A trail of notes left across thousands of miles leads to a proposal at Starbucks

By Steve Stolder / Starbucks Newsroom

When Austin Mann decided to ask his longtime girlfriend to marry him he knew exactly where he wanted to do it.

It was the spot where Esther Havens first started to fall in love with him.

It was the spot where they found a way to stay connected as they juggled dating with busy photography careers that often took them far away from each other.

It was the spot where each of them could find a little bit of home, even halfway around the globe.

It was a spot at the Starbucks in the Amsterdam airport.

The path to that moment started almost a decade earlier when they met in 2008 in Waco, Texas. At first, they were just friends with a lot in common. Both Mann and Havens are freelance photographers who do work supporting nonprofit initiatives in developing communities. They each travel more than 100,000 miles a year, so airports are their second homes.

A few years after they met, Mann was returning from an assignment in Africa and passing through the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol when he realized that Havens would be there just a few days later. On a whim, he left her a note at the Starbucks store there and texted her a riddle to help her track it down. And with that, her feelings of friendship began to turn into something more.

“I thought, wow, he put a lot of effort into this,” Havens recalled. “That for me was the start of, ‘Who is this guy? Could I see myself with him?’”

They began dating and, as the scope of their relationship widened, so did the notes. Mann left notes in various Starbucks around the world, keeping track of where he’d put them so if he found out she’d be passing through he could text her clues directing her to them. Often, he’d tape them to the underside of a table or tuck them into a cushion.

That he hid them in Starbucks seemed fitting, since Havens had once worked for the company as did her mother, sister-in-law and brother. Plus, with 26,000 stores around the world, chances are there would be one in most major airports they passed through.

Mann left notes at Starbucks in airports from Los Angeles to New Delhi. In Houston, he ordered her favorite drink, an extra hot vanilla soy latte, to be waiting for her. In Cambodia, she searched where directed, only to find the note gone, while the tape remained.

In turn, Havens left notes for him, too. “Austin’s notes were always filled with something to make me feel special,” she said. “My notes for Austin were many times filled with encouraging words about how awesome I think he is.”

Of all the Starbucks, in all the airports of the world, Amsterdam was special to the couple. Havens passes through it about a half a dozen times a year, she estimates. It’s one of Europe’s busiest airports but the Starbucks there is in a quiet out of the way area at the end of a terminal – a “hidden gem,” Mann said.

That was why when last year, after nearly six years of dating, when he wanted to ask Havens to marry him, he was sure that was the spot. But pulling it off wasn’t easy.

“The Flower” arrives

He knew Havens would be arriving from Tanzania around 7:10 a.m. and had told her that a note would be waiting for her at their Starbucks.

Then, without her knowing, he boarded a flight scheduled to arrive at 6 a.m., shortly after Havens' younger sister, Anna Havens, flew in from Los Angeles to take photos of the proposal. Havens' mother and other family members, who happened to be in Holland at the time, made plans to surprise her at the airport to celebrate after the proposal.

Once Mann and the younger Havens rendezvoused, they laid the groundwork for the scheme.

“I told all the baristas,” Mann said. “I showed them a picture of Esther and introduced Anna. They were all very excited. I gave them my iPhone 7 Plus to take video and got a Starbucks bag, poked a hole in it and put another iPhone shooting video in it on a table next to where I was going to propose.”

Then a text arrived: “Hey, just realized I’m not going to be able to make it today because I’m on the wrong side of security.”

Mann quickly improvised an alternative plan, packing up and racing to the center of the airport to intercept Havens and pop the question on the spot. He and Anna Havens charged along on moving walkways to get to her before she encountered family members waiting outside with congratulatory balloons.

As they neared where they anticipated she’d be, however, another text arrived: “Never mind. Got through security and going to pick up the note now.”

Recognizing she was in their immediate vicinity, the two tried to turn around and run against the flow on the moving sidewalk. When they got back to Starbucks, they alerted the baristas that “the Flower” (a code name they’d given Havens) would soon be arriving.

“Seconds later, Esther entered the Starbucks,” Mann said.

She took her usual seat and found a love note with a PS directing her to go to the bar and get a special preordered drink. When she turned the corner, Mann was waiting for her, a bouquet in one hand and a ring in the other.

“I didn’t say yes very loudly because I thought it was just us,” Havens recalled. “Everyone cheered. I had no idea anyone was watching.

“There are things we can dream about forever, but that’s what I love about Austin is he does it. He makes it happen. He’s like, ‘Why not? I’ll fly to the other side of the world.’"

The couple hasn't set a wedding date yet. They’re thinking they’d like to have a unique destination wedding and are considering options worldwide. They look forward to bringing together family and old friends with new acquaintances they’ve made through their travels and work. And they plan to continue leaving notes for each other as they travel. They estimate 20 or 25 more are still out there.

“One of the things about marrying Austin is it’s going to be an adventure,” said Havens. “We’ve both lived our lives that way.”

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