In flourished silver cursive on the bottom of every bag of Big House Beans coffee are the words “Second Chances”. Stamped in the corner is “Ps.34:8”, which at a quick glance could be mistaken for a product number and not the psalm: “Taste and see that the lord is good”. Read between the lines and you’ll find a coffee company that is about much more than coffee. In and out of prison for much of his life, owner John Krause started this artisanal coffee roastery to provide job opportunities for people with the odds stacked against them.
John was first arrested for possession of drugs when he was fourteen, and at that time was already addicted to meth and getting into fights. “My dad died when I was four in a motorcycle accident and I was with him. My mom was a transient who before he even died was gone from the family and I would find her on 23rd and McDonald drunk in the bushes, beat up and just not able to embrace reality. And so I was confused and very angry as a child,” he said.
As he got older his behavior escalated to stolen cars and high speed chases. And every time he was released from prison he was sure it would be his last time inside.
“What changed for John was hitting rock bottom — and as he says, being given the gift of desperation.”
The challenge, as John explained, was getting plugged into a community, finding a purpose that was bigger than himself, and finding stability; a place to live, transportation, income, and an education. These obstacles to re-integrating aren’t particular to John, 76% of ex-offenders in the U.S. are arrested again within five years. Richmond, where John is from, and Antioch, where the roastery is based, have some of the highest re-entry rates in the Bay Area.
What changed for John was hitting rock bottom — and as he says, being given the gift of desperation. “For me that meant I was desperate to not give up, to make better decisions, to just be adventurous, and courageous,” he said. He moved to a new city, picked up a job collecting waste oil from restaurants and then with the help of a few mentors established his own business in the same line of work.
A few years out of prison John tasted freshly roasted coffee from his friend’s garage for the first time and developed an obsession for different flavor profiles. It was around that same time that he was transitioning away from talking about his tumultuous past to using his story to inspire others. He wrote a business plan, raised money and started the business— ultimately inspired by a combination of his passion for coffee, providing for his family, and creating social impact.
He now has a team of five employees and over the last three years he’s mentored about twelve men that have worked off and on for the business.
While most third-wave roasters have a social mission as an inherent part of their business, it’s often linked to communities far from home where coffee beans are sourced — a remote narrative that the consumer doesn’t get to interact with as they experience the product. But with Big House Beans, John leads his sales pitches with the coffee experience, getting customers excited about the taste and quality, and then the social mission, doubling excitement from customers because it partially relies on the spirit of coffee culture in their community.
“The coffee industry is interesting in that it’s really diverse, people from all backgrounds will be in the same room and people like to talk and feel this sense of community, and if you’re behind the counter you get to meet everybody and people look forward to seeing you,” he explained. “And as they get to know you, that’s the experience they are using to decide if they like you, not what you’ve done in the past. So if you’re a likable person and your service is good enough to keep them coming back then it’s a really good way to be engaged in the community, which is important.”
In the following years John has big plans: doubling in employee size in the next few months, and eventually establishing a non-profit to invest in housing for employees in transition.
“Housing can literally mean the difference between life and death,” he said. “If we can open three to five cafes and for every cafe we’re able to hire enough people with barriers to employment and have a separate entity that can offer affordable housing so they can integrate into the community, I think that would be really incredible.”