At Jails to Jobs we’re always on the lookout for employers who are ex-offender friendly, but it’s rare to find a company established with the express purpose of hiring them. During a search through the Twitterverse looking for like-minded people to follow, we discovered Second Chance Coffee Co. of Wheaton, Ill, a company whose mission is just that.
It all began in 2005 when Pete Leonard, one of the company’s founders and current CEO and roast master, led a mission trip to Brazil to help build a church. There he discovered the best coffee he had ever experience. Inspired by the fact that the farmer who grew it was able to make such incredible coffee by roasting the beans over an open fire using rudimentary equipment, Leonard decided to teach himself how to roast coffee on his Weber gill.
At about the same time, his brother-in-law was arrested and imprisoned and upon release couldn’t find a job. That, along with getting to know a volunteer at a Chicago halfway house, and a desire to expand his coffee roasting business compelled Leonard to create Second Chance Coffee Co.
In 2007, Leonard and his partners incorporated, rehabbed a commercial building into a micro-roasting plant and designed a software-controlled coffee-roasting machine to create coffee with exceptional quality sold under the “I Have a Bean” brand. “It usually takes two years to learn how to roast coffee,” Leonard says. “It only takes 30 minutes to learn how to operate our machines, but it will still take two years to learn all that’s going on behind the scenes. People can learn the fundamentals but produce perfect coffee the first time they roast it.”
With the facility in place, he began to hire what he calls “post-prison” people through his partner’s halfway house connection. All of his employees are ex-offenders. In fact that is a requirement of the job. “We look at people’s references and at FBI background checks to make sure they’ve been in prison,” he says. “In this economy all kinds of people are looking for work. Some of them apply who haven’t been in prison. They need to check that box.
They also need to be part of – or a graduate of – a post-prison program, which could be anything from AA to drug rehab or any of the available city or state post-prison programs.
From the 35 post-prison employees who have worked at Second Chance Coffee Co. over the past few years, a few stand out. “Our very first roaster, Jim, a former drug dealer in Chicago who was in prison for 19 years, now has a family and is working for a large utility company, making $85,000 per year managing mechanics,” Leonard says.
Another employee, John, is a part owner of the company. “He has done an enormous amount of work for us. He’d been a six-figure white-collar earner but worked for us for a number of months for free. His contribution was far in excess of what we’ve been able to pay him, so we gave him part of the company,” he adds.
And we can’t forget the coffee itself. I Have a Bean is now at 11 Whole Foods Markets in the Chicago area and was the No. 1 selling coffee – out of 90 different types – at the four stores where it first was sold. Most sales come from the company website, however, with the coffee roasted to order and shipped out that day.
The formula must work. Second Chance has doubled its business every year and is expecting continued growth. To handle that growth, Leonard plans to create 50 plants across the nation. “Organizations dealing with post-prisoners are begging us to open roasting plants in their communities,” he says.
Based on his calculation, Leonard says that if each roasting plant hires 21 full-time and another 20-part-time employees, he’ll be the biggest post-prison employer in the world. “We want to be an example to every other company that they can take a risk and employ those people who have checked the box. There doesn’t have to be any difference in quality if employees have been in prison or not.”
For more information or to order some Ethiopia Harrar, Colombia Antioquia Don Rigo Estate, Mexico Ojo de Aqua Decaf or other coffee visit www.ihaveabean.com.
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