Getting a job is one of the toughest parts of post-prison life. But a tiny coffee roasting company in Wheaton is doing what it can to give former offenders a fresh start.
By Joan Cary
Special to the Tribune
October 14, 2009
In 2007, three Wheaton men, Pete Leonard, Ron deVries and Dave Scavotto, met for their weekly breakfast and came up with an idea for a small business that would provide fresh coffee and fresh starts.
Fresh start: Each had witnessed the plight of former prisoners in the job market.
Fresh coffee: Each enjoys a cup, although Leonard was more passionate about it than the others.
In August, after 2 1/2 years of brewing over it, they opened Second Chance Coffee Co. with two primary goals: to roast the best and freshest coffee, and to give former prisoners a chance at reliable employment.
Second Chance Coffee, at 657 Childs St. in Wheaton, sells fresh-roasted coffee beans from six countries, employs two ex-offenders and has its sights on hiring eight to 10 more if business grows. Jim Short of Monee laughingly tells his boss that being the first employee is “definitely the ultimate in reverse discrimination.”
Over the next few years the company would like to open similar micro-roasting plants in other Chicago-area communities and nationwide, working with and pledging to support the local post-prison organizations like Wayside Cross Ministries and Koinonia House National Ministries.
Leonard, who loves Ethiopia Sidamo coffee best, said he and the others arrived at the idea when Scavotto was unemployed and volunteering at Koinonia, a post-prison ministry with a house in Wheaton. The men, all of them friends from Blanchard Alliance Church in Wheaton, asked what Koinonia’s biggest issue was, and Scavotto said “finding jobs.” They also knew that Leonard, who roasted coffee on a homemade machine, wanted to start a micro-roasting business.
Leonard wrote the software and invented the roaster for Second Chance and had a friend build it. Thoughts became reality, and now Leonard runs the day-to-day operation and is the coffee roaster and taster, with final say on the coffees they select. DeVries, a bond trader, and Scavotto, in finance administration, rely on other full-time jobs and take no pay for their roles in finance, sales and marketing at Second Chance. They hope someday to work full time in the coffee business.
In the “green room” of the 1,800-square-foot plant, green or unroasted coffee beans are stored in 130- to 150-pound burlap and jute bags that smell like hay. They come from Guatemala, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Java, but those locations may vary with the crops.
In the roasting room, Short micro-roasts seven to 10 pounds of green coffee beans at a time and packages them for orders placed that day. Each one-pound package of Second Chance I Have a Bean (IHaveABean.com) brand is labeled with the roast date, enjoy-by date, roasted by, and roasted for information, and sells for $11 to $12. It is shipped, delivered or picked up that day.
Costwise, the operation could be more efficient, but not if they want to employ ex-offenders, Leonard said.
“Everything we have done is because of who we employ. We are here because the train station is two blocks away and the bus stops on the corner, and many ex-offenders cannot get a driver’s license,” he said. “We wanted machines that were simple to operate so people could be trained easily.”
Employment requires dedication. Second Chance employees are required to be involved in a life skills/mentoring/discipleship group that is helping them get their lives in order.
“We aren’t the whole answer. We are just a small part, a piece of the puzzle,” Leonard said. “Employment is just one part of turning it around.”
Of all the hurdles ex-offenders face, finding a job is often the most challenging, said Phil Wood, director of the Wayside Center in Elgin. Many come straight from prison to Wayside’s residential program, and after graduation, Wayside workers try to help them find jobs.
“To have someone willing to give a man or woman an opportunity is, for us, a gold mine,” Wood said. “We are stacked with people who are not given a chance.”
Each Second Chance founder has his own reasons for being involved. Scavotto’s eyes were opened at Koinonia. Leonard tells of a relative who was arrested, and although he is highly skilled and intelligent, his post-prison life is spent doing odd jobs because no company will hire him. DeVries said a nephew of his was incarcerated for seven years and he saw the effect it had on the entire family.
“As I saw his situation and then heard about others, it became apparent that there are needs that aren’t known,” deVries said. “When you come down on the train every day, you hear normal people say how hard life is and how tired they are.
“When I hear that, I think of those men and women who don’t even have the playing field to compete. At the very core of this is that I feel called to it,” he said.
Short, 45, served 8.5 years in prison for drug possession and intent to deliver cocaine. He was released in 2003, and said that although he earned a bachelor’s degree in prison, his job interviews always ended with the background check.
Now he has two part-time jobs and teaches at Family Harvest Church in Tinley Park.
“Education got me in the door, but my background always ended it,” Short said. “This is definitely a blessing.”
Scavotto said future Second Chance micro-roasting plants — he hopes there will be three to five within three to five years — will be located in areas where prisoners are released and where there are strong post-prison ministries. The company’s Wheaton operation can be duplicated in other communities, he said.
The founders are encouraged by upcoming holiday business and by the fact that 85 percent of coffee consumed in the U.S. is brewed at home.
“I love where we’re headed,” Scavotto said. “Starting a business from scratch and creating a positive influence on lives at the same time. That’s a cool business to be in.”
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