Felons find a fresh start at Wheaton coffee company

Pete Leonard tasted one of the finest cups of coffee when he led a mission trip in 2005 to Brazil.

A short time later, Leonard was shocked when he found out his brother-in-law was arrested and convicted of a crime, for which he served a prison sentence.

The Second Chance Coffee Company's “I Have a Bean” in Wheaton, formed in 2007, is a for-profit business that percolated from the Brazil trip and Leonard's decision to provide former felons an opportunity to be on his payroll.

“There are people who have a felony record that cannot find employment at most other places of business,” Leonard said. “I think the major reason for that, frankly, is fear. People are afraid of what they don't know. When we get afraid of things, we tend to put labels on them.”

Leonard says the “felon” label is hard to shake for the 700,000 people in the U.S. released from prison every year, and that most of the public finds it hard to take the time to help.

“What changed everything for me was that it was someone that I knew who ended up going to prison, and I knew that man before he went to prison, and again after,” Leonard said. “It's the same person. He made a dramatic error in judgment and that has changed the rest of his life. He continues to pay the penalty for what he did.”

“I Have a Bean” is the brand name for Leonard's fresh micro-batch roasted coffee, made from the top 1 percent of the world's coffee bean supply.

Amy, a former felon, has been the plant manager at “I Have a Bean” for the past five years.

“The plant does not run without Amy; she does a lot of things,” Leonard said. “Part of (what) makes us different is you order today, we roast it today, you get it today. Amy is the person for our company that makes sure that happens.”

  Former head coffee bean roaster Louis, a felon, turned his life around with help from Pete Leonard, founder of Second Chance Coffee Company's I Have a Bean. Louis' poster is on display at the Wheaton roasting plant. Daniel White/

Head coffee roaster Fernando and his apprentice roaster Donte are former felons who fill the daily roast orders on a custom-made, commercial-scale coffee bean roasting machine Leonard constructed.

The roots of Leonard's roasting setup go back to his Brazil mission trip where he saw a farmer roasting coffee beans in a grill over an open fire.

“Before that happened, I had no idea that human beings roasted coffee,” Leonard said. “My concern with coffee at that point was what does it taste like in a cup, and when I order it at the cafe, is it ready 47 seconds later?”

Not all Second Chance Coffee employees are “post-prison,” including Leonard, who is not a felon. I Have a Bean coffee bean-roasting operations are based at 657 Childs St. in Wheaton.

In addition to running a healthy Internet business, Leonard maintains a concessionaire's license to run Café on the Park in the Wheaton Library and also has a contract to operate two espresso bars for the Richard Sandoval Group's Latinicity Restaurant at Block 37 in downtown Chicago.

I Have a Bean also sells coffee Saturday mornings at the downtown Wheaton Farmers Market.

To learn more about I Have a Bean, visit

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