Fight Crime While You Caffeinate with Criminal Coffee Co.
Founded by the hosts of Crime Weekly podcast, the Cumberland-based company donates a portion of their proceeds to organizations dedicated to getting justice for unsolved crimes.
Some things just go together: milk and cookies, wine and cheese, movies and popcorn…
Crime and coffee.
In fact, the latter is the foundation for the aptly named Criminal Coffee Co, a Cumberland-based company that offers high-end coffee for true crime enthusiasts.
Another natural pairing? The company’s co-owners.
“Big Brother” fans will recognize Providence-born Derrick Levasseur as the victor of the show’s sixteenth season, but the reality star already had quite the resume before appearing on the show in 2014. Levasseur joined the Central Falls police department at twenty years old and worked as an officer for more than a decade — four years of which were spent undercover as a detective — before earning the title of Sergeant.
Once he won the show, however, other doors started opening.
“I had some networks that were interested in working with me in the true crime space, and I ended up signing a deal with Discovery ID. I did a six-part special on OJ Simpson with them and that led into my own spin-off show called ‘Breaking Homicide,’” he explains. “After getting outside the bubble of Central Falls and having the opportunity to travel the world working cases, I decided to open my own private investigative firm and retire [from the force] in 2017.”
“Breaking Homicide” aired for two seasons from 2018 to 2019 before the pandemic, as it’s been known to do, threw a wrench in the plans.
“Then COVID hit and there was this big transition: everyone was doing YouTube and podcasting,” Levasseur recalls. “Discovery came to me and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about doing a true crime podcast?’ I said I was open to it, and we started looking for a cohost.”
Enter Stephanie Harlowe, a popular True Crime YouTuber with nearly 800,000 subscribers. A New York native, she had long harbored a passion for mystery and the macabre, stemming from a deep dive into her older brother’s collection of John Grisham, Anne Rice and Stephen King novels at age nine. Yet her interests didn’t collide with her career until adulthood when, following the birth of her third child in 2018, Harlowe made the decision to start working from home. She considered a few different options before settling on creating a YouTube channel centered around makeup and skincare.
“I did that for about a year, but I was getting bored,” Harlowe says. “How much can you talk about a lipstick? I felt like I wasn’t doing anything productive or creatively stimulating.”
She switched things up and started publishing true crime-focused videos here and there, figuring if no one liked them, she would just continue with her beauty content. To her surprise, the videos did well.
“And this was long before anyone was doing ‘makeup and murder’ on YouTube. I never did that. I kept it separate because I felt it was a little disrespectful to be putting on your makeup while talking about someone’s murder, especially if they still have living family members,” Harlowe explains. “But then I did a video about Madeleine McCann, the little girl who went missing in 2007, and it just hit the algorithm and blew up. Suddenly, people weren’t watching my skincare and makeup videos anymore because they were there for the true crime.”
Five years on, she regularly produces in-depth, long-form videos discussing cases both new and old. In fact, her extensive research and analysis of the subjects is what piqued Levasseur’s interest during his podcast partner hunt.
“I felt like a lot of the YouTubers I watched sensationalized certain things, and that is not me,” he says. “But then I got to Stephanie, and I instantly gravitated towards her videos because she told them in a way that it had a story form to it, but it was respectful. I also was like, ‘this girl’s gotta have some type of experience in PI or investigative work’ because she was so thorough. I knew I wanted to work with her.”
And so, he did what most people do nowadays when hoping to connect with someone new: he slid into her DMs.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Harlowe admits. “But my oldest daughter — she helps me manage my messages — was a fan of his and said, ‘He’s a really nice guy, the best ‘Big Brother’ player of all time, you have to answer him.’”
“Yeah, Nev saved me on that one,” Levasseur says with a laugh.
The two hopped on a call that night and hit it off right away – in part due to their shared passion and partly, Harlowe points out, because of their shared zodiac sign of Aquarius. Levasseur told producers he had found his co-host and the pair initially signed up to host the audio-only Crime Weekly podcast under Discovery’s name. After about a year, though, they amicably parted ways with the network to expand the brand to YouTube.
“I took Crime Weekly under my LLC and now Stephanie and I own it 100%,” Levasseur says. “We’ve been putting out episodes every single week both on audio and video for about two years now. We’re at about 18 million audio listens and we just passed 22 million views on YouTube.”
The episodes, which are often multi-parters, mostly cover unsolved cases and clock in anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours long. Regularly discussing such tough topics so often and at such length, however, has given the hosts an intimate look at the effect these justice-less crimes have not just on the victims, but also their families who are in need of answers.
“Unfortunately, the main barrier to entry is often money,” Levasseur says. “There are so many unsolved cases that are solely predicated on the lack of testing on the DNA that’s been found. There are hundreds of thousands of date rape kits sitting in evidence lockers right now that just need to be tested to maybe bring justice to those victims. And it’s an absolute crime – no pun intended — that the only reason they’re not being solved is because they don’t have the money to do the test. It’s expensive.”
Though he and Harlowe regularly donate to victims’ fundraising campaigns and encourage their listeners to do the same, they wanted to make an even bigger impact.
“Honestly, it’s hard to get people to open their wallets ‘just because,’” Levasseur explains. “They consume the true crime content every single week, yet they’re not always giving back. So, we said, ‘Okay, how can we give someone a tangible product so they’re getting something, but we’re also going for a bigger cause?’”
Both caffeine addicts, the two hosts were well aware of the hold coffee has on most podcast listeners. And so, Levasseur, who also has a degree in business, reached out to New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Providence to see if they would be interested in partnering up.
“If you’ve ever had New Harvest, you know their coffee is phenomenal,” Levasseur says. “[Owner Rik Kleinfeldt] had a few different roasts he wasn’t using, so Stephanie came down from New York, we did a taste test and we agreed on three. Now they roast, ground and bag them for us right in-house.”
Criminal Coffee’s flagship offerings include the light Colombian “Undercover Roast;” the medium Costa Rican “Rogue Roast;” and the dark Guatemalan and Colombian “Alias Blend.” Each roast’s packaging features its own Criminal Coffee Universe character — as illustrated by a mega talented graphic designer out of Austria — along with a QR code that leads to their respective backstories and ongoing journal entries (written by Harlowe herself) on the company’s website.
“Every month we update these characters’ stories in this fictional true crime universe, so it gives the drinker something to kind of keep their mind occupied while they’re drinking their coffee,” Levasseur adds.
All in the name of bolstering Criminal Coffee’s mission to Fight Crime. For every bag of coffee sold, the company sets aside a portion of the proceeds to be donated to victims’ families and/or related communities and organizations in need of financial assistance. According to the website, nearly $8,000 has been raised and donated so far.
“We’re trying to give people an opportunity where they’re getting some really high quality coffee while also giving to a great cause, and they can follow up on the website to see where their money is going,” Levasseur says. “Just two months ago we donated $5,000 to Preble Penny, an unsolved case out of Ohio involving a woman who was believed to be murdered. They didn’t have the money for the testing, so we paid for it and now we’re just hoping for some results.”
And the hope is to be able to do much more, but that, of course, requires getting the word out.
Being in social media, Levasseur and Harlowe knew gifting the coffee to their peers and other well-known connections with the large followings is the standard nowadays when it comes to reaching wider audiences. Harlowe, however, had the brilliant idea to take things a step further with custom “Mission Boxes.” Thankfully, another Rhode Island company, J&R Marketing, were more than up for the task. The Smithfield-based branding and marketing agency not only helped create the boxes and later distribute them, but also secured the different elements included within. In addition to the three Criminal Coffee roasts, a coffee grinder and a pair of color changing mugs embossed with the company’s logo, the boxes will also contain a personalized letter addressed to its recipients.
“It basically says, ‘We need your help finding this character who’s been lurking around the Criminal Coffee Universe, pick up the Alias Blend to find the next clue,” Levasseur explains. “Under the coffee, they’ll find a black light pen and a note. It will instruct them to use the pen to find a hidden message, which will say to lift a corner of the box, and underneath they’ll find a t-shirt from our merch line.”
Picking up the shirt (also J&R’s handiwork) will then lead to the final reveal: a custom drawing of the recipient as a character in the Criminal Coffee Universe.
The thirty-seven custom boxes were officially shipped out during the second week of March and the shares have already come rolling in, with influencers like Cody Calafiore, Kendall Rae, Ashley Flowers (of Crime Junkie), Shia Danni, Rachel Shannon and more expressing their joy upon finding their likeness (keep up with @drinkcriminalcoffee on Instagram to see who else gets in on the fun).
And Levasseur and Harlowe have even more in store to keep up the momentum.
“We are also going to be launching K-cups soon — that’s a whole different market we haven’t touched yet,” he says, “It’s only going to increase the amount of people we’re reaching, which will increase the number of cases [we can help]. We’d like to be in a position where we’re donating once a month to a case. That’s the goal.”
If you are interested in helping them achieve said goal and in trying the coffee out for yourself (this writer can personally attest that it’s fantastic), head on over to criminalcoffeeco.com. (Please note: the Cumberland location is for distribution purposes only and does not have the coffee available for purchase.) You can also catch up with Levasseur and Harlowe weekly on the Crime Weekly podcast, available on YouTube, Apple, Spotify, IHeartRadio and Google.