Mural in Starbucks draws on community

By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom

When Tanya Marshall walked into the newest Starbucks in Long Beach last week, she stopped in her tracks and said, “I have to ask, did Jeff do that?”

In front of her was a massive mural wrapping around two walls, from floor to ceiling. In it, a Ferris wheel and palm trees represent Long Beach, interspersed by images of birds flying together or resting on telephone wires.

She knew that style of drawing well. She’d seen it often over the past 16 years when she’d go to her local Starbucks daily – sometimes twice a day. Jeoffrey Valiente was a barista there, and an artist. During his breaks, he’d sit at one of the tables and draw portraits and illustrations.

“He’s really good,” said Marshall. “People have always enjoyed his skills.”

That kind of connection to the community is exactly why district manager Margaret Wehrly asked Valiente to create the mural for the store, which has its grand opening Thursday.

It’s the latest in a group of stores Starbucks is building in underserved communities that could benefit from economic development. Each store is built by women or minority-owned contractors, staffed by partners from the community and sells product made by local, diverse vendors. The Long Beach store is partnering with Pacific Gateway, a nonprofit with which it will offer free training programs to help young people develop job skills. It’s an ongoing relationship to help create local jobs, said Wehrly.

The new store replaces a smaller one nearby, where Valiente worked for many years before relocating to another store about five miles away. Many of the customers at the new store remember him from the previous one.

“When you first get to know Jeff, one of the first things you know is he’s an artist,” Wehrly said. “He’d come in on his off days. Customers would always see him drawing.”

Valiente said that when he thinks of Starbucks, he thinks of a place where people come together. That’s what inspired the birds in the mural.

“Birds have a sense of community,” he said. “It’s like that saying about birds of a feather flocking together.”

The accidental artist

Valiente, 41, didn’t set out to be an artist; he meant to be an accountant, like many of his family members. But it wasn’t his passion. After a classmate pointed out that during lectures he was always doodling and asked him why he didn’t transfer to art, he decided to make the leap.

It has been his love and his outlet his entire life. He was drawing as early as he can remember. By the time he was 5 or 6, people were asking him to create specialized cards for them.

Sometimes he’d draw comic book characters like Spiderman. Other times he’d just draw whatever he saw in his head.

“I like creating something out of nothing – (using) whatever is in your imagination and making it real,” he said.

He earned his Associates in Arts degree in college, but had to leave school short of his bachelor’s degree after a death in the family called him back home to the Philippines, where he was born.

When he returned to the U.S., he continued illustrating, often inspired by comic books and anime. (“I’ve been a geek my whole life,” he said.) He also started working at Starbucks.

“I formed connections with the partners – a lot are good friends,” he said. And over the years, he formed connections with regular customers, like Marshall, who started coming to the store when her son, now a 22-year-old college student, was 6. “I get to see kids grow up,” he said.

Store manager Nadine Doremus said that she and many of the partners not only work in the community, they live there too.

“We’ve hired locally within the community itself,” she said. “This store is for everybody who lives here.”

‘It’s home’

When Wehrly approached Valiente about creating a mural for the store, he turned her down. “I think he turned me down five times,” she said.

He wasn’t sure he’d be able to juggle working as a barista with creating his first mural and also taking care of his responsibilities at home. About eight years ago, after his father died, his mom moved in with him. When he was young, she took care of everyone, he said. “But no matter what you do, you can never repay your mom,” he said. Now 80, she still likes to cook him meals and keeps him in line if she thinks he’s being too messy.

“Even though I take care of her, she takes care of me too,” he said.

After Wehrly assured him his schedule at work could be adjusted to help him have time to complete the commissioned mural, he agreed.

But still, he was anxious. He’d never created something so large. And “there’s a big difference between drawing on a wall and drawing on a piece of paper,” he noted.

For starters, the creation is incredibly public.

He did the mural over 11 long days, bringing his vision to life. The finishing touches of the new store were being built and the construction workers encouraged him as he went.

The mural is entirely done with Sharpie pen, a homage to the baristas who use Sharpies all the time to write on cups, he said.

It’s a detail Marshall noted. Over the years, she’s come to know many of the baristas at the previous Starbucks well. Whenever she gets her coffee, she talks with each of them, getting to know about them. Sometimes, if she’s visiting a different Starbucks, she’ll walk in and hear a barista who transferred from her store calling her name.

“They all know me,” she said

On Thursday, she’ll be at the new store for the grand opening, starting another chapter and forging new relationships. She’ll be there Friday too, and each day forward, getting her coffee and connecting. “It’s home,” she said.

Alisha Damodaran, Starbucks senior manager of global corporate communications, contributed to this story.

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New Starbucks merch collaboration celebrates togetherness and joy in the everyday