Changing lives, one cup at a time: The story behind Second Chance Coffee Company

The team at Second Chance Coffee. Source: Supplied

Finding a job after spending time in jail is a task that many former prisoners find impossible. It’s not surprising then that of the 20,000 Illinois prisoners who are released per year, over 12,000 on average end up back behind bars within three years of being released.

However, one company in the town of Wheaton is offering a fresh start for former prisoners who are willing to work hard and make a change in their lives. Second Chance Coffee, founded by Pete Leonard in 2005, has a policy of only hiring people who have been jailed – and conducts FBI checks to verify that they have spent time in prison.

Leonard’s inspiration for starting the company came after one of his relatives who had recently been released from prison was unable to find work. “I watched what happened to him, from getting out of the prison system to trying to get back into normal society, and it was virtually impossible,” he said.

Wanting to make a difference for people in similar circumstances, Leonard came up with an idea: Take advantage of America’s love of coffee by creating a company that exclusively employed former. “We choose coffee rated in the top 1 percent from a quality standpoint, and we employ people that have a felony conviction on their record to do all the work.”

“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 early employee was a man named Louis Dooley, who was released from prison after serving 15 years for armed robbery and attempted murder. Dooley shared his experiences after being released from jail: “It was scary. It was difficult and I just wanted to go back in because I didn’t know how to cope. I didn’t know how to live out here. Couldn’t find a job—that was the biggest thing trying to cope with.”

The biggest challenge would be finding a job, and Dooley applied for many roles without success. “Once I explained the nature of my offense, they were just like ‘You know, we can’t hire you. I understood. I probably wouldn’t hire someone like me either — no work experience, 35 years old. I got robbery, attempted murder in my background. I’m not the ideal model employee that you would want to have.”

However, Second Chance Coffee would provide the opportunity that Dooley needed to make a fresh start. “We all make mistakes,” said Leonard. “Some of us go to prison for them. Others of us should have gone to prisons—didn’t—and others just skate by. The fact is—we’re all sinners. What we’re concerned with is — who are you today?”

In the years since Second Chance Coffee started up, over 40 former prisoners have been employed, and Leonard considers all but two of them to have successfully made the transition from jail to life on the outside.

Part of the high success rate is Leonard’s careful selection of employees – all of them have to have shown attempts to rebuild their lives and maintained a crime free life following their release from jail.

The future is promising for Second Chance Coffee, and Leonard has high hopes that his unusual hiring policy can help the company grow throughout the United States – and the world. Company data shows revenue has doubled every year since 2005.

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, if each roasting plant hires 21 full-time and another 20-part-time employees, Second Chance Coffee will become 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.”