Brewing Social Good and Great Coffee From the Same Bean

One of BusinessEarth’s goals is to prove that socially and environmentally responsible business is possible and profitable. When we find a company that embodies these principles, we highlight their achievements and challenges so you can apply their lessons to your business. John Quinn of Second Chance Coffee Co. talked with us about how a for-profit enterprise with a social mission can create social good by becoming a successful business.

By Bradley Short, BusinessEarth

Since June 2009, Second Chance Coffee Co. has been producing “I Have a Bean” coffees, some of the finest and most meticulously roasted coffee around. At their Chicago, Illinois headquarters, things feel very similar to any other rapidly growing start-up, but for one thing…many of the employees are former prisoners.

Human capital going to waste

Pete Leonard, the founder of Second Chance Coffee, realized how difficult it can be for former offenders to find work when Rick, a brilliant friend and colleague of his could not get hired after doing time.  A Mensan and an experienced computer programmer, Rick normally wouldn’t have had any problem finding a good job. But his criminal past made it so difficult that, at nearly fifty years old, the unemployed genius was forced to move back in with his parents.

From Pete’s perspective, the unwillingness of companies to hire ex-offenders hurt not only his friend, but also society as a whole.  Rick’s untapped expertise was going to waste and his huge potential to add value to a business was being squandered. Pete decided that he had to find a way to solve this problem.

The seeds of opportunity are planted

Around that same time, Pete went on a mission trip to Brazil and toured a coffee plantation.  There, he learned the basics of coffee production.  And after sampling an open-fire roasted brew that was the “best coffee he’d ever had,” he was hooked.  When he returned home, he built a roaster in his grill and started selling coffee to friends and neighbors.

As more and more people asked for his home-roasted coffee, Pete started to see that there was a real business opportunity in it.  Even better, he realized that this was his chance to make a dent in the problem of high-unemployment among ex-offenders.  Partnering with friends from his church, he turned his dream and hobby into a business and Second Chance Coffee Co. was born.

A winning business model in the “three-legged stool”

In order to do some good for ex-offenders, the company had to be profitable and the coffee had to be great.  John Quinn, who started in sales and now wears many hats around Second Chance, described the “three-legged stool” of their offering:

First, it is truly some of the best coffee anywhere. We choose our beans from among the top 1% of beans in the world. We then roast the coffee in our one-of-a-kind fluid airbed roaster in micro-batches so that you can taste all the flavors and nuances of each bean. Second, we are a local company, which means you can get our coffee the same day it’s roasted. (Our business model has us eventually opening other micro-roasteries throughout the country, such that we are local in all our markets.) Third, we have a social mission in that we hire former offenders.

Regular business rules apply to social businesses, too

“As a for-profit company, we are keenly aware that, while many people will try our coffee because of our social mission, they will not continue to buy it if the coffee isn’t great,” Mr. Quinn explained.  At the end of the day, consumers are going to buy the product that creates the most value for them – an elegant, but often under-recognized truth.

John makes no apologies for Second Chance being a for-profit company.

After all, the more coffee we sell, the more former offenders we can hire. I believe that our for-profit status is critical to our success. We are in a very competitive business, and, as mentioned above, none of this is possible if we aren’t making truly great coffee.

Other entrepreneurs looking to “do good by doing well” should take note.  In order for any company with a social mission to continue to do good, it has to deliver value to consumers.  Social benefit cannot be the core selling point, or else the company will cease to be a business and will become a charity.

Second Chance’s success is a victory for everyone involved

Socially-driven businesses have a great opportunity to do good and turn profits at the same time.  In Second Chance’s case, profitably delivering truly exceptional coffee is exciting enough on its own, but the good it’s doing for ex-offenders makes for something that’s really special.  John sums up the joy that the social mission brings for people at the company so well:

Helping them make a living is one thing, but seeing their confidence emerge so that they can make an even bigger contribution here, or, in some cases, move on to bigger and better things is even more rewarding.

BusinessEarth encourages, advises and invests in responsible small and midsized companies. Follow BusinessEarth on Twitter and like us on Facebook to learn how we help business leaders see that social and environmental action is possible, profitable and necessary.

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