Coffee has seen a surge in popularity among professional athletes since the pandemic’s onset. Former Chicago Bulls player and current Miami Heat member Jimmy Butler started Big Face Coffee, his own company, last year — and he isn’t the only one. In March 2020, Chicago Cub Ian Happ invested in Connect Roasters and quickly raised money for COVID-19 relief.
Happ has spent five seasons with the Cubs. Over the last two seasons, COVID-19 has prevented athletes like him from exploring cities when they travel for the last two of them. At a news conference earlier this month, Chicago White Sox rookie Yermín Mercedes told Eater Chicago his teammates have yet to show him around the city due to restrictions. In keeping with social distancing rules, the NBA supposedly has a secret list of restaurants players are allowed to eat at this season. Players haven’t had as many opportunities to fully experience restaurants in new cities during the pandemic, but coffee shops are a different matter. Happ says one of his favorite pastimes is checking out a city’s coffee scene.
“I’ve been super passionate about it for a while,” Happ says.
Connect donates $3 for every bag of Quarantine coffee beans sold to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Save the Children. From March 2020 through April 2021, that’s resulted in 18,000 meals for the depository. In addition to the charity endeavors, Happ wants to grow the company. He’s angling to sell Connect at Mariano’s and Whole Foods grocery stores. Happ has another target in sight, but he needs to convince his bosses first. Eventually, he would like Wrigley Field to serve his coffee: “We’re trying,” he says.
While Happ normally prefers a light roast pour over in the morning, particularly one made from Guatemalan beans, he’ll indulge in a cortado or cappuccino from time to time. His favorite road cities outside Chicago to explore for coffee are (sorry, Cubs fans) St. Louis and San Francisco.
“I think in most cities you can find at least one spot for great coffee,” he says.
Happ has secured deals to distribute his coffee outside of Chicago, netting an agreement with retailer Foxtrot to sell beans in Texas and Washington, D.C. Kitchfix, the West Town-based meal subscription service will also soon sell the coffee on its site.
Professional athletes often turn to coffee when they are looking for whatever can provide them with an edge to outperform the competition. In locker rooms and clubhouses, players used to have a choice. Option one was the typical pots of normal black coffee, similar to what the general public expects. Choice No. 2 was a mystery pot sometimes laced with amphetamines or “greenies.” Major League Baseball banned the practice in the 2000s. Football players, especially those who sprint down the field after a kickoff on special teams, were also known to chug the enhanced coffee before games.
“You mean leaded or unleaded?” Happ says when asked about the subject.
Those days were long gone before Happ’s career began. But players still need pick-me-ups. Like Butler, who took advantage of the miserable coffee situation for NBA players last year while in the Orlando, Florida, bubble (Butler charged other players $20 per cup), Happ is also providing coffee to his fellow players. Through Kitchfix, the service that provides team meals to the Cubs, Texas Rangers, LA Dodgers, and Tampa Bay Rays, Happ is able to serve Connect throughout the league and will eventually sell the coffee to customers online.
“I think it’s great, I think it’s awesome that guys are getting into the stuff,” Happ says of other professional athletes’ rising interest in coffee.
Happ compares coffee’s growing popularity in sports with wine, which has gotten so much interest that stars like NBA player Carmelo Anthony are now regularly featured on magazines like Wine Spectator, two worlds people often considered wholly separate. As with coffee, this culture shift demonstrates how players are not only gaining knowledge on topics once thought too posh for locker rooms but expanding the very idea of who those interests are really for and how accessible they may be.
While athletes are discovering what coffees or wines suit them best, they’re also seeing how their different backgrounds reflect different tastes and preparation. Baseball is a multicultural sport and there’s space in the coffee world for more people to make it their own.
“I drink coffee black, but Javier Baez drinks coffee a lot differently,” Happ says. “One of the hitting coaches is from the Dominican Republic and that is all milk and sugar — it’s all over the place. It’s just fun to see the different forms of coffee and culture.”