Employees Find Purpose Post-Prison At I Have A Bean In Wheaton

WHEATON, IL — When Pete Leonard first receives the coffee beans he roasts at I Have a Bean, they’re green. Through an intricate roasting process, they darken to become the richly brown product his customers use to make their coffee.

Talking to Pete Leonard about the coffee roasting process, you can hear the pride and patience he puts into this transformative craft of coffee roasting. In the same way, Leonard patiently watches the transformation of the post-prison employees he hires in the hopes of offering an acceptance that he says they are all too often denied, especially in the workplace.

Leonard said his criteria for those with convictions getting hired at I Have a Bean is as simple as: “Have you been to prison and are you living differently now than you were then?”

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Giving post-prison employees an opportunity to transform their lives is something Leonard believes he was meant to do. Several things had to line up before he realized his calling, though. Among these are that his brother-in-law would get arrested and Leonard would start drinking coffee for the first time in his life … at age 40.

How a Visit To Brazil and An Arrest Inspired I Have a Bean

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At just six weeks old, Leonard had a kidney removed, and he had always been advised he should avoid drinking coffee. Later in life, though, new studies were released that made Leonard feel safer consuming the beloved drink.

It was a subsequent church mission trip to Brazil that sparked the inspiration that laid the groundwork for I Have a Bean.

Every morning in Brazil, Leonard drank coffee from a family owned plantation. He still waxes poetic about the family farm and how the green beans were roasted over an open fire.

Leonard fell in love with that coffee so much, he bought 10 pounds of it to take home as a gift to donors who had helped fund the mission trip, but wound up drinking eight of the pounds himself. So, it’s no surprise that in the next few years, Leonard became obsessed with finding similar coffee.

In between running a company that wrote tech software, Leonard sampled beans and brews from other businesses, struggling to find one that was on par with the beans he had in Brazil. He sought out the farmer, but learned those beans could not be exported, so Leonard became driven to learn how to start roasting his own coffee.
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He began sourcing fresh coffee beans from the Green Coffee Bean Club and tinkered with his Weber Grill to turn it into makeshift coffee roasting machine. Ultimately, Leonard perfected the art of roasting his own coffee at home.

Around the same time, his brother-in-law was arrested and ended up spending nine months in prison. Leonard had previously hired him to write software for a significant job he had landed, so when his brother-in-law was released early due to good behavior, Leonard sought to rehire him at his tech company.

An issue with his payroll company soon led Leonard to discover he would need to fire his brother-in-law in order to avoid being dropped by the health insurance he used for his employees.

He told Patch, “I knew someone and cared for someone that had been to prison, and now I see how maybe society is not going to be treating him so nicely. He’d done his time, he’d paid for his crime, but that didn’t seem to matter.”

Galvanized, Leonard fired his brother-in-law and the two planned that the latter would start his own company, so Leonard could hire him as a contractor.

The experience made Leonard realize, “There might be problem that’s bigger than my brother-in-law.” He connected with a friend who worked to help reintegrate people back into the workforce after prison.

The friend told Leonard the biggest problem he saw people encounter after prison was that “nobody will hire them.”

Initially, Leonard, hoped to teach post-prison employees to roast their own coffee, so they could start their own businesses, but he realized teaching home coffee-roasting would take too long to be an effective option for people in post-prison transition programs for less than a year at a time.

Instead of giving up, Leonard tells Patch he designed and built his own coffee machine that could roast for him and could be managed by any employee after a brief period of training.

“The Thing I Was Put on this Planet to Do”

By 2007, Leonard had hired his first employee, Jim, a former felon and trained mechanic who had served time in prison for drug charges. They started small, with Jim working one day a week and churning out roughly 30 pounds of roasted coffee that Leonard sold to his church mates, family members and friends.

Leonard taught Jim about his coffee-roasting business, which has since employed roughly 60 post-prison men and women in the past 16 years. Since its humble beginnings, I Have a Bean has also gone from selling bags of roasted coffee to neighbors to now selling bulk coffee to local businesses. He said they also recently landed a long-sought after opportunity selling coffee to Wheaton College.

Leonard told Patch he hopes to move beyond his flagship roasting facility at 655 Childs St. and open more roasting plants.

In the meantime, he’s living out what he feels is his purpose and helping other people find theirs. I Have a Bean offers a free cup of coffee to anyone who stops by. On Fridays, they welcome small business owners from the community to join them at the roasting plant and offer their goods and services to those who stop in to snag their fresh coffee.

Visitors can meet the employees in person and experience something Leonard said his other employees who have not been to prison realized after working with those who have.

He told Patch, “The people who had not been to prison learned, ‘That’s the same type of person I am. They have hopes and dreams and skills and sometimes families. These aren’t them; they’re me or us.'”

Helping humans learn to humanize other humans through his mission at I Have a Bean is something Leonard won’t be stopping anytime soon.

He said, “This is the thing I was put on the planet to do. This business with these people. If I’m being called to do this, there has to be a way to do this.”

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