Jimmy Butler’s “Big Face Coffee” might have started as a bit of a joke inside the NBA’s pandemic bubble, but that feels a million years ago now. What began with a french press and fleecing stars with overpriced coffee has now transformed into a burgeoning empire, complete with specially sourced beans, merchandise, and now its own ice cream.
This week Van Leeuwen Ice Cream announced it was collaborating with Big Face Coffee on a limited edition affogato flavor, a mix of vanilla ice cream with single-origin Ethiopian beans sourced by Big Face. I had the opportunity to sit down with Jimmy Butler and learn how coffee has become such a big part of his life, and how it’s his dream to get booed out of an arena while competing in a barista competition.
The motivation for bringing good coffee to the market is twofold for Butler, “I feel like I’m a perfectionist and I want to be the best in everything,” he says, “coffee’s no different.” But there’s also a larger, more sentimental part to his mission. For a brand that began under cloistered, pandemic-forced circumstances, he sees coffee as a way to heal in a world post-isolation. “More than anything it’s about bringing people together. Forcing them to sit down a have a great cup of coffee, or a scoop of ice cream — find what they have in common, and show as much love as they can.”
Part of making this process a success is accepting he’s not an expert. Butler loves coffee, and it’s a major passion of his life — but he admits he still has so much learning to do. “I have a phenomenal team that point me in every direction,” he says when asked about how single-origin Ethiopian beans were picked for the ice cream flavor. “I don’t know as much as I think that I know,” says Butler, but while he’s staying humble, the process has transformed him into a coffee expert in his own right. There’s obvious passion while he’s telling me about the notes of peach, jasmine, and white grape he tastes in the beans selected — and how he thought it would work with vanilla ice cream.
One of the most remarkable things is that despite running a premium coffee brand, Butler is a-okay if you just drink gas station trash. He’s not going to judge you. “I don’t think that there’s a bad cup of coffee, I don’t. As long as you’re drinking coffee, as long as you’re enjoying it — that’s the way to go.” That said, he also wants to introduce people into different styles of coffee, ways to prepare it, and he’s a perfectionist when it comes to that too.
Butler tells me he’ll spend hours making lattes, trying to perfect his pour over technique, not dissimilar to a player spending hours in the gym working on their shot. He also acknowledges that he messes up the coffee he makes every day, at least in his view, because his pour over game isn’t consistent yet. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” Butler quips, “I’m not very consistent at it. I haven’t had two of the same cups of coffee when I’m making it, but it’s trial and error.” That passion has already converted his teammates.
Butler tells me that his involvement in the coffee world has turned all of the Miami Heat players into serious coffee drinkers now — but part of that is his role as a leader on the team. Butler carves out time for each member of the Heat, whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or between practices, inviting them to sit down and have coffee with him (made by Butler, naturally) to talk, to bond, and discuss their lives. “We’ll talk about what we have coming when it comes to the game, how everyone is feeling, what matters to them, how their bodies are feeling.”
That’s all very nice, but make no mistake: Coffee provides Butler with new opportunities too. “It really got me a new way to talk trash to people, people who really know how to do this latte art.” Butler loves stepping up to a barista and challenging them to a coffee showdown. “I talk like I know what I’m doing, and I get humbled every single time,” he laughs, “but I love it. I get to go back to the drawing board and try to do what they just did. It gives me something to strive for.” Butler’s morning cup of coffee now isn’t just a way to start the day, it’s “working on his craft” as he puts it, and he loves being able to make coffee for all of him family, taking orders like a barista at home, and being able to make anything people want off the top of his head. It’s a way to practice, but also show love — and Butler says he loves serving people their favorite cup of coffee.
As for Butler himself, it’s an easy answer when I ask what his go-to cup is. “Flat white, without a doubt, oat milk — sign me up. Every single time. For the rest of my life. Any time or the day, I’ll drink it before bed, I’ll drink 10 back-to-back.” I’m taken aback by his answer. As an Australian I’m used to the flat white (one shot espresso, two shots milk) being a go-to style, but I tell Butler I’m surprised by his choice because it’s not common in the United States. “EXACTLY!” he joyously yells, “you see what I did? A lot of people in America don’t know about that yet.” He tells me he’s excited to go to Australia, not just for the sights, but because he’s heard that any coffee shop can make him a flat white without asking him what it is. This summer he’s traveling with his family to New Zealand and Australia, and he’s already mapped out the coffee shops he wants to hit while there, or places he’s heard about.
One thing is certain: Butler’s love of coffee is second only to basketball when it comes to his professional life. At 32 he’s still got plenty left in the tank when it comes to the NBA, but I ask him if when his playing days are done if we’ll ever see him throwing on an apron and taking his competitiveness to the world of barista contests.
“I wanna do it now!” Butler says enthusiastically, “I should probably copyright this ... ‘Big Face Barista Brawl’ no fighting, no fighting — just straight latte art. No time to practice, you go now. I want to get in it because I just wanna get booed off the stage. I feel like I need that in my life. Please, boo me, because it’s gonna be so bad.”