John Krause is very specific about his morning coffee nowadays. His favorite beans come from Kenya, he does a three-to-five-minute pour over, and stands firm in his belief that if you have to add milk or sugar, or anything else to your coffee, there’s probably something wrong with it.

This meditative process was incomprehensible in December 2009 when he was getting tackled by police on a Berkeley sidewalk, the last time he would get arrested after spending 17 years of his life addicted to drugs, and 11 years in and out of prisons in the Bay Area.

Krause is coming up on his 10-year anniversary of being clean and sober, and today runs Big House Beans in the East Bay with his wife, LeeAnn, who’s due with a baby girl any day now.

“I like reliving the story, especially around this time of year,” Krause said at Big House Beans’ Antioch roastery on a recent Wednesday morning, surrounded by sacks of coffee from community producers and farms in Brazil, Ethiopia and Colombia. “Ten years is a pretty big milestone, it’s the longest I’ve ever been sober, ever done anything in a positive way.”

John and LeAnn, who is also celebrating sobriety, met at a friend’s party and founded Big House Beans in 2014 with a mission of forging “second chances.” John said some of the company’s top employees are formerly incarcerated, and he encourages them to share their stories to move past the shame and judgment that characterizes making a life for yourself after prison, especially while grappling with alcohol and substance abuse, homelessness or strained relationships with friends and family.

Krause began using hard drugs as a teenager in Richmond in the ‘90s, and struggled through a “vicious cycle” of addiction and incarceration first at juvenile facilities, then at state prisons in Solano, Soledad and Jamestown after passing through San Quentin. His turning point came in solitary confinement in 2007, when a resource worker connected him with religion. It changed his trajectory when he finally got out, and along with what he calls “the gift of desperation,” pushed him to build positive relationships, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and eventually gain custody of his children.

Employees at the Big House Beans roastery in Antioch. Once Big House was entirely staffed by formerly incarcerated people; now it’s made up of employees from various backgrounds, but who all have a shared love for coffee and the company. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Then, after years of enduring Folgers coffee, splurging on commissary cream and sugar as a small joy, he tried his first specialty blend at a friend’s home. The fireworks on his palate inspired him to start the business with LeeAnn. He’s grateful today, but remembers sleeping on the floor at a family members’ crowded apartment, applying to 30 jobs without callbacks, and being tens of thousands of dollars in debt due to restitution payments.

“When I talk about being unemployable to now creating jobs in the community, that’s how I kind of measure my success. It’s being able to give back.” — John Krause, Big House Beans co-founder

“When I talk about being unemployable — like nobody would hire me — to [now] creating jobs in the community, that’s how I kind of measure my success. [It’s] being able to give back,” said Krause. Every staff member was formerly incarcerated when the couple first began their business, but Big House Beans is filling up with a mixture of backgrounds as it grows. Along with his mission of second chances, it’s paramount to Krause that his staff love coffee and be passionate about the work.

“If we have an employee that doesn’t care that much, based on their actions, I feel like they’re taking a spot from somebody else where this job could literally change their life,” Krause said. He also pushed back on the idea that white privilege may have assisted in his transition from prison to starting a business, and said he ultimately values hard work and persistence in himself and his employees.

“No matter what race you are, if you exhibit true grit and honesty, and humble yourself, to keep doing the right thing to work extremely hard… nothing will stop you,” he said. “But no matter what race you are, saying one thing and doing another thing, it’s not gonna work.”

Krause is overwhelmed by how much he learns every day on the job, and is on a dash to open up more stores for employees in the next year. Big House Beans currently does wholesale, has the Antioch roastery and a café in Brentwood. It will open another café at the Brentwood Library in about three months, and is planning to add four shops in Oakland, Berkeley and Walnut Creek over the next several months.

The Big House Beans Brentwood café. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

The Brentwood café is modern, bustling, and carries floral artwork that says “Filter coffee not people” alongside its selection of pastries and treats, a full menu with core and rotating coffee, toasts, açai bowls and snacks. Coffee starts at $3 for a simple drip, and goes up to market price on varying pour overs. Little coffee pouches that currently sit on shelves with “Second Chances” in looping font will soon be replaced with a new design featuring a classic symbol of renewal — the Phoenix.

Krause wants to make Big House Beans as much a family as it is a business, and support his employees in their path to creating fulfilling lives. He acknowledges many of his staff may not have positive associations with the word “family,” and hopes to give it a new meaning.

“‘Let’s redefine what we think of as family,’” Krause tells his staff. “We need to know that the person working next to us is going to be there for us when we need them to be, whether it’s a work-related thing or a personal-related thing. It really just comes down to unconditional love.”

Find Big House Beans coffee online or at its Brentwood Café (open 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 7 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday). Upcoming locations include: Brentwood Café at the Brentwood Library, 104 Oak St. (at Third Street), Brentwood; 4770 Telegraph Ave. (at 48th Street), Oakland and 3175 N. California Blvd. (near Pine Street), Walnut Creek. The upcoming Berkeley café address is still TBA.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...