For ex-cons seeking a straight life, a new coffee company offers a career path
WHYY is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism that speaks, across the city and across media platforms, to the challenges and solutions for reentry.
There are all sorts of eureka moments that might make someone decide to remake their lives, from a bad breakup to a health scare to job loss.
For Christian Dennis, it was the moment a prosecutor offered him 25 to 50 years in prison if he pleaded guilty to a murder he didn’t commit.
“I wasn’t 25 yet. I looked at my mom, and said: ‘I’m not even 25 yet! How can I do 25 years?’” said Dennis, now 35. “I kinda just promised myself: If I get out of this, like, there gotta be a lot of major changes in my life.”
Dennis did get out of it, when a jury found him not guilty in 2006. But making major changes, with a homicide charge haunting him, would not be easy.
“Having that record, man, it’s just like that black stain on your shirt, you just can’t get it out,” said Dennis, who had trouble getting and keeping jobs, and got arrested once more for drug offenses before he walked out of prison in 2010 vowing to never go back.
His story might have stalled there, stuck in the rut that many ex-convicts fall into when they find their future clouded by their stormy past.
But in 2015, Dennis met Bobby Logue, the affable co-owner of Bodhi Coffee and Federal Donuts. Logue had brought several of his sweet treats to the Community College of Philadelphia, where a commencement ceremony for the school’s Reentry Support Project was underway. Dennis, who completed the program and now is pursuing a business degree at CCP, was a speaker.
“A lightbulb went off when I heard Christian speak,” Logue said. “I wondered what it was that we could do that could bring the communities of Philadelphia together on an economic level. You have this wonderful, sort of creative, high-energy economy going on in certain neighborhoods, and then literally, a block away, you have a lot of poverty and an economy that is almost solely based on the drug game. Our thought was: How can we bridge that gap?”
Their answer is Quaker City Coffee, a company that aims to help ex-offenders, one cup of coffee at a time.
Dennis and Logue co-own the business, and they plan to expand it to employ more ex-inmates. The way they see it, drug dealers basically are “entrepreneurs, just on the wrong side of the law,” Logue said. “They have a tremendous amount of experience with sales and business management. It’s just that their ‘previous experience’ landed them in jail.”
Dennis and Logue’s goal, though, isn’t mere employment.
“We’re not just giving you an $8-an hour job,” said Dennis, a married father of six who lives in North Philly. “We want to try to create a lifestyle change, show guys something different than what they’re used to. We don’t just want to say: ‘Hey, we can get you a job here at McDonald’s. You got a job now – take care!’ No. We want to help you change your life, the way you think, the way you live, the way your family lives.”
To that end, they plan to offer employees profit-sharing, better-than-minimum-wage paychecks, and skills training. They’re still figuring out further details; the company just officially launched in January.
Quaker City Coffee, for now, is a brand, but sometime soon, it also will be a physical space, sharing the bright, cozy storefront Bodhi Coffee now occupies on 10th Street near Locust in Center City.
Last week, they got a jolt to speed expansion: They won a $72,000 grant from WeWork, a shared-workspace company that gave out $1.5 million Tuesday in its first Creator Awards giveaway. (WeWork plans to ultimately give away $20 million in Creator Awards.)
To Tara Timberman, the award was well-deserved.
Timberman founded CCP’s Reentry Support Project in 2010. Connecting ex-offenders with work that offers career advancement, as Logue and Dennis strive to do, helps reduce recidivism rates, she said.
“There are more and more companies out there that are willing to support the hiring of people with criminal records,” Timberman said. “But how long will that be sustainable if people don’t see an opportunity for growth? We need to create more work opportunities that are oriented toward career paths and not just jobs.”
Dennis predicts he’ll find no shortage of willing workers. And after Logue took a gamble on him, Dennis is eager to pay it forward.
“We don’t even talk about the past,” Dennis said of his new business partners. “We talk about the future. And that’s how I see Quaker City Coffee, for other convicted felons coming home: I don’t care what you did. What do you want to do? What do you want to do for your daughter? What do you want to do for your mom? If those are the questions that you have in your head, like I did, wanting to change my kids’ life, wanting to break that cycle, those are the guys I want.”
Dennis has gone from coffee cluelessness to connoisseur.
“Now I can’t even drink Dunkin Donuts,” he laughed. “I know an Ethiopian drip from a Guatemalan drip.”
He sees a big future for Quaker City Coffee. “Quaker World!” he joked.
“I see this going global and being a model in every city, from Chicago to New York to L.A.,” Dennis said. “We want to show other companies that you don’t have to be scared of guys getting out of jail, ex-offenders. But if you are, support our company! We’ll hire them!”
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