Proof Lab, Our First Baby
WRITTEN BY: Helen Russell
My weekends don’t feel complete without a trip to our cafes. I hop on my bike and take the long way between our Marin stores. At each location, I stop for a drink, starting with espresso and switching to a decaf americano at the end of the ride. Thankfully we have some non-coffee options or I would be buzzing too fast to even stay on my bike. I’m always blown away by the hospitality of our team. They turn out tasty drinks quickly and serve them with a smile that keeps people coming back day after day. I spend time with friends at every cafe. Yes, I see friends at every cafe. These friends at the cafe are some of the best relationships in my life. People who started as regular customers then became acquaintances, are now an integral part of my community. Our cafes are neighborhood hubs and I always come away from a visit inspired by all that is happening around them. This is the power of coffee houses and why we keep opening more of them. In 2013 when we decided to open our first little cafe at Proof Lab we weren’t sure anyone would even come. It was a major business pivot for our nearly 20-year-old wholesale roastery. But Brooke and I are no strangers to pivoting business.
Brooke and I started our coffee journey by owning and operating coffee carts. It was a leap of faith to open our own business, especially in coffee. This was the early 90s and Peets and Starbucks were introducing the west coast to espresso. We were thrilled to be a part of this new scene. I loved being a barista and serving coffee directly to people. Knowing that in a small way I made their morning better. Brooke wanted more. We were doing the best we could with the coffee we were buying, but we didn’t have much information. This was the age of proprietary blends and no roaster was talking about where their coffee was coming from, there was never a mention of how much the farmers who grew the coffee were paid.
Brooke knew we could really make our mark on the industry if we took our knowledge as cafe owners/operators and paired that with excellent, ethically sourced coffee. So we sold our coffee cart locations and opened a coffee roasting business, Equator Coffees and Teas. It was frightening to change gears and start another new business, but we knew that we had the work ethic and know-how to make Equator a success.
Over the next 18 years we delivered on our early ideals. Sourcing our coffee through direct relationships and fair trade connections. We supported our wholesale clients, not only with excellent coffee, but with top-notch equipment and training. Our relationships were key to our success. Growing slow and steady over the years we hardly lost a single customer. Until we lost the big one.
Our single largest wholesale account was purchased by Starbucks. Overnight we lost over 14% of our revenue. As scary as it was, Brooke knew it was time to pivot again. We needed to get back into retail. We had to open stores to build the brand in what was now a very competitive environment with the arrival of co roasting spaces. The barriers to entry dropped dramatically. If you had a dream of roasting you did not have to have $150K to start a Roastery, it was all figured out for you, you just needed to pay for time on a machine and you were in business.
I wasn’t initially excited about the idea of retail. We were no longer women in our 30s who could open a cafe at 6 am and stay up until midnight prepping for the next day. I still love making coffee for people, but I’d rather be selling coffee in bulk to owner-operators. I wanted to talk about business strategy, not daily pasty orders. Luckily we had an incredible team of next-generation third wave coffee professionals ready to take the helm of our retail operation. To open a successful cafe in the new climate of the bay area we had embrace a new way of making coffee. The landscape of Bay Area coffee had come along way since my days of making giant mochas in the 90s. Where there used to be a handful of cafes, now there were hundreds. We knew our cafe had to be special, offering everything from award-winning beans brewed as pour-over for $15 a cup to the best homemade caramel for lattes. We envisioned a vibrant community space where coffee lovers and casual drinkers would all feel welcome. Hospitality and love of our guests had to be at the center of cafe culture.
Our relationship with Proof Lab, the iconic local surf shop on the highway leading to Stinson Beach, came about when they wanted to offer coffee to their customers in their store. We approached talking with them like any other potential wholesale client but were blown away by their attention to community and commitment to excellence. I remember when Will Hutchinson, Proof Lab Co founder said to me, “I have always wanted to open a coffee shop here at Proof, but I don’t drink coffee?” In a split second I responded, “Will, you don’t drink coffee and I don’t surf, let’s do this”. Over many months and countless meetings, we talked about ways to collaborate. This chance to partner with a local business with similar values was the opportunity I did know we were even looking for. We finally settled on the out of the box idea of us renting half of their smallest building and installing a tiny coffee cart. There was a chance to complement the incredible community space already active at the surf shop. This was it! We went full circle and were jumping back into retail. With a cart, no less.
While it was true that Brooke and I didn’t have to open the cafe every day at 6am, we couldn’t stay away. Our little cafe became the new heart of our business and took us to the next level.. We reached so many people directly and I spent every spare moment there. Wiping tables, handing out coffees, and making new friends. As our retail presence has grown it’s actually generated new wholesale clients, supporting our historic business model. This little cafe, on the wrong side of the road for commuters, launched the new phase of Equator. Quickly we opened more stores, growing our community and reach. Introducing the new generation of coffee drinkers to our years of expertise.
In these uncertain times, many businesses are looking at how to pivot. Trying new innovative ways to reach their customers and communities where they are. With every change comes the fear of the unknown. It can be the hardest thing for entrepreneurs and business owners to let go of something that is working to try the next thing. Speaking from experience, I can say that with hard work, grit and luck, and taking that chance can lead to success for your business. And if you are lucky, you will make many friends along the way.