The next chapter of Eric LeGrand’s remarkable story is set where it all began, in his hometown of Woodbridge. And in a come-full-circle moment, it takes place in the neighborhood where he lived the first few years of his life.
LeGrand, the former Rutgers University football standout who was paralyzed during an October 2010 game, is planning to open LeGrand Coffee House later this year in downtown Woodbridge.
The idea came to LeGrand during the 2020 summer when he noticed on a group text that most of his friends would send a picture of their coffee each morning. While LeGrand did not have his first cup of coffee until last August – he now sees why people drink it all the time – he has always loved the vibe of cafes and coffeehouses.
“I’ve always been this big cafe guy,” LeGrand said. “I can sit in the cafe relaxing and I just enjoy that.”
During the pandemic, when he had time to reflect and be creative, he was inspired by reading the book, “Shoe Dog,” which details Phil Knight’s journey building Nike into the juggernaut apparel brand it is today. And as LeGrand became more passionate about coffee, he asked why he couldn’t create his own coffee brand, with his own name behind it?
“I want to have my story and my idea bringing unity to the community around it,” LeGrand said. “And this is something that people want and need every day.”
He set out to learn what it would take to turn his vision into a reality. One of his early calls was to Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac. The two have shared a close relationship since LeGrand starred on the football field at Colonia High School.
McCormac has spent the last several years trying to bring his own dream to fruition: a planned redevelopment of Woodbridge’s downtown. The mayor has been all over the state doing his homework on downtowns and transit villages to see what has worked and what has not. He has also spent considerable time and political capital trying to convince Woodbridge residents why this kind of change is good.
“We’re trying to get people to buy into the vision for the downtown,” McCormac explained. “Right now, it’s not acceptable to not have a better downtown business district. It’s just not good enough.”
Woodbridge officials identified 14 zones downtown that would be prime for development and awarded contracts to developers for five of those zones, which are under construction now. So with McCormac trying to drum up public support for these major projects, LeGrand reaching out for advice about starting his own business seemed almost fateful.
As LeGrand put together the concept of LeGrand Coffee House, McCormac introduced him to Prism Capital Partners, who are developing a project just steps away from the Woodbridge train station at Rahway Avenue and Green Street. After some early hesitation from the developers because of his inexperience as a businessman, they were quickly sold on the weight and cache his name carries in Woodbridge.
A deal was soon reached to have LeGrand Coffee House be the first retail tenant of the project, which consists of 232 luxury rentals and 12,000 square feet of street level retail space. “The name Eric LeGrand as the first commercial tenant is absolutely invaluable as we try to promote our plans for downtown Woodbridge,” McCormac said. “There’s nobody better. There’s nobody’s name more recognizable. There’s nobody more respected and well-liked than Eric LeGrand.”
LeGrand is thankful for the support from the mayor. “He’s guided me along the way and just helped me,” LeGrand said. “Whenever I need him, he is just making sure everything is going smoothly. And I know how excited he is to also bring it to the town.” As fate would have it, LeGrand revealed the home he lived in from birth until about four-years-old was cleared as part of the demolition for the redevelopment.
He is eager to give back to Woodbridge for all of the support he received in the aftermath of his injury. “It’s raised me, grew me to the man I am today,” LeGrand said of Woodbridge. “Just give a place where people can go to and get away from their home or their workplace. So, it’s me giving back to the community, as well. Because also I’ll be able to hire people throughout the community, be able to have events throughout the community, and bring unity to the community because that’s what we need right now.”
While LeGrand waits for construction of the brick-and-mortar location to be completed – he believes it will open by August or September – and deals with the isolation caused by the pandemic, he has kept himself busy by flipping the script in how he is building his business. He launched the website, legrandcoffeehouse.com, where he sells coffee mugs and three different type of beans, which are sourced from a single origin for maximum quality.
The move allowed him to get the brand off the ground, building a consumer base across 48 states that can become familiar with the product and the story. “I did the reverse way,” LeGrand explained. “So, I knew I had a name. I knew my story is out there. And now, I can provide the people with the product before the brick-and-mortar is even open.”
LeGrand believes the Coffee House is going to be something special. He feels like it is what he trained for during his time at Rutgers. McCormac agrees and said he thinks it will be the go-to coffee destination in Woodbridge, with the potential to expand to more locations. And he can only imagine the atmosphere during major Rutgers events.
“The first Rutgers home game after this is open is going to be packed with scarlet-colored shirts,” McCormac said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Schiano makes an appearance very soon after Eric opens.”
As for Schiano – the once and current head football coach at Rutges – he is indeed excited for this next step in the story of Eric LeGrand.
Schiano and LeGrand have shared a tight bond since their time at Rutgers, which only grew stronger in the aftermath of LeGrand’s injury. “He is a special individual, and you hear that said about a lot of people over time,” Schiano said. “But here’s a guy, who had a tragic event over 10 years ago, and he every day makes a choice to turn that into a positive and affect other people.”
And as his former player’s story comes full circle, Schiano’s own has been on a parallel track.
LeGrand was outspoken in his support for Schiano to return to Rutgers, which took place in December 2019, following the groundswell of pressure from fans, alumni and boosters. Schiano revealed that LeGrand was also instrumental behind the scenes.
At a moment when negotiations were choppy, a visit and chat in LeGrand’s man cave convinced Coach Schiano that coming back to New Jersey was the right decision. “He’s really important to me,” Schiano said. “I love him quite a bit. And he and his mom, Karen, they’ve become family to us.”
Schiano felt like he had unfinished business at Rutgers. “There is a lot of stuff left to do that we didn’t get done here,” Schiano said. “And I really thought it would be cool to do it with Eric alongside of us.”
And now they will chart the next chapter of their respective journeys, which remain connected, close together in New Jersey.
“I know we’re going to try and help him in any way, just like we would any of our players,” Schiano said. “I think being in the local community is great for everybody in that community. I think Eric will be a unifying factor. I was excited to see him doing this.”
“Our daily motto is unity to the community with a daily cup of believe,” LeGrand said.
Schiano also expects LeGrand to be pumping up Rutgers football at his new establishment. LeGrand remains active and involved with Rutgers, and is an analyst on the Scarlet Knights football radio broadcasts. But COVID-19 has forced him to remain physically distant from the team, which Schiano hopes will change soon.
“Once this thing goes away, I expect him to be around a lot to help me, which I think is going to help him as well,” Schiano said.
Schiano then joked that his former player may be too much of a big shot for him now. “Now that he’s a big businessman, I don’t know what the heck’s going to happen.”