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'Very easy to do': During IL treasurer visit, Leaves 'n Beans workers describe state retirement program

Leaves n Beans workers.jpg
Hannah Alani
Workers at Leaves 'n Beans roastery in Peoria Heights.

Since 2018, the Illinois Secure Choice program has facilitated pre-tax contributions to retirement savings accounts for workers at businesses with 25 or more employees.

Workers can opt out if desired. But those who take advantage of the program can choose how much of their paycheck they want to put toward an individual Roth IRA.

Later this year, Secure Choice will expand to include businesses with 16 or more workers. And next year, businesses with five or more workers will be included.

Leaves 'n Beans in Peoria Heights is one of more than 6,000 businesses in Illinois currently offering Secure Choice retirement accounts to workers.

Owner James Cross said the program has proved useful to several workers: one was able to withdraw funds for an emergency car repair, another forgot they’d signed up and didn’t realize they were slowly putting money away for retirement.

“It’s nice to be able to offer that program to them, to give them the ability to save,” he said.

Illinois Treasurer Mike Frerichs visited Leaves ’n Beans roastery on Monday to discuss the impact of the Secure Choice program.

He told WCBU Secure Choice costs nothing to the Illinois taxpayer — or the business owner.

When business owners send payroll taxes to the state, they note how much their employees want to put into their Secure Choice IRA; whether that’s 5% or 8%, for example.

These contributions are pre-taxed dollars. Employees can opt out at any time if they want, Frerichs said.

“A lot of these smaller employers would like to help their employees save for retirement, but when they go out and talk to a 401K provider … because their employees make lower wages, because there tends to be higher turnover, it’s just not profitable … or they charge really high fees,” he said. “We offer a no-fee retirement option for these small businesses.”

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Hannah Alani
Illinois treasurer Mike Frerichs, left, with Leaves 'n Beans owner James Cross at the coffee company's Peoria Heights roastery on Monday, March 28.

Leaves ’n Beans has multiple locations in the Tri-County, but beans are roasted in the basement of Trefzger’s Bakery in Peoria Heights. Cross began roasting in 2006 and took over the company as owner in 2008.

When he first received the Secure Choice paperwork in the mail a few years ago, Cross said he groaned. But once he realized Secure Choice cost nothing to the business and would create sustainable retirement savings for his workers, he became an advocate.

“Obviously it’s more paperwork for the owner to take care of, but they’ve made it as easy as possible,” he said. “It’s a Roth IRA. … The employees, if they transition to different jobs, or if they work more than one job, which most of us do, it’s feeding into one account.”

Currently, five employees at Leaves ‘n Beans utilize Secure Choice, including operations manager Charla Grundon.

She’s worked in the retail and service industries since the ‘70s, first at Nena's Hardware (then True Value) and later, Apple’s Bakery.

She came to Leaves ‘n Beans in 2015, and said she barely notices the 5% of her paycheck that’s now going to her IRA.

“When you work for a small company, you don’t have those opportunities to invest,” she said. “This made it very easy to do.”

Charla Grundon..jpg
Hannah Alani
Charla Grundon has worked for Leaves 'n Beans since 2015.

Stephanie Brown is manager at the Leaves ‘n Beans’ Morton location. She’s worked in the service industry since she was 19 years old; she spent 18 years at Alexander’s Steakhouse.

“I’ve worked since about 1993, mostly for small businesses … never been given the opportunity to set a dime aside for my future,” she said.

While some corporate restaurants and coffee companies offer 401K benefits, Brown said there’s a reason she’s always worked for indie employers.

A mother of three daughters — ages 17, 14 and 11 — Brown said she can manage the Morton coffee shop while also making time for her kids.

“I don’t know that in a corporate world I’d be given that opportunity to be a momma and work a job everyday, and provide for my family,” she said.

Grundon agreed.

“I’ve worked for a lot of people in the city of Peoria and not one of them has risen to the level James has,” she said. “This is my last go-around. This is my last job.”

Learn more about the Leaves 'n Beans roastery and retail store, as well as the company's Pekin, Morton and Peoria Heights cafe locations, online.

Learn more about the Illinois Secure Choice program here.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.