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Roasting High-Quality Coffee and Serving the Post-Prison Population with Pete Leonard.

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Karen Stoychoff

In this season 1 episode of Back of the Napkin, Pete Leonard, owner of I Have A Bean Coffee Co in Wheaton, IL, shares how a trip to Brazil and a smoke-filled backyard started an obsession for roasting coffee, and how a personal experience changed his perspective on the post-prison population.

BOTN S2E6 Recap - Pete Leonard Hiring Post Prison People and Serving High Quality Coffee with Pete Leonard

Pete Leonard loves a good Cup of Joe, and his definition of coffee has evolved over time. “It was what we now call a frou-frou drink, which in my case was a mocha,” said Leonard. “Some espresso, a little chocolate and a lot of hot milk. It's a wonderful drink, and that's all I was doing. Until this trip to Brazil.”

Leonard traveled to Brazil in the mid-2000s. Unlike his domestic frou-frou, Brazilian coffee was freshly roasted and served black, a tantalizing taste he described as “delicious.” Leonard returned to the U.S. and set out to match the robust, satisfying flavor of his favorite Brazilian brew. Instead, all he sipped was coffee he described as “yuck.”

A Smoke-Filled Backyard Fills His Cup.

After some cursory research, Leonard decided to try his hand at roasting beans on his backyard grill. “I went in for a glass of water. I looked out the back door, and there is thick, black smoke rolling over my backyard. It was like a smoke bomb went off; the beans were on fire inside my grill,” said Leonard. The initial experiments weren’t successful, but that didn’t stop Leonard.

Fast-forward through mastering the nuances of the dark-roasting process – “you can change any five seconds in that 15 minutes, and it changes what the coffee tastes like” – and Leonard ultimately landed on a roasting process that resulted in a cup of coffee that delighted friends and neighbors.

Although he loved experimenting with the roasting process, coffee was just a side gig. Leonard’s “real job” was in tech, providing software solutions to companies. But tech, taste, and an unfortunate turn of events for a family member triggered a life change for Leonard.

“Now, It’s Somebody I Care About.”

Leonard won a contract to provide software solutions for a Swiss company. His brother-in-law had the perfect skill set to fulfill the deal, but he had another job. Then, he was arrested, convicted, and served time in prison. The plight of his brother-in-law exposed Leonard to a part of society he had never encountered. “It's not like I'm walking around everyday thinking, ‘those poor people who have gotten out of prison, they should have thought about that before they did the crime,’” said Leonard. “Now, it's somebody I care about. That is what changed everything about my perception of post-prison people.”

Working with a local post-prison reentry program, Koinonia House National Ministries, Leonard learned that employment is a significant issue for convicts, with limited opportunities for people who successfully serve their time.

An Idea Percolates.  

While Leonard learned about issues facing the post-prison population, he began drafting a business plan for a coffee roasting company that combined high quality beans and speed to market. “It turns out, having coffee beans rated in the top 1% is as good as it gets,” said Leonard. “Nobody in this business back in 2007 was saying anything about coffee bean quality being nearly that high.”

Leonard determined that getting speed to market would differentiate his beans from the competition. “We thought, ‘How do we create a business that roasts top quality coffee and gets it out the door the same day,’” said Leonard. “And more than that, into a customer's hand the same day they ordered it?"

Several iterations later, Leonard launched I Have a Bean Coffee Co. Through the relationship with Koinonia House, he was able to address, in his community, his passion for helping post-prison people. Parole officers and judges started referring their parolees to Leonard. “It's pastors, it's small group leaders, it's grandmothers, you name it, newspaper articles when they come out about us,” said Leonard.  “They know somebody who is in that situation. Maybe they should go talk to somebody at I Have a Bean and see if they can get a job."

Giving and Getting a Second Chance.

In Cook County, IL, and the surrounding collar counties, more than 20,000 men and women are released from prison every year. Illinois has the second highest recidivism rate in the country at more than 50%. It can be a never-ending cycle for people released from prison.

Leonard has employed more than 60 post-prison people over the past 10 years, and only two have ended up returning to prison. But he doesn’t think he has broken some secret code. “There's no magic here,” said Leonard. “These are people that want nothing to do with that previous life, and all I'm doing is giving them an opportunity to work and expecting them to be great at what they do.”

A Mission Devoted to Success, Growth and Change.

Soon after he launched I Have a Bean, Leonard realized he needed to create a coffee roasting machine that controlled the roasting process to maintain the quality he wanted. “It took me two years, but I designed and built a brand new commercial-scale coffee roasting system that is software-controlled, allowing for perfect repetition in roasting coffee in an unprecedented level of control,” said Leonard. “To this day, no machine exists like what we created. That's really the key ingredient to let us do what we're doing.”

With control over the roasting process, Leonard plans to expand beyond his current footprint of one roasting plant and a few cafes. After all, he says, people are released from prison every day in communities across the country and people drink coffee in every community across this country, too. They could use a local high-quality roaster with a strong social mission.

“It looks like the first one (roasting plant) is going to be in Memphis, likely in 2021,” said Leonard. “Who knows where it's going to go from there, but I expect, no, I plan to open 72 roasting plants across the country.”

These days, Leonard wakes up in the morning, usually before the alarm, and thinks about two things –

what wonderful coffees he will get to drink today, and whose lives he will impact. “I see people's lives transformed,” said Leonard. “People change. Post-prison people change, become better people and they go on to do some fantastic things.”

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