire United States.
Here in Marin County, however, two women-owned businesses are doing their part to change that industry ratio. One, San Rafael’s Equator Coffee, has been roasting and distributing high-end specialty coffee for 17 years. The other, Two Girl Coffee in Sausalito, is just getting off the starting blocks, raring to fire up their gorgeous new Giesen roaster and bring their refined and playful feminine touch to locals’ cups.
A healthy home has a distinct mood. When you walk through the door it is almost palpable: the relaxed, effortless feeling in the air, the sense that individuals are going about their own business while operating as part of a thriving larger whole that really works. This is clearly the mood that greets you at the Equator Coffee headquarters, comprised of several business offices and a roasting and processing warehouse tucked into an industrial district in San Rafael (look for the black Bengal tiger silhouette painted on the ruby red wall). Equator is one of the most widely respected specialty coffee purveyors in the highly competitive elite food world, yet, like most successful households, they make it look easy.
Met at the front door by co-founder Helen Russell and vice president Maureen McHugh, I immediately feel that welcoming matriarchal energy—a balance of efficiency and decorum, tempered by a nice dose of nurturing. Russell and McHugh invite me to the table in their stylish tasting room and, as Russell puts a few cups in the dishwasher, McHugh asks me what I would like to try from their espresso bar.
As I consider what I might be in the mood for, in walks Sam Brown, a young bespectacled barista complete with requisite tattoos and nose ring. “Sam is the best of the best,” Russell tells me, sounding like a proud mama introducing me to an especially high-functioning and creative son. She brags about his advanced levels of certification and reveals that Equator is going to open a (rare) retail outlet at Proof Lab surf shop in Mill Valley in the coming months. It will be Brown captaining the coffee bar at Proof Lab, she boasts, and then adds confidently, “And, I promise he will make you the perfect cup of espresso.” [Editor’s note: You can also now enjoy espresso drinks made with Equator Coffee at Beth’s Community Bakery in downtown Mill Valley.]
I choose a cappuccino, but immediately regret the addition of milk as I taste Sam’s offering. Light and rich, sweet and strong all at once, the coffee flavors are divine.
“What is this, I ask?”
“That is our new proprietary Jaguar Blend,” Russell explains. “A mix of Brazil, for body and richness; Ethiopia, for sweetness and also body; and Nicaragua, to lighten it up. There’s not one particular flavor note. It is a lot of layers.”
Brown and Russell chat for a moment about how he “dialed in” the machine. When I ask for a translation Brown explains, “I am simply adjusting the dose of the coffee and the grind of the coffee. It is the combo of the grind and the dose makes for that nice, easy flow.”
Indeed, everything about the coffee is nice and easy. As I sip I understand why luminary chef and noted perfectionist Thomas Keller chose to work solely with Equator Coffee to create specialty blends for his restaurants and bakeries (French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Per Se and Bouchon).
“Often, coffee is an afterthought,” McHugh tells me. “An understanding of coffee still has not trickled down in the restaurant industry, even at some of the best restaurants. But with Keller, you’re at the top. He is always wanting to make sure that everything, from the very beginning to the very end of the meal, is exactly right.”
The tale of Equator Coffee began almost two decades ago when co-founders Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell met and discovered they shared a passion for coffee. Both women hailed from the East Coast, but had traveled the world and spent time in the Northwest as the specialty coffee craze took root. In San Francisco they were enchanted by the North Beach café scene and decided to open their own coffee bars. It wasn’t long before they realized that if they wanted to offer the finest coffee available they would need to step further into the business in order to have control of their product from farm to cup. Their individual talents and experience complemented each other’s perfectly as McDonnell, Equator’s master roaster, has a finely tuned palate and artist’s attention to flavor detail, while Russell is a strategist and marketer who instinctively holds the big picture of business. With the same finesse they used to blend their coffee, they added one more element to their executive team with McHugh. The three have grown Equator’s business 10%–20% almost every year for the past 12 years and are now a preferred coffee of not only Keller but other Bay Area premier chefs, restaurants and independent specialty grocers, including Traci Des Jardins (Jardinière), Elizabeth Faulkner (Citizen Cake), La Boulange, Arizmendi Bakery, Whole Foods Markets, Bi-Rite Market, Berkeley Bowl, Woodlands Market and Rainbow Grocery.
In the early years Russell and McDonnell travelled the world—South and Central America, Africa and Asia—to discover and bring home coffee beans that met their standards. They wanted to see for themselves what was happening on the farms, to personally understand growing methods, the nature of the soil and the treatment of workers.
From the outset their quality standards included not only taste but, even before coffee consumers began to look for environmental and social certifications, Russell and McDonnell sought relationships with farms based on quality, sustainability and social responsibility. Russell explains that as “artisanal” roasters producing small-batch coffees, they always understood the potential to develop mutually beneficial relationships with growers, and also that those relationships should be based not only on the exceptional quality of the beans, but on the environmental stewardship and labor practices of the farms, as well.
This philosophy led Equator to start a micro-loan program for small-batch farmers around the world and, more recently, to establish close relationships with a coffee cooperative in Rwanda. In typical “hands-on” Equator fashion, in 2007 they, along with Willem Boot, a coffee expert living in Mill Valley, established Finca Sofia on a high-elevation property in the rich Volcan region of Panama. Over the past five years they have planted 30,000 highly coveted Esmeralda Geisha coffee trees at Finca Sofia, which will come to fruition for the first time this year.
But it is not only the thriving trees at Finca Sofia that Russell and McHugh are excited to talk about. Russell pulls up a screen and shares images of new employee housing they have constructed for the families who work on the farm. In one photo a young girl sits on a white horse whose name,
I am told, is Barista. When I ask about the girl, Russell tells me her name is Angelica, and she is a daughter of a farm employee. Angelica could not attend school when they first met her, due to a deformation of her leg. The Equator team brought Angelica to Florida where she was operated on and fitted for a prosthetic. “Now, for the first time, she can go to school!” Russell says. Clearly, for the women of Equator the significance and beauty of Finca Sofia goes far beyond coffee production.
Eventually Russell and I get back to talking about coffee. We tour the roasting facility, taking in the floral and berry and chocolaty scents of coffee beans sourced from around the world, and I meet more of the Equator gang: roasters Dan Piaggi and Mike Hale; Ted Stachura, the assistant director of coffee; and Louie Poore, manager of specialty sales. Each member of this team has a lot to teach me about coffee production, and each is as energetic as the next. I am struck by how much each one seems to care about his or her job.
“We have always wanted Equator to be a place that takes care of our employees. We pay premium wages, full health insurance and contribute to 401(k)s. But we also are always looking for ways that we can elevate young people in their careers, and give them options for specialty careers, opportunities to move to a higher level,” says Russell, as we look over the busy scene. “We want everyone involved in our business to be able to move to a higher level. We always had the feeling that this way of doing things—focusing on our employees and quality and sustainability on all the different levels—would work. And we’ve been lucky enough to be in this business for 17 years ... so it has worked!”
There she goes again, sounding like a proud mama.
Two Girl Coffee, Sausalito
I’m going to come right out and say it: The new fire engine red Giesen coffee roaster at Cibo in Sausalito is sexy. There’s no denying it, this roaster is shiny and gorgeous, like a 1966 Shelby Mustang. Exactly the kind of machine lovely women should be operating. And they are! Cibo owner and chef Tera Ancona and head barista Olja Goolsby are the duo responsible for bringing this work-of-art roaster from Holland to California and placing it artfully and prominently front and center in Cibo’s cement-floored, pane-glass annex.
And Ancona and Goolsby have big plans for their new toy. Cibo, the highly popular Sausalito-meets-Italy inspired destination for gourmet coffee, pastries and farm-to-table nosh, has proudly served San Francisco’s Blue Bottle coffee since it opened in 2009, but soon fans will be able to enjoy coffee drinks made with Ancona and Goolsby’s Two Girl label specialty coffee—freshly roasted just next door!
“Two Girl coffee is about us,” says Ancona, who has taken a moment’s break from her bustling kitchen to show me the gorgeous new roaster. “It is the two of us taking the process from the very beginning with green coffee, all the way to the finishing product, the fully expressed cup of coffee. Now we can stand in front of that cup and say, ‘This is our product. Enjoy!’”
“Yes,” agrees Goolsby, who has also taken a moment’s break from her bustling Cibo coffee bar. “It was time.”
The two women, both veterans in the restaurant and specialty food and beverage world, bounce energy, excitement and ideas off each other like recent college grads talking about their first real jobs. The mood is infectious.
“You have to be a good coffee drinker,” says Goolsby. “We are both very dedicated coffee drinkers. And now we are very dedicated to the craft of producing coffee. We both put a lot of thought into it.” Thought, and time and courses and roasting experimentation and cuppings and tastings, all of which they’ve been doing nonstop over the course of the past few years.
Ancona and Goolsby come from far reaches of the globe, but both have very positive associations with coffee from their childhoods. Ancona grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, where coffee was a beverage that brought genuine comfort in the dark, below-freezing winters. Goolsby grew up in Sarajevo and has strong memories of her father roasting green coffee in their oven, filling her home with the delicious aroma of roasting beans. The smell of the roasting beans drew neighbors to come and drink the coffee with her father. It was Olja who got to be in charge of dolling out the sugar cubes.
“Many times I have thought to myself that I might just throw some beans in my oven here,” she laughs. Now, with a beautiful six-kilo roaster at her fingertips, she won’t have to do that.
“Everything about our coffee will be girly,” says Goolsby. “The name, Two Girl. Our roaster is in open view so you can watch girls roasting the coffee, then watch us making the coffee for you at the bar. We even put a girly heart in your espresso,” she adds mischievously, referring to the lovely foam art that is part of the Cibo experience.
Indeed, there is a girly playfulness to the way Ancona and Goolsby approach their business. They are in the process of deciding on names for each of their varietals, but they will all be women’s names, of course, like Mary and Joy.
“There is a lot of seriousness about coffee these days, “ says Ancona. “We are keeping things playful and fun.” She is sounding awfully cheerful for someone who gets up at 3am every morning and has not had a day off in 40 days. “We just feel so lucky to be doing this, it doesn’t feel like work. We are happy! And we know you transfer how you feel and your energy right into your product.”
If that is true, and I think that it surely is, the lift you get from drinking coffee produced by the ladies at Equator and Two Girl is not just from the caffeine!