Pete Leonard’s idea of artisan coffee used to be a fancy mocha latte with whipped cream. Now, as the founder of I Have a Bean Coffee, he (along with many of his customers) drinks his coffee black. I Have a Bean is a coffee roastery in Wheaton, Illinois and an online store at ihaveabean.com that combines passion with purpose.
I Have Bean is the official coffee of The Global Leadership Summit 2015. The company roasts coffee from the top one percent of coffee in the world and in the process, serves what many consider to be in the bottom one percent of society—felons who have been released from prison and are trying to find a way back into society.
I Have a Bean roasts and distributes truly exceptional coffee, and helps transform the lives of post-prison people in the process. With that work comes a dream—that men and women will no longer be preemptively judged by the errors of their past, but will be known instead by the present evidence of the content of their character.
The company began in 2007 as Second Chance Coffee Company, intent on using every part of the business to “love our neighbor as ourselves” and to positively impact the spiritual, social and economic condition of its employees, their families and the communities in which they live. The company opened its doors and began roasting beans in 2009.
But I Have a Bean started long before 2007.
WCA sat down with Pete to learn more about his story—and about I Have a Bean.
WCA: There are a lot of coffee drinkers out there—and most can remember their introduction to the brew. What fueled your love for coffee?
Pete Leonard (PL): My first taste of coffee came in the basement of a church when I was 12 years old. The smile on my face caused unexpected dismay on my mother’s. That drink was more milk and sugar than coffee, but I remember how much I liked it. It was a natural progression from that to the milk/chocolate/espresso combination called a mocha latte that I was drinking years later. Then on a mission trip to Brazil in 2005, I was introduced to high-quality coffee roasted from freshly harvested coffee beans over an open fire. That was a taste epiphany! I think I brought 10 kilos (22 lbs.) of roasted coffee beans home to give as gifts—and I drank 8 of them myself. I was hooked.
WCA: What happened when you ran out?
PL: I bought a cup of coffee from the local outlet of a large international chain, took a drink and well, I couldn’t spit it out fast enough. It was horrible. So different from the coffee I was introduced to in Brazil! So I built a roaster that ran in my gas grill—and then spent Saturday after Saturday practicing the art of roasting coffee…at least as much as I could do on my grill!
WCA: How did you go from roasting your own beans to selling them?
PL: I had no plans to sell coffee. As far as I was concerned, I was only trying to produce something I would personally enjoy. One of my neighbors was a missionary kid who had lived in Kenya when his parents were missionaries there, so he knew a thing or two about good coffee. I asked him if he would try my roasted coffee beans and he agreed on the condition I use beans from Kenya. He promised to give me his honest opinion. He offered suggestions—many, many suggestions—and as a result, my coffee got better and better. One Saturday I walked across the street with a bag of roasted beans and his wife said she couldn’t take them.
PL: She emphasized the word “take” and said mine was the only coffee her family had been drinking for the last three months. They knew it cost me money and they didn’t want me to stop. She insisted on buying the coffee, and while I wasn’t looking to make a sale, that was my first one. Before long, other neighbors, friends and people at church were placing orders.
WCA: That explains how you got started with coffee. How did you get involved in helping former prisoners?
PL: I used to think people who broke the law and went to jail/prison were just “bad people.” Then a relative of mine, who is a brilliant mathematician and computer programmer, got into some trouble. He was arrested, convicted, sentenced and sent to prison. I realize now that God was leading me to pay attention to what was happening. Watching what my relative went through is the thing that woke me up. I saw the impact prison had on him, his family and on his community. And God seemed to want me to do something to help. That’s how Second Chance Coffee Company got started.
WCA: How did you go from Second Chance Coffee Company to I Have a Bean?
PL: The name “Second Chance Coffee” works great, if you know our social mission. If you just encounter the name out of the blue, it sounds like the coffee is “second best” or we’re re-roasting coffee that wasn’t quite good enough the first time. So we rebranded to I Have a Bean. And our dream is that men and women will no longer be preemptively judged by the errors of their past, but will be known instead by the present evidence of the content of their character. I think that applies to all of us, not just felons.
WCA: Watching what happened to your relative drew you into the needs of people who are post-prison. What steps did you take to make a difference?
PL: A friend at church introduced me to the work Koinonia House was doing. In Chicago, roughly 20,000 men and women are released from prison every year. In the U.S., it’s somewhere around 700,000 or more. When we founded in 2007, I think the recidivism rate in Illinois was over 60 percent! One of the biggest problems people coming out of prison have is finding employment.
WCA: And you saw a way to build a business around a social mission to help those coming out of prison.
PL: It took a while, but yes. We thought “if they can’t find an employer, what if they employed themselves?” We thought we could make that happen if we built a grill roaster and taught them how to roast coffee and all the other skills they’d need to run their own roasting business. Writing our own business plan revealed a significant problem in our thinking: It takes two years to learn to roast coffee. The re-entry program for post-prisoners at places like Koinonia House is short term—about 15 months, then they need to move on in order for the house to accommodate more residents. We’d essentially always be training and never able to produce a consistently great product.
We either needed a different business or we needed to solve the problem of taking two years to learn to roast coffee. At that point, we had to get really serious about whether we were willing to help these guys. So we decided to invent a new kind of coffee roaster—Bean Master 5000. Before I Have a Bean, I owned a software company and I knew the right software could ensure consistency in the roasting process. Software controls every element of the roasting process in Bean Master 5000, so it does not require two years, or even two days to learn to roast coffee. It takes 20 minutes.
WCA: Is I Have a Bean a ministry?
PL: No. We’re not a ministry or a social program. We are a business. I Have a Bean is committed to producing a high quality, marketable coffee that people will buy again and again. We did NOT want to sell coffee that people bought out of guilt. People won’t become repeat customers if the coffee is bad.
WCA: How has hiring post-prison people worked for the company?
PL: Since we started, we’ve hired 29 felons, many of whom have moved on to other great opportunities, and there have been a couple who have not been successes. I think two have returned to prison. When we hire someone, we set the bar where it would be if they were not a felon; we expect them to be dependable, show up on time and work to the best of their ability. They are able to take pride in the production of an outstanding product, and to show the world that a felony conviction does not preclude excellence. We give them every opportunity to learn what life can be like.
WCA: How much coffee do you roast each year? And how does it compare to the larger coffee companies?
PL: I like to say that compared to the big companies, we are smaller than a pimple on the hair of the flea of the dog that sits under the elephant—the elephant being all the coffee in the world. To compare numbers, I Have a Bean currently roasts three to four thousand pounds of coffee each month, which is about 45,000 pounds/year. The big international chain where I used to buy the mocha lattes that I thought were the definition of great coffee does about 1.5 million pounds every 10 days.
As big as that is, it’s still only a fraction of the coffee market. Approximately 85 percent of the coffee consumed in the U.S. is brewed at home. That’s the market we’re going after.
WCA: I Have a Bean is the Official Coffee of The Global Leadership Summit 2015.
PL: We’re very excited to be at The Global Leadership Summit in South Barrington, serving coffee from 12 different stations throughout the facility. We’ll have banners up at each location with a photo of one of our employees who will be right there to talk with Summit attendees in person. The person on the banner will (as often as possible), be the person who is at the serving station. We hope this will emphasize that our mission impacts the lives of people local to the community.
WCA: How do you stay faithful to your mission while growing your business?
PL: We’re only responsible do to what God has asked us to do. God is responsible for the end result. We’re the workers in the field, and we don’t cause the growth.
We stay focused on doing the right thing—doing what God is calling us to do. I Have a Bean is our fulfillment of the greatest commandment—it’s our evidence of loving our neighbors.
The Scripture verse that shapes our company is Colossians 3:23: Whatever you do, do it as working for the Lord and not for man. I Have a Bean wants to produce coffee that we would be delighted to serve to Jesus if He walked through the door.