The technical term for it in coffee tasting circles is “cupping,” but as Ian Happ is learning, it means taking a loud slurp of coffee from a small sampling cup.
Happ is in the roasting room at Connect Roasters in Bourbonnais, Illinois, doing a blind taste test of three of Connect’s coffees. He is working on his ability to identify the coffees just by their taste.
Caleb Benoit, Connect’s founder, demonstrates the proper way to cup the coffee, describing it as an “aggressive slurp” and suggesting that doing it properly means letting go of inhibitions just a little.
As Happ tastes the coffees, a photographer is capturing the process on video for a Connect social media promotion. Happ later films a quick video encouraging Cubs fans to come to the convention in January and visit the Connect booth that will be there. Later, Happ signs a stack of baseball cards and other memorabilia for giveaways.
Happ’s relationship with Connect Roasters is well known to Cubs fans by now. For many of them, he put Connect on their radar. In most cases, this kind of relationship between a company and an athlete or celebrity endorser would entail little more than the rights to that person’s likeness. Happ could easily snap a few pictures for Connect to use on their product, post to social media on occasion, and leave it at that.
Instead, on an early November day while he is in Chicago from his offseason home in Texas, Happ has driven an hour from the city to Bourbonnais to spend time working on filming promotions, testing product and visiting a potential site for a Connect Roasters cafe near their roasting facility. Even during the baseball season, Happ has at least once taken part of an off day in the schedule to make the drive south.
“I care about this business,” Happ told CHGO. “I care about these guys, and I enjoy it.”
The business that is Connect Roasters is a small group, led by Benoit and husband and wife Greg and Jessica Rattin. Happ has become a de facto staff member, so much so that customers have shown up at Connect expecting him to be there working.
One day last summer, Greg, who is the primary roaster, had the industrial sliding door to the roasting room open and a woman drove up looking for Happ.
“It was a warm day, so we kept the door open,” Greg told CHGO. “She drove up and rolled down her window and asked ‘Is Ian working today?’”
Greg and Jessica laugh as they retell the story, and though it speaks partially to the naivete of the hopeful visitor, it also says a lot for how involved Happ is in the operations at Connect. During spring training 2022, Happ finished a game and got on a sales call with Jewel-Osco still in full uniform. He regularly talks and texts with Benoit about new product releases and marketing.
“My job here is not to roast coffee or decide what the best coffee is. That’s what these guys do so well,” Happ said. “It’s to get it in people’s hands because once they’ve tasted it, once they’ve had it, the rest takes care of itself.
“The biggest thing is I enjoy the marketing side, I enjoy thinking through these opportunities and getting some of this stuff to the finish line.”
That’s not to say that Happ doesn’t know his coffee. After filming the taste test and Cubs Convention promos for Connect, he carefully prepares a batch of pour-over with a Chemex. He checks in with Benoit and the Rattins about the right water-to-coffee ratio, the grind setting, and the correct timing of pouring the water over the beans.
“You would be surprised how involved he is,” Benoit told CHGO. “We don’t launch anything without him putting eyes on it. It’s not just this brand ambassador relationship. He’s an equity partner in the business.”
Happ was a finance major in college at the University of Cincinnati, but he always found marketing interesting. Once he reached the majors in 2017, seeing the behind-the-scenes work that players, teams and the league did piqued his interest further. Now, working with Connect gives Happ a chance to flex his marketing prowess.
Happ initially got involved with Connect thanks to a tweet from an account Greg runs that covers two of his passions: baseball and coffee. He posted his tweet on March 30, 2020, and tagged Ian in it.
Greg joined Connect in late 2019, about three years after Benoit started the company. For the first three years, Benoit had his coffee roasted in a partnership with a roaster in Geneva, Illinois, in Chicago’s far western suburbs. Greg started roasting his own coffee with a popcorn popper at his house around 2013, and when Benoit was ready to move into his own roasting facility in November 2019, he invited Greg to come roast for him.
Of course, a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of things to a halt. When Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker issued the shelter-in-place order in March 2020, Benoit had close to three tons — 6,000 pounds — of coffee waiting for Greg to roast.
“It was a ‘What are we going to do?’ moment,” Benoit said.
During that time, Greg posted the tweet that caught Happ’s eye.
“I reached out, we were in Arizona at the time with the guys at the Compound, and it was like ‘Hey, let’s see if they’ll send us some coffee,’ and they sent coffee,” Happ said. “I tried it and was blown away.”
He went to a Target in Arizona that day and bought a whole pourover kit, so he could get the best of Connect’s flavor. Happ was already a coffee guy; he credits his older brother Chris for that. Their parents, Happ said, were “dark roast, sludge drinkers,” but he and Chris took up trying craft coffee as a hobby when they moved in together after Happ got drafted by the Cubs in 2015.
It didn’t take long after trying Connect’s Nicaragua blend for Happ to start thinking about ways to work with them. He liked the taste of their coffee, but he was also drawn to Connect’s giveback model. Benoit was inspired to start the company after trips to the Dominican Republic and Haiti in 2013 and 2014 and wanted to find a way to do work that could be a tangible solution to the problem of poverty that he saw there. Charity being at the center of Connect’s business made Happ want to be more than just a customer.
He credits playing for the Cubs as one of the reasons he feels such a strong desire to give back. Happ said he didn’t fully understand the power of the Cubs fanbase before getting drafted. It really hit him, he said, when he reached the majors in 2017, the year after the Cubs won the World Series. Six years into his career, it still hits him in moments when he sees the fans at Wrigley on their feet for a full count late in a game, even when his team is buried deep in the standings.
“I wouldn’t be doing half of the stuff I’m doing now without a community that cares as much as they do,” Happ said.
Within a few days of trying Connect’s coffee for the first time, Happ reached out to Benoit with some ideas. One of those became Quarantine Coffee, a blend that gave $3 a bag to Chicago charities, like local food banks. At a time when Connect was still trying to figure out how to navigate the early stages of the pandemic, they were giving away a sizable chunk of their potential profit. But giving back had been a part of Benoit’s business from the beginning, so he took to Happ’s idea quickly.
“It definitely fit in with what we were already doing,” he said. “I founded the company with the idea that coffee could be a vehicle to give back and improve people’s lives.”
From there, the partnership with Happ quickly reached its current form. They started the Home Run Club, a coffee subscription service that has reached over 500 subscribers in about a year. That group has become a bit of a community. Some of them aren’t even coffee drinkers — they get their monthly bag of coffee and give it away as a gift, or they buy coffee in bulk to give away. They had a member buy gift cards for Benoit and the Rattins to give to other customers. One member had bleacher tickets to a late-season series against the Reds he wanted to give away, and he turned to Connect to help find a recipient.
“It’s just, like, unusual gratitude,” Benoit said. “I would never expect to see something like that.”
But that strong sense of community is a part of the vision for Connect going forward. They successfully weathered the pandemic and have formed a strong relationship with the Cubs and coffee drinkers in Chicago. Connect Roasters coffee is what’s served in the clubhouse at Wrigley Field, and they have their cold brew on tap in all of Foxtrot Market’s Chicago locations, including Gallagher Way in Wrigleyville.
The next step for Connect is to open cafes. They plan to start at a spot in Bourbonnais and hope to be all over Chicagoland eventually. And Happ is getting on Zoom calls with Jewel in uniform because they want to be on the shelf at grocery stores, too. Benoit and his team believe they have something at Connect that can differentiate them from other local coffee companies: a quality mission and quality coffee to go with it.
“You might have the best mission in the world, but if the coffee sucks, you might buy it once, but you’re not buying it again,” Benoit said. “The key to what we’re doing is quality product, quality mission, and then, obviously, Ian helping with the marketing and some of the branding.”
After Happ finished his work at Connect’s home base, he climbed into his rental car with Benoit and a few other Connect staff members. The group was headed to see the potential cafe site in Bourbonnais, which they hope will be the first of many that will eventually cover the Chicago area. Part of the reality of Happ’s day job is that he might one day — perhaps even soon — be playing his home games in a different city. That might bring expanded opportunities for him and for Connect, but at present, that’s not their focus.
“With where we’re at right now, we want to dominate Chicago,” Happ said. “We want when people think of drinking coffee in Chicago, we want Connect to be that presence here.”