- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

NEW YORK (AP) - Whether it’s to plan for their future once basketball is done, promote healthy living or just to have some fun, WNBA players such as Sue Bird and Maya Moore are getting involved in the food industry.

The key is to do it with people they trust.

Bird has invested in restaurants in the Northeast for over a decade, getting started when UConn coach Geno Auriemma presented the opportunity for his former players to buy into his place at the Mohegan Sun.

“Coach Auriemma’s restaurant is a well-oiled machine,” Bird said. “He has great people working for him and it seemed like a natural fit.”

His Mohegan Sun restaurant has photos of UConn players all over the place, with sandwiches and meals named after those former Huskies greats.

From there, Bird branched out when a family friend, Dylan Welsh, was looking for co-investors for a few restaurants in the Boston area - Welsh’s Five Horse Taverns.

“My dad and I got involved as we totally trusted Dylan,” Bird said. “If we didn’t know him as well as we did having lived across the street from him for so many years, we probably wouldn’t have gotten involved.”

The Seattle Storm guard tries to stop by the restaurants when she’s in town, although she admits for now she’s mostly a silent investor.

“When I get older and I’m done playing, who knows?” Bird said of getting more involved when she retires. “For right now, it’s a nice check, definitely.”

Alana Beard and Marissa Coleman are taking a more hands-on approach than Bird. The pair bought into their first food franchise last year, a Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant in Virginia. Ever since Coleman was a rookie with the Washington Mystics, the duo spoke about life after basketball. Coleman had a teammate at Maryland whose father owned several Domino’s franchises in the area. So when Beard and Coleman were ready, he brought them in to the Mellow Mushroom franchise.

“We are all part-owners and are using this as an apprenticeship to learn every aspect of the company to open our own in the next three years,” Beard said. “He’s been such a valuable resource for us helping us through this process.”

Beard spent a lot of time, after helping Los Angeles win the WNBA championship this past fall, learning the ins and outs of the business, even learning how to make the pizzas.

Having a mentor has really helped.

“I don’t like to make mistakes, but when this opportunity came, I jumped on it because it was the perfect situation,” Beard said. “Mr. Waller has 30 years of business experience and is someone who has gone through it. It takes the risk factor down tremendously and we can learn at our own pace and feel comfortable to open up our own.

Beard got a firsthand look at franchising in 2010 when she spent three months as an intern at Jamba Juice’s executive development program.

“It’s funny, I always dreamed that I wanted to own a smoothie place and when I was at Duke I thought it would be Smoothie King,” Beard recalled. “That time I spent at Jamba Juice was huge. Maybe down the road I’ll own one of those, too.”

Unlike Bird, Beard and Coleman, Angel McCoughtry is going out on her own, opening an ice cream shop in Atlanta this spring.

“It started two years ago, I eat ice cream all the time,” McCoughtry said. “It’s harder than I thought originally, but it’s so worth it.”

McCoughtry will have more free time on her hands than Beard and Coleman to get the store up and running. She announced earlier this month that she would be taking some time off from the WNBA season to rest her body after playing year-round since graduating from Louisville in 2009.

“I’ll be involved as much as I can outside of basketball,” she said. “We’re going to do a truck as well and hit all the festivals and events in Atlanta. I’m going to be hands on.”

McCoughtry said she was lactose intolerant growing up and wanted to make sure she had ice cream for people who couldn’t normally enjoy the frozen treat.

Moore found her own love of a dessert in Chloe’s Fruit. Like most pro athletes, the Minnesota Lynx star has always been health conscious of what food she eats. That’s why she’s become involved with the soft-serve fruit.

“I was originally introduced to Chloe’s Fruit by a friend. I thought it was such a great-tasting product,” Moore said. “On top of it, it’s guilt-free, so that’s what attracted me to it. I think in the time we live in with people starting to really invest in the health category in general, it’s important.”

So she became an investor. Moore said for her, it’s so important to believe in the product first before making any kind of financial investment. She also has a stake in Beyond Meat, a company that makes plant-based protein.

“I think from early on in my career, I wanted to be someone who promotes health and wellness and nutrition,” Moore said. “These two companies definitely fit all those things.”

Coleman and Beard both had advice for other WNBA players who may want to get into the food business.

“Make sure you do your homework and start out with people you know,” Coleman said. “And most importantly, get involved with something you like.”

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