Coffee business offers employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated individuals

Deep Time coffee
WIDE AWAKE: Staff and interns at Deep Time, a specialty coffee business and ministry offshoot for Trinity United Methodist Church, are trained in the roasting process to create their own unique blends. Pictured, from left, are Lindsey Hensley, Emily Blackwell, Mercy Rodriguez, Timothy “GA” Underwood (seated) and Dustin Mailman. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

One might never know that a 650-pound industrial coffee roaster sits in the Trinity United Methodist Church basement if not for the smell of freshly roasted beans.

The roaster holds court in a former Sunday school classroom, which is now the headquarters of Deep Time, a specialty coffee business staffed by people who have been impacted by incarceration. It’s inspired by the Rev. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, which employs and trains former gang members in social enterprise, says Rev. Dustin Mailman, Trinity United Methodist Church pastor of family ministries and missions. Mailman sought to “offer a social enterprise space that’s led by folks who wouldn’t typically be associated with specialty coffee,” he explains.

Deep Time is a church plant — a ministry offshoot — for the United Methodist Church. “We’re playing with what ministry and business dancing together looks like,” Mailman says, explaining that his clergy role takes half his time and working for Deep Time takes the other half.

Deep Time’s beans are primarily from Haiti Coffee Co. It’s an organization in Seattle that sources beans from the Dondon region of Haiti through an agricultural production partnership. Deep Time purchased its roaster from Cooperative Coffee Roasters, a small batch roaster in West Asheville, and Mailman says Cooperative’s staff has been helpful in troubleshooting coffee-related issues since Deep Time launched in July. “[That help] showed me that coffee culture in Asheville is different than you would see in Atlanta or New York or Portland, where it’s really competitive,” he says. “What I saw was Cooperative wanting to build community across coffee-roasting lines.”

Mailman, Deep Time sustainer of community Lindsey Hensley, interns Mercy Rodriguez and Emily Blackwell and lead coffee roaster Timothy “GA” Underwood recently poured Xpress a cup of coffee and discussed finding employment after incarceration, creating their own blends and finding a coffee community in Asheville.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity. 

Xpress: How would you explain Deep Time as a business?

Rev. Dustin Mailman: There’s three pieces to what we do. One, there’s an educational piece [about coffee roasting] that happens. Two is a tangible employment piece. And the third is wraparound services — therapy, getting the vital records, getting your driver’s license. So every day is a little different. But it’s all centered around coffee. Some weeks, we have orders for 400 pounds of coffee. Other weeks are slow, so we take sample bags and hand them out to storefronts or potential business partners.

At first folks are getting paid $15 an hour, but after three months, we bump it up to a living wage [for people in the Sojourners’ program, which is like an internship]. As they begin to hit their benchmarks and smash their goals, we explore what long-term employment and building out additional entrepreneurial endeavors might look like.

What was the inspiration to start a business that employs people who were incarcerated? 

Mailman: I saw this really tangible gap that there is no employment in this region that’s specifically for returning citizens. There’s plenty of fair-chance employers, but there’s no place that’s specifically for people who are transitioning from incarceration. And coffee is one of these universal symbols of connection. … Coffee became a hobby for me, because as a pastor it’s such an easy way to connect with folks. I began to see the disparities between low-income communities, Black communities, returning citizens and accessing good quality coffee.

… The framework that we’re using is transformative justice. We’re not just looking to hire folks who are affected by incarceration; we’re literally looking to end recidivism. Our first benchmark is being a part of the journey toward ending recidivism 25% in Buncombe County. We’re looking for folks to be transformed and grow into who God intended them to be.

What do you think people who haven’t been incarcerated don’t understand about reentering the workforce? 

Mercy Rodriguez: The judgments. The preconceived ideas of people. The stereotypes. … A lot of [employers] don’t understand the struggle. … They don’t see that you’re trying to improve yourself. They just see what’s on paper, and they go off that, instead of seeing the person for who they are and what they’re trying to achieve.

Mailman: More folks need to recognize that every single person who is incarcerated — sure, there’s personal decisions that play a role in it — but trauma responses are real. I have yet to meet a person who has been incarcerated who has not been traumatized.

GA, how did you start working for Deep Time?

Timothy “GA” Underwood: I got introduced to Deep Time through a mutual friend [after] I came out of prison. … [Dustin] asked me what I’d be interested in doing for Deep Time, and I said I’d think about it, because I was working for East Fork [Pottery] at the time. At East Fork, they have a second-chance employment program as well. So I wanted to commit myself a year with East Fork before I made my transition here.

Dustin, you minister in the detention center, but you don’t have lived experience with incarceration yourself. Whom did you consult with on what Deep Time needed to do? 

Mailman: GA was a part of this conversation. I wasn’t going to project what I thought people’s needs were — I wanted the needs to come out in the room from folks who were either working in those spaces or had been in those spaces. So GA and Ben Flynn were the two major early steers of what the Deep Time identity would look like. … [Ben] passed away last summer, literally the week before Deep Time launched. … Ben had green hair. He had a big Joker smile tattooed on his face. He had the word “s—head” on his forehead. When you met him, he looked intense and terrifying, but then you would talk to him and he was sweet as pie. Sweet as pie. We unfortunately lost him from a completed suicide attempt. He is someone who is a critical luminary for what we do. He had visions of being a tattoo artist. [We sell] Ben’s Blend, and a portion of all the funds from that bag go toward tattoo cover-ups or removals for people with gang symbols.

Emily, how did you get involved in Deep Time? 

Emily Blackwell: I met Dustin through House of Mercy. …  I thought it was a cafe. So I kind of wasn’t interested because I don’t like girly jobs.

Mailman: [laughs] My favorite thing to say about you is — the men who work with Deep Time aren’t little men. Like, we’re big men. We’re loud and we take up a lot of space. But Emily is the most blue collar and hardest working of us all. [to Blackwell] Tell what you did just the other week with our roaster.

Blackwell: I replaced the motor on the roaster. [Everyone laughs.] I also gotta mention Queen’s Awakening. It’s my coffee.

When you say it’s your coffee, what do you mean? 

Blackwell: I created it.

Mailman: So, every Sojourner [an intern] at Deep Time is expected to get so proficient in coffee roasting that they can create their own blends.

Rodriguez: Emily and I also have come up with a creamer — the horchata creamer. We introduced that just recently, and everybody is in love with it.

Lindsey, how did you get involved in Deep Time? 

Lindsey Hensley: I’m formerly incarcerated as well. I’ve been in recovery going on five years now. And I made the decision to change my life. I wanted to give back to the community that I’m from. I’m a native of Asheville. … I grew up here, I got in trouble here, I got clean here, and now I serve my community. … Reentry is my passion, because I survived it. And I’m here as a community health worker to help get the resources for the Sojourners and connect them with the resources that are here for them.

What’s next for Deep Time?

Mailman: We’re really looking to both see where folks want to partner with us and how we could share who we are and what we’re trying to do. We really want to build those business relationships to be good neighbors and find ways to collaborate in the community. We are actively looking for wholesale relationships.

Correction, June 25, 2024: This article has been updated with Rev. Dustin Mailman’s title.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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3 thoughts on “Coffee business offers employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated individuals

  1. Teryll Higgins

    Where is this coffee sold? As a consumer and community member, I would like to give Deep Time my support.

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