Austin’s Couch Potatoes Rebuilds Lives as Well as Furniture
The company is a success thanks in part to a unique hiring program that serves an overlooked community
A furniture store isn’t the kind of place you’d typically seek or find redemption, but for one local company, that’s exactly the case. Austin’s Couch Potatoes (ACP), which celebrated its 10th anniversary in October, is very much the embodiment of its brand initiatives: “Love People, Bring Comfort, Fair Trade.”
Serving their community is integral to ACP’s ethos. The company is deliberate in its giving, regularly donating to individuals in need and organizations like Season of Caring, Austin Disaster Relief Network and Texas Baptist Children’s Home. Their prefabricated hardwood furniture is primarily sourced from makers in Rajasthan, India, so the company donates funding to a network of Hope Givers International Orphanages in the same region. Most impressive, however, is ACP’s hiring initiative, which entails employing former inmates from the Austin Texas Transitional Center (TC).
TC is a network of regional residential reentry centers (also known as halfway houses) designed to provide a structured, supervised environment for those newly released from the prison system, to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society. The programming includes employment counseling and job placement. What started out as a quest to find skilled labor and help an underserved community find work has turned into what might be best referred to as a “calling,” says ACP co-founder Brian Morgan.
ACP began as a college side hustle for native Austinite Morgan and his best friend, Dan Anthony. They bought and resold used, or lightly damaged furniture, teaching themselves to repair and refurbish in the process. Today, While Morgan and Anthony entered different industries upon graduation, Morgan retained his enthusiasm for giving used furnishings a second life.
After spending more than two years in New York City doing homeless recovery work, Morgan moved back to his hometown with the goal of starting a furniture company alongside his brother, Travis. A year later, Anthony also returned to Austin and joined the company, which in 2011 consisted only of a warehouse used for repairs and storage (and, for a time, living space for all three men). Today, ACP has three retail outlets and an East Austin furniture factory to produce their Made in Austin upholstery collection. The three men are also co-owners of a new, 100,000-square-foot Furniture Mall of Texas, which sells their in-house collection as well as major brands.
Two years after opening their first brick-and-mortar location in 2013 (perhaps you’ve seen the gigantic sofa off of I-35 in North Austin?), the three men knew it was time to revise and refine their goals, as well as hire employees. For the Morgans, creating a brand and company culture were inextricably linked to their upbringing and faith. “We grew up in a rough part of Austin, and didn’t have two pennies to rub together,” Brian Morgan says. “But we had parents who loved us and gave generously to everyone. They saw daily that God would supply their every need. Our experiences shape who we are; when we didn’t have what we needed, we hustled to make it happen and relied on faith to lead us.”
ACP decided to hire warehouse staff, factory workers, framers, upholsterers, assemblers, machine operators, painters and seamsters from the Texas Workplace Commission (TWC). Through that state agency, the Morgans and Anthony learned about prison correctional industry programs.
According to the Correctional Industries Initiative (CCI), “…incarceration may improve an offender’s labor market prospects if the time in prison or jail has a rehabilitative effect and/or leads to the offender receiving additional education or training.” Studies show that CCI programs significantly lower recidivism rates, particularly when they’re linked to job training and certification and animal- and agriculture-assisted jobs, which involve nurturing and bonding and provide evidence of tangible progress. Many inmates are also taught upholstery and other skills relevant to furniture repair and production, so in 2018, ACP started hiring skilled labor from within this underutilized resource, which includes ex-offenders from minimum- and maximum-security facilities. Today, ACP offers job training so they can hire from a wider pool of candidates.
“We give our employees – who we consider and call family – the opportunity and guidance to change their lives, but they’re doing the rest,” says Morgan. “We want to stop the incarceration cycle, through them. It’s more than just hoping someone stays out of prison. We offer support that allows these people to share freely, to rebuild, grow in integrity and be proud of their work.”
Initially, there was some trepidation, says Morgan. “A lot of employers don’t want to risk hiring someone from the prison system, but with our backgrounds in social work, Travis and I had a good understanding of what we were getting into.” Still, the initial process of hiring was intimidating. “Walking into TC, you have 300 guys with all of these abilities, but they have a label on them,” he says. “When we interview someone, we tell them, ‘We want to hear your story and who you want to be.’ We hire for the job, not their past, and our success rate has been phenomenal.”
Running a profitable business, of course, is paramount, but providing comfort and serving others is something the Morgans’ Christian faith instilled at an early age. “Our main focus at ACP is loving people where they’re at,” says Morgan. “But I also practice tough love. Trust is something that you earn. We do our best to explain the path to success within our company.”
While trust isn’t automatic, ACP is a world apart from prison. “It’s encouraging, loving and kind here,” says an employee named Brian, who at the time of this interview was four months into reentry. “Being around that kind of positivity is what I was looking for.”
To circumnavigate the inevitable challenges inherent to hiring employees coming out of the prison system, Morgan notes, “It’s about not setting people up to fail. I never worried about tool theft because we put a system in place to prevent that. You don’t put someone with anger issues in a situation that will trigger them, and we put great leaders in management.”
The proof is in the employees, many of whom have been there for years, while others have gone on to start their own niche upholstery businesses. “I really love what I do, and enjoy people,” says Brian. “I’ve got a five-year goal here, and we’ll see what happens from there.”
“You Can Be Anything You Want to Be”
ACP’s delivery manager, “Q,” is a success story. “He’s vastly important to us,” says Morgan. After starting in the warehouse several years ago, Q was promoted multiple times, working everywhere from the factory to furniture prep.
“I have a real bad record, a lot of tattoos,” he says of the previous difficulties he’s had in finding employment. “I was a four-time offender when I was offered a job with ACP, even though I didn’t have any experience – I just knew that I was a hard worker. I’m just glad these guys gave me a chance. If ACP didn’t exist, I’d probably be back in prison.”
In his time with the company, Q has come to terms with his past and forged several valuable friendships. “Everybody makes mistakes – some are bigger than others,” he says. “Now, I feel like I got a lot of people to turn to, which is comforting. I’ve learned a lot of job skills. I just want people – including other inmates – to know that you don’t have to settle. You can be anything you want to be. You can change your life.”
ACP employs approximately 20 men and several women from TC as well as some of their family members. “We’d like to hire more women down the road and have a plan in place, but our focus is always on providing a safe work environment,” says Morgan. “We talk to their parole officers before hiring to see if there’s anything relevant we should know.” These employees work across the business, from inside the warehouses and factory, staging showrooms, transferring inventory between stores and selling on the floor, according to Morgan.
He notes that for ex-offenders, “recovery doesn’t start with finding a job. There’s so much that’s needed: work clothes, bus pass, bank account, cell phone, housing if it’s not provided by the TC. We ask our new employees how we can help them with the tangible stuff and get them the items they need. Travis opens every room in his home to provide temporary housing and we put our names on leases.” ACP even intentionally opened its factory and retail stores in parts of Austin that were close to bus lines those living in TC housing can access. “It’s best for ex-offenders to live near family,” says Morgan. “We do everything we can to remove the hurdles so they can be successful in their transition to outside life.”
One of the biggest barriers to successful reentry is reframing how ex-offenders view themselves, and their place in society. “In prison, you gotta worry about number one,” says Q, referring to the need for self-preservation instincts in a place where outside rules don’t apply. While addiction and emotional counseling are a part of TC programming, ACP also puts steps in place to help their employees thrive, including retaining the services of a full-time chaplain as a support system and “open ear,” says Morgan, adding, “We’re faith-based, but our employees don’t have to be.”
Faith, in its most literal interpretation, is integral to employees’ personal and professional growth, as is a sense of hope. “ACP gave me a fair opportunity, a good one,” says Brian. “It’s up to me if I want to mess that up. I had several job interviews on reentry and this one was the right fit for me, even though I didn’t have the necessary skills at that time. They asked me what my goals were and gave me a chance. I like to overcome obstacles and face my challenges, but ACP has also given me peace of mind, a place to lay my head, stability and the confidence to believe in myself.”
Brian was hired just one month into reentry following his first conviction. “Prison is a horrible situation and place to be, but you can always get out of it if you put your mind to it,” he says. “You do anything, but you’ve got to take the initiative, that first step. Don’t let nobody tell you, you can’t do it.”
Adds Q, “ACP takes care of me, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to grow, right there with them.”
“A Culture of Others”
In the early days of the pandemic, the nation was facing a dire shortage of PPE, exacerbated by the resulting shortage of polypropylene, used for masks and gowns. In response, ACP pivoted to manufacturing PPE because they keep polypropylene for their furniture manufacturing.
The employees, of their own volition, volunteered on days off to design, make prototypes and sew PPE. Over a million pieces were used to outfit “every ambulance driver in Travis County,” says Morgan. The Department of Homeland Security reviewed the masks and gowns, resulting in ACP being given a contract by the state to manufacture PPE for 15 counties. ACP also shared the prototype with interested furniture manufacturers.
The commission enabled ACP to hire 40 more employees from TC, as well as some existing employees’ family members. Says Morgan, “Overnight, this little company became like a life preserver at a critical time, and the same people society thought couldn’t be depended on were the ones changing the lives of healthcare workers. It gave them a sense of purpose. Director of Department of Homeland Security Juan Ortiz and Director of EMS is Mike Kane visited the factory and told our team they were heroes. It was a really impactful moment.”
The donations recipients referenced above are funded by ACP and decided on by the employees as a team, but Morgan says the staff also donate money out of their own pockets to help one another with necessities like car repairs, meals, transportation, housing costs and medical expenses. Says Morgan, “We’ve built a culture of others.”