Since the former Rutgers football player was paralyzed from the neck down during a game against Army at Metlife in 2010, he’s become synonymous with his hard work, perseverance and stubborn optimism against all odds.
On Saturday, the 31-year-old is opening his namesake coffee house in Woodbridge, NJ, with a “LeGrand opening” that’s been nearly two years in the making.
“Coffee is something that you can bring people together with. Eighty five percent of the world drinks it,” LeGrand told The Post. The former defensive tackle who is a motivational speaker, broadcaster and philanthropist behind Team LeGrand had been percolating on opening a business. And during the divisive early days of the pandemic, his mind turned to the caffeinated beverage because of its unifying nature.
“The idea came at a time when the country was at each other’s throats and I was thinking how can I put my brand on something that helps people. People look to me for inspiration and motivation. And over a cup of coffee, there are so many things that happen. Good things that happen.”
But while the social concept of the drink resonated with him, he’d never actually tried the stuff. That changed in August 2020, when he took his first sip: a simple cup of hot black coffee.
“Tell you what, it changed my life. I said, ‘I am missing out on some good stuff.’ Ever since then, it’s been a journey,” said LeGrand who now starts his day with an iced latte.
He called the mayor of Woodbridge about his proposal, and three hours later he put LeGrand on the phone with town’s business honchos.
“We have Starbucks and Dunkin but there’s no mom and pop coffee shop in Woodbridge. The people here always supported me, so this is something I wanted to do. They put their trust in me and know when I go after something, I am really going to put my full effort into it,” said LeGrand who took on a space inside a new residential development on Green Street steps from the train station.
He then hired Bellissimo coffee consultants out of Portland and immersed himself in the industry and the product. Last year LeGrand Coffee House launched as an online business, selling beans to customers in all 50 states, while they worked on the brick and mortar location.
LeGrand, who is in a power wheelchair, designed the space to accommodate others in chairs or with special needs: The doors are wider, the bathrooms are larger and there are high-top tables customers in chairs can fit under.
“And behind the counter, it’s big enough so I can maneuver back and forth and not bump into things,” he added. It’s also been wired by Google, so that LeGrand can control the temperature, lights, music and other business functions with his voice.
“I wish more people would think about [accessibility]. A lot of times, it’s out of sight out of mind. When you’re living in this world every single day, it’s always on your mind. And the people who are closest to me, they always think about it. Everywhere they go they say, ‘Eric wouldn’t be able to get around here.’ I am trying to raise awareness and attention to the things that need to be talked about.”
When it opens its doors, it will serve pastries and monkey bread from Balthazar — and in a nod to his alma mater, a specialty drink called the Scarlett Knight which is a mocha coffee with raspberry and chocolate syrup.
“It’s been a hit so far,” he said of early tastings with friends and family.
LeGrand’s framed Rutgers football jersey hangs on the wall outside of his office at the cafe. It was a gift from head coach Greg Schiano, with whom he shares a special bond. “Coach had it framed and everything. He said, ‘This is my gift to the shop.’”
He’s spent the last week putting the final touches and turning many eager early birds away.
“People keep coming in because they think we’re open. They’re so enthusiastic. It’s really exciting and goes to show you, if you do good in the world, it will come back your way,” said LeGrand, who wants to make this a New Jersey destination and a potential flagship for more locations.
But beyond the community he’s building, LeGrand — who is also learning how to speak Spanish — hopes his business endeavor serves as an example to others that anything is possible.
“I can’t even lift my hand to put a cup of coffee to my mouth, but here I am with a full business. There is no reason for me to be negative and I want to share that with other people,” he said adding, “Focus on the things you have, and if there is something you really want, you work your butt off to get it.”