Over the past few years, the North Bay’s Equator Coffees & Teas has quietly expanded south to San Francisco, opening shops on Market, in Fort Mason, and SOMA. It has been—as much as the opening of anything in San Francisco can be—a quiet expansion: the enduring popularity and consistency of the brand have ensured each new location’s success. And with the company opening its first Oakland location—a stone’s throw from Lake Merritt—in October 2017, the expansion quietly continues. But as Equator grows, the low-key opening of more and more shops each year seems a strategy, a community-based way of doing things that allows the beloved company to ease its way into new markets, such as Oakland and whatever comes next.
The new Oakland cafe is located inside a bright-red converted storage container (designed by Urban Bloc), which shares a small outdoor seating area with a CrossFit gym and Urban Remedy, a hip natural-food spot: a wooden table cuts down the middle, a row of succulents embedded in its center. Parents with strollers, joggers fresh from the lake, and commuters getting ready to commute sit on red stools sipping drinks. It already feels like an established spot, a part of the local community.
Akaash Saini, Equator’s aptly titled community engagement manager, not only understands this, he prides himself on it. “At the end of the day, we want to create community spaces,” he says over a cup of Equator-branded Sudden instant coffee. “We want our shops to feel like extensions of our customer’s living room.” And though he admits this is easier in their Marin locations—where larger community events can easily play into the biking culture of Larkspur or the surf community of the Tam Junction area—he sees possibilities in the thriving community around Lake Merritt. “We want the Lake Merritt joggers and striders,“ he says. “There’s the CrossFit gym and a senior citizen center right next door. They’re our neighbors and we want to be good neighbors.”
Beyond that, Saini, who lives up the block from the shop, has engaged with Equator’s sponsored semipro cycling teams. “A lot of them live in this area, and they came to me and said, ‘Can we just have a place to hang out?’ ” And this—engaging each individual community’s needs and wants—is what Saini and Equator are all about. “We want to know what our community wants,” he says. “And we find this out by talking to our customers, getting to know them. We want to engage people without selling to them.”
Which is exactly what Equator will continue to do. This year, Saini hopes to gain a better understanding of the Lake Merritt community, to heighten the interaction and engagement with current customers and new ones alike. Equator will continue to expand into new stores and markets, including a collaboration with Sudden and a prepackaged cold-brew line. But wherever the next expansion may take them, Equator will proceed with the community in mind.
Photos courtesy of Akaash Saini