Coffee with a cop: Mike Jones talks about his start-up small-batch coffee company.
First thing EPD Officer Mike Jones does when we meet at Reprise Coffee Roasters, 710 Main Street earlier this week is order two black coffees and set them down for us with what I can only describe as reverence. We're chatting in a (more or less) quiet corner at the back of the cafe. It's early, so our conversation is punctuated by the chatter of customers arriving for their morning Joe, and the intermittent explosion of the milk steamer hissing cappuccinos and lattes to life. The setting is perfect because we're talking about Mike's own burgeoning start-up, a small-batch, craft coffee roastery, BADGE BREW Coffee Roasters, and Reprise owner Adam Paronto, Mike says, has been a huge supporter and mentor. Plus, the coffee shop sits in Evanston's fourth ward, part of Jones' beat as a member of EPD's Problem Solving Team. He came to EPD 14 years ago, after five years as an officer in Broadview.
"The idea started 10, 12 years ago, when I was working midnight shift patrol, and the only places that were open were some of the 'big box' coffee shops," Jones, 42, tells me. "And I found I had to doctor up the coffee with cream and sugar for it to be palatable." Initially, coffee was just a way to get through his shift. But then Jones discovered Coffee Lab & Roasters - Evanston at 910 Noyes Street, and once he started drinking their coffee, it was something he'd never tasted before. "It was kind of like wine. You get some nose on the front end, fruity notes on the back end, some chocolate notes in the middle," he says. "And my eyes opened." A social man who says he's passionate about community and connection, Mike began thinking about what he would do after retirement and toyed with the idea of opening his own shop to bring folks together and provide them with great-tasting coffee that they could drink black. Interestingly, he has found himself following in his grandfather's public-service-entrepreneurial footsteps: one of the first Black Illinois State Troopers, his grandfather started his career at 18, retired at 38, taught science at Crane High School for 20 years, and then started J&J Spicery, his own spice business. Every summer, Jones says, he'd help his grandfather pack up the truck to deliver spices to grocery stores. "But we'd also go to the Kansas City barbecue kick-off, the Texas barbecue kick-off, Indianapolis," he remembers. "We'd drive around in the truck all summer long selling his spices." For several reasons, Jones ultimately decided against a store, but two years ago, just before the pandemic hit, he realized how close he was to being eligible for retirement. "I know officers, once they retire, they feel like they're no longer needed. A lot of officers will suffer from depression." And, he says, he doesn't want to fall into that category. "So I started thinking about the next thing great thing I was going to do," he says, "something else I'm passionate about."
Coffee roasting was his answer. And given the grueling schedule he's keeping to realize his dream, it's a wonder all the coffee he produces doesn't end up in his own mug--just to keep him awake. "There have been so many long nights developing this brand," Jones says. In his off hours--he works as an officer from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday--Jones started researching the roasting side of the coffee business, creating recipes, and sourcing beans (the pandemic, and the rise of Zoom, gave him the chance to meet coffee growers around the world). He got himself a small $200 in-kitchen electric roaster. Then, last year, thanks to a Boosting Black Business fundraising campaign by his friend and colleague Tosha Wilson--an Evanston Police Department sergeant, relentless community organizer, and cheerleader for Black entrepreneurs--he was able to buy an $11,000 industrial roaster that he placed in his garage. "But my recipes didn't transfer and my coffee tasted like crap at first," Mike laughs. "I went through a lot of trial and error to perfect them." And perfect them he did. A year later, with help from his wife (website development, packaging) and three kids ages 16, 14, and 12 (the name, graphic design, social media, filling orders), Jones had established the Badge Brew Coffee brand, and two pounds at a time, he began selling to family and friends. Now he has a strong online presence with customers from Evanston, the US, and even Turkey and Ireland, and a busy grocery store in Naperville, where Mike and his family live, carries his line. Mondays he's at North Central College in Naperville, one of only three US colleges with its own coffee roasting program, where he's scaled up his production capacity, and packages some of his orders--whole bean, espresso ground, French press ground, you can customize to your liking--and you'll get your coffee within two to three days. He also mentors students there. The rest of the week, Mike commits to at least two hours of roasting each night when he gets home from work, calling his kids en route so they can turn on the roaster and it's ready by 7 p.m. On Sundays, he's chatting to customers at the Naperville grocery store and handing out tastes of his coffee: "vibrant light roast with bright grapefruit, wine, and floral notes;" "silky medium roast with notes of apricot, honey, and toffee;" "bold dark roast with rich chocolatey, fig and praline flavors;" and a decaf with "notes of apple, sweet brown sugar, and nutty pecans." "They're shocked to hear that I'm the owner, because it's very rare that you see a coffee roaster passing out their coffee, explaining what their family is all about, and their mission for the coffee," he says. As a Black man, Mike is a pretty rare find in the coffee world. According to a report last month by Coffee Roaster Demographics, almost 70 percent of coffee roasters are white. Only 11 percent are Black or African American, and there are very few Black people represented along the chain from crop to cup. That provides Mike another opportunity to share and connect. "All coffee originated in Africa, and all people of African origin should be a part of it," he says. "There's so much to learn, where it came from, how it's harvested, the logistics, the quality of coffee, roasting techniques. I want to take kids who are interested in the food and beverage community but who don't know anything about coffee and educate them, to see if it's something they want to explore as well." The company's slogan, "What's your badge of honor," is a nod to his policing career of which Jones is proud. But more than that, he says, it's a way to honor whatever people do, if it's done in service to others with pride and integrity. "Our coffee is all about community," he says. In fact, some of the sales proceeds support organizations that help build community, such as Evanston's The Officer and Gentlemen Academy, founded by EPD Officer Adam Howard, which, through a mentorship program, connects cops to young men. Born and raised in Maywood to parents who were blue collar workers, Mike was the fifth Black police officer in Broadview history. He says growing up, police officers were positive influences in his life. "Both my football coaches were police officers. My basketball coach. They were just part of the community," Mike, who graduated from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, says. Badge Brew will also be the "official" coffee of The Aux, a redevelopment at 2223 Washington Street in Evanston, which, when it opens, will be a hub of Black Businesses dedicated to wellness, and for which Sgt. Tosha Wilson is a co-developer. In addition to Wilson, Jones says he owes a lot to the many Evanstonians who have supported his vision. Chris, who roasted beans for Coffee Lab, was the first person Mike talked to when his idea for a coffee-roasting business began brewing. "He talked to me for hours, and he gave me contacts and connections. He was a big jumpstart," Mike says. Reprise's Adam, he says, gave him the courage to move forward early on when he started getting cold feet about investing his own time and money (Badge Brew does not have any investors) and wondering if his idea would work. "Adam would randomly text me, like, 'nice job,' 'keep doing what you do,' just that encouragement," Mike says. And Adam also helped Mike with recipe creation and connections to farmers. "He was a big mentor and a role model," he says. Jones is clearly excited about his "second cup" career. He says he's hoping to expand to provide Badge Brew to coffee shops, to restaurant groups, and bakeries. "I want to provide our coffee to corporations," he says, "and to be the official sponsor of the biggest event you can think of." And he's grateful to the many residents who've placed orders for his coffee through word of mouth and through just knowing him around the community as a police officer. "If it wasn't for Evanston, I probably wouldn't be in this coffee game," he says. You can hear more about Mike Jones' story starting at 9 a.m. on Monday, November 1 on WBBM Newsradio and throughout the day. On Thursday, November 18 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. you can meet Mike and taste his coffee at Coffee with a Cop, hosted by La Principal, 700 Main Street.