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Wheaton coffee company offers tasty brews, second chances

I Have a Bean Founder Pete Leonard (right) tests a freshly roasted batch of coffee beans with employee Rob Larson.
I Have a Bean Founder Pete Leonard (right) tests a freshly roasted batch of coffee beans with employee Rob Larson.

WHEATON – Among the rows of high end coffee in Whole Foods stores across the Chicago suburbs sits Wheaton’s own I Have a Bean coffee.

But instead of espousing its status as fair trade or organic, I Have a Bean has a different social justice angle: providing a place for former felons to get back on their feet.

Founder Pete Leonard said that what began as a backyard hobby after a mission trip to Brazil has turned into what Whole Foods sales representatives have told him is the store’s “fastest growing brand of not just coffee, but of any product they’ve had.”

Since opening Second Chance Coffee, the company behind I Have a Bean, in June 2009, Leonard had gone from selling his beans to neighbors to moving 3,000 pounds of his “top one percent,” roasted-to-order coffee a month. That includes expansion into Whole Foods stores around the Chicago area and a 70 percent growth year after year.

But just as important, he said, is the 25 former felons Second Chance has employed.

“Our brand is I Have a Bean, which ties right to the Martin Luther King Jr. dream speech,” he said. “Our dream is slightly different, but similar. Men and women won’t be pre-emptively judged by their past, but will instead be judged by the present content of their character.”

Leonard became interested in helping the ex-con population after his brother-in-law was imprisoned for a felony and had trouble finding a job.

“The resumes of post-prison people get put aside immediately if you check ‘yes’ on the part of the application asking about whether they’ve had a felony conviction,” he said.

Former felons also need resources to help correct the behaviors that led to their imprisonment, Leonard said.

So he and his partners built an easy-to-use and computer-controlled roaster – christened the Beanmaster 5000 – and began teaching ex-felons to use it.

One former employee, Louis Dooley, who was convicted of armed robbery and assault in the first degree, said that it was impossible to find work after serving nearly 16 years in prison.

“I had some job training in prison, and they told you, ‘When you check the [felony] box, don’t fill in the lines,’” he said. “Say that you will explain in the interview. If they like you already, there’s a chance they’ll look past it.”

But while Dooley landed a handful of interviews, his background kept him from finding employment.

“I really didn’t have any skills in the workplace. I had a high school degree. That’s about it,” he said. “But I Have a Bean had stability. It taught me to pay attention, to be responsible.”

Soon Dooley was giving out free samples at the Wheaton French Market and a local Whole Foods. The experience gave him the confidence to pursue his new job as a prison missionary and mentor.

“We can’t save people,” Leonard said. “We can give people an opportunity to work to show they’ve changed, they’re different. Working here doesn’t make you a better person – they get to do that on their own. But we’re willing to give them that chance.”

Second Chance Coffee is not a nonprofit. Leonard hopes to expand to 72 locations around the country and has two people on the ground in Denver and Milwaukee building support for roasteries.

His goal, like any other business, is to have a “nice big coffee roasting company making a lot of money.”

But Second Chance is more than that.

“We could never be big enough to have an impact on recidivism and employ all the people coming out of prison,” he said. “But our audacity has us believing that we aspire to produce the best product you can buy in its category and we’re letting people who society commonly views as lowest of the low produce the best of the best.”

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