Green aprons, diplomas and a proposal

A lifelong goal accomplished. The end of a years-long trail of love notes. The connection of cops and a community.

In a year of American political turmoil and division, it was the stories of opportunity, service and nostalgia that resonated the most with Starbucks News readers. From the triumph of a first-in-the-family college degree to the remarkable sacrifices made by the subjects of the second season of Upstanders – plus a good helping of green-apron affection – our readers clicked most on these stories in 2017:

College diplomas no longer just a dream

ASU Graduation

On the wall of Alexander Nunes’ bedroom is a map of the world. A scattering of blue push pins represents the places he hopes to visit one day. Others anchor him where he’s been. The blue push pin over Tempe, Ariz., would soon be realized – when he became the first person in his family to graduate from college as he gets a diploma from Arizona State University. Starbucks College Achievement Plan saw hundreds of partners walk in spring commencement, and their stories of struggle and triumph were highlights of the year. Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz delivered the commencement address this May, telling the crowd of 30,000: “Your station in life does not define you and the promise of America is for all of us.”


Starbucks opened its first Starbucks Reserve Roastery in December in China, the company’s fastest growing market. The 30,000 square-foot Shanghai Roastery features a two-story, 40-ton copper roasting cask, or kettle, bejeweled with traditional Chinese chops, or stamps, engraved to tell the story of Starbucks; a ceiling constructed of 10,000 hexagon tiles, intended to call to mind the locking of an espresso shot on an espresso machine, and copper “symphony” pipes, transporting freshly roasted beans from the cask to silos at the coffee bars. In a nod to the country’s tea heritage, the Roastery features beverages incorporating Teavana tea infused with nitrogen and a new method of tea brewing using the Steampunk, which relies on steam to extract flavors from tea leaves. Massive global media coverage of the opening pushed these stories toward the top of the list.


The second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories highlighting ordinary people doing extraordinary things, is a tribute to people all over America showing courage and strength in reaching out to build community. The videos feature a diverse array of people committed to changing lives, including a mother who rallied a Montana community to become a haven for refugees, two Navy SEALs who help wounded veterans rebuild strength through surfing, a chef who runs a restaurant staffed by former juvenile inmates, and a friendship forged between a white man who acknowledged his prejudice on national television and a black woman who helped him see that color is only skin deep. Around the country, hundreds attended screenings to see the stories that celebrated their neighbors.


To guarantee consistency, Starbucks undertakes a time-intensive quality-control process on every shipment of coffee shipped from coffee-producing countries around the world to Starbucks. In the Starbucks Tasting room, coffee tasters sample, or “cup,” six cups of coffee from every single container, slurping, spitting and using their discerning sense of smell and taste to ensure quality. Turn up the sound on the video and it might sound a bit like a flock of birds.


At house after house, in neighborhood after neighborhood, intimate clues to the lives of those who used to live in the homes was on display under the hot sun for all to see, weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, flooding it with an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water. Even as Starbucks partners struggled with their own losses, they moved in to help their neighbors. Store manager Jen Do collected donated food and made order from chaos at the Houston Police Officers Union, which served as an unofficial command central, helping organize food for officers who were pulling people from flooded cars and doling out dry socks, underwear and clothing. “The way I organized it, I just ran it like a Starbucks but with different products,” Do said. Store manager Wil Scott spent weeks volunteering at a shelter, distributing piles of clothing to people who’d lost everything, after putting in a full day of work at his store. “As long as there’s people here, and they need help,” he said, “I’m here.” Readers and customers responded with donations and sentiments of hope.


For 20 years, the return of the Starbucks holiday cups have marked the arrival of the season. It’s a ritual for many that’s as beloved as that first sip of Peppermint Mocha. The first holiday cup wasn’t even red, but the “red cup” has taken on a life of its own, from late-night television to political broadsides. Over the years, designs have incorporated whimsical brushstrokes and traditional mistletoe and ornaments. Last year, Starbucks rolled out 13 red cups designed by customers to convey the “shared spirit” of the holidays. This year, for the first time, Starbucks marked the holiday season by unveiling its first DIY holiday cup. In social media, readers shared their reactions, and the story, for weeks.


In an ideal world, policing transcends the parameters of public safety. At Coffee with a Cop events around the country, connections are made. Customers talk to cops on neutral footing. They complain about trash pick-up or drug deals unfolding on their streets. They compliment the cops on keeping their communities safe. Armed with coloring books, cops summon their inner children and color with kids. Starbucks hosted more than 300 Coffee with a Cop events in 2017, forging connections between police and the communities they serve, with up to 1,000 planned for next year. One of the most meaningful events was held in Indianapolis, where the program was renamed “Coffee with Waters” to honor the memory of Jim Waters, a deputy chief who threw his weight behind the initiative. Waters, who was killed in a traffic accident, deployed officers on a daily basis to a Starbucks in east Indianapolis that had been robbed, making the store a meeting place where Starbucks partners, community members and police officers could establish bonds of trust.


Starbucks district manager Brandon Wolf survived the June 2016 massacre at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Fla., but his best friend was killed. Crushed, Wolf channeled his grief into honoring the joyful spirit of Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen. Wolf and friends created The Dru Project, a non-profit LGBTQ organization that provides scholarships and develops curricula for students to charter Gay Straight Alliances in their high schools. The story about the project resonated on the anniversary of the shootings. The Dru Project is how Leinonen referred to his social media presence because, Leinonen explained, “life is a project.” For Wolf, working with The Dru Project has helped him move forward while also feeling “like I’m able to keep the best parts of Drew through talking about him.”


Green aprons are emblematic of Starbucks, where more than 300,000 baristas wear them in 75 countries around the world. Aprons have been part of the Starbucks tradition since 1971, when the first store opened at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. By 1987, the brown aprons from the early days had evolved into today’s iconic green shade, paired with white shirts and black bow ties. Those ties have faded into memory, but the green aprons persevere, and the story-behind-the-story was a most-shared story of the year.


Austin Mann became the hero of the internet briefly after he proposed to his girlfriend, Esther Havens, at the Starbucks in the Amsterdam airport, where their romance was kindled over coffee. The betrothal was the culmination of a global scavenger hunt for the couple, each of whom travel more than 100,000 miles a year as freelance photographers. Mann left notes at Starbucks around the world, texting Havens a riddle so that she would know where to find the message, often taped to the bottom of a table or tucked into a cushion. Havens began leaving notes for Mann too. But the best note of all was the one secreted away in the Amsterdam airport, where a postscript directed Havens to retrieve a preordered Starbucks drink from the counter. Mann waylaid her as she rounded the corner, clutching a bouquet — and a ring.

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New, more sustainable Starbucks cold cups are made with up to 20 percent less plastic