LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In the NBA bubble, a quality cup of coffee is hard to come by.
The sweets shop in the El Centro lobby on the way to the practice facility — which offered bitter dark roast — closed soon after players arrived in early July because it wasn’t attracting enough customers. Later that month, the bar in the lobby of the Gran Destino Tower — which made one of the tastier cups of coffee on campus — closed for the same reason.
When Jimmy Butler checked into his hotel, he wasn’t interested in the coffee made with prepackaged pods that came with the room. Luckily, the Miami Heat star had brought his own setup, including a French press, a pour-over and a grinder.
Of course, the 31-year-old, who is known for breakdancing to the beat of his own drum, wasn’t satisfied by merely making a cup for himself every morning. He wanted to turn it into a little business.
So, Butler ordered more equipment and scribbled “Big Face Coffee” — a nod to an inside joke — in blue marker on a whiteboard and hung it outside his room. When teammate Meyers Leonard posted a photo of Butler’s homemade sign on Twitter, Big Face Coffee went viral.
What started as a simple caffeine fix for Butler has morphed into a running joke within the Heat organization — with Butler offering free coffee to teammates who have a good game — and a source of entertainment that breaks up the monotony of trips from the hotel to the arena and back.
Despite the steep prices, players keep coming back and forking over twenties. Point guard Goran Dragic goes for the cappuccinos. Veteran forward Udonis Haslem prefers shots of espresso. The most popular item on Butler’s menu? His vanilla lattes.
“I make them with love,” Butler said with a smile.
But little did Butler know when he started his small business that a coffee competition would soon be brewing in the bubble.
It was mid-August and Big Face Coffee had been operating for about a week when Brandon Gilliam, the Heat’s assistant athletic trainer of six years, identified a need for a lower-priced option.
“My poor video coordinator, he can’t afford that,” Gilliam said of Butler’s coffee, trying his best to suppress a grin. “He is up all hours of the night, breaking down all sorts of film. I am just trying to keep him going.”
An added bonus: messing with the Heat’s star player.
So without telling Butler, Gilliam started his own joint — Little Face Coffee — out of his hotel room.
Unlike Butler’s establishment, Gilliam offers only black coffee that he makes with a pour-over apparatus and a French press he had brought to the bubble for himself. Each cup costs $5. The first one is free.
Gilliam even came up with his own tagline: “The Best Little Coffee Shop in the Bubble. It’s All About the Grind.”
“I tell [Butler], ‘You’re the high frills, you make mochaccinos and frappe-lattes,'” Gilliam said. “‘I am just black coffee, man. So let me have my little world down there.'”
Butler, though, doesn’t seem to fret over the competition.
“Ain’t no one going over there to Little Face Coffee,” he teased. “It’s all about Big Face.”
Butler’s joke isn’t quite accurate — the players tend to favor Butler’s coffee, but Gilliam said he has a reliable customer base of coaches and staff. He even allows patrons to make their own coffee when he is not “on-duty,” leaving his door propped open — making it an all-hours establishment.
Gilliam’s hotel-room door has transformed into a review board.
A review from “Jimmy B” says: “These guys are good! They know coffee.” Another by “Erik S.” reads: “I support small business. I’ve always rooted for the underdog. Little Face Coffee is much better than the big chains. It’s family!”
There’s just one problem.
“I walked by it one day and thought, ‘I didn’t say that,'” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“It’s a different Erik S.,” Gilliam joked. Of course, Gilliam has written every review.
Big Face Coffee is served in charcoal-gray or sleek-eggshell to-go cups with Butler’s logo on them — he has had self-branded cups since he played for the Chicago Bulls, according to his agent, Bernie Lee. Little Face still comes in the standard, white cups that housekeeping replenishes.
But as the lore of the hotel-room coffee shops grew, the setups of both Big Face and Little Face have become more extravagant.
Lee sent Gilliam 10 pounds of Dunkin’ Donuts beans. When the story grew beyond the bubble, various coffee traders from around the country began to send Butler bags of beans. Lee said that one vendor, which he declined to name, customized a Butler blend.
It might be a post-bubble business opportunity: According to Lee, the company has a potential partnership that would distribute upward of 1 million bags of Butler’s coffee across the country. Butler also told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols he might want to open a coffee shop after retiring from the NBA.
“I didn’t understand the coffee hustle before,” Lee said. “There are bean brokers, roasters — I didn’t know any of that. Seven out of 10 calls I get now are about coffee.”
Butler’s representatives submitted paperwork for trademarks related to the name and logos for Big Face Coffee. The Sept. 4 filings show the pending trademarks include Big Face Coffee’s logo, Butler’s tagline “no I.O.U’s” and the words “Big Face Coffee.”
Lee said that when Butler’s paperwork was filed, three other people had already attempted to file some claims for the rights to “Big Face Coffee.” Gilliam said he has explored a trademark for “Little Face Coffee,” but not because he would want to open a coffee shop after leaving the bubble.
“I just don’t want some random person doing [Little Face Coffee] just to compete with him,” Gilliam said of Butler.
For now, though, the coffee-shop rivalry provides comedic relief for the team. It’s rare to walk into a Heat practice or postgame news conference without some mention of the opposing shops.
“It just goes to show how close we are as a team, as a staff, that we have so much fun with all of it,” Butler said. “We got a little competition, but it’s all fun and games. Now, I make way more money than he does over at Little Face Coffee, you should know that. Big Face is still the one. But you know, it’s all love.”
Dragic wants to be the brand manager for both coffee businesses. He said he’s lobbying both shops to call a drink “The Dragon” — his nickname. “It should be a drink that has spice in it,” he said at one practice.
Dragic — who added he is getting a “lifetime sponsorship” with Big Face Coffee — isn’t the only one who wants to be more involved in the brand. Adebayo has proposed getting a stake in the company.
“How about we go 25-25-50?” Adebayo asked, pointing at himself, Dragic and Butler, respectively.
“I’m not good at math,” Butler replied. “I just know I get 100%, and then you guys can have what’s left over.”
The banter often carries over into the arena. Butler has taken to walking into games with “Big Face Coffee Owner” T-shirts and hats. After one recent game, he was talking about Big Face Coffee’s since-disabled Yelp page when a security guard attempted to direct him to the bus.
“Hold up,” Butler told the security guard. “This is important, I’m doing a marketing campaign for Big Face Coffee.”
Seemingly everyone has an idea about how to expand the business. Rookie Tyler Herro doesn’t drink coffee but hopes that, eventually, fresh-squeezed juices will be offered. Adebayo, meanwhile, would like to see baked goods on the menu.
“You should start making doughnuts,” Adebayo said to Butler after a recent game.
Butler was dubious, to say the least.
“How the f— do you want me to make a doughnut, man?”