Sending memories through the mail: Starbucks stores embrace soldiers

By Bonnie Rochman / Starbucks Newsroom

Eddy Cazarez remembers the stories as much as the scents.

Cazarez, an Army staff sergeant, was stationed in a valley in Bagram, Afghanistan, surrounded by snowy peaks that scraped the sky. From November 2016 until May 2017 — with a brief break to come home to Florida for the birth of his son, on Cazarez’s 35th birthday, no less — he and the other soldiers in the 7th Special Forces Group lived in shipping containers outfitted with bunks and drank coffee that he described as “warm brown water.”

“It was worse than gas station coffee,” said Cazarez, who works in military intelligence. “It’s definitely a last resort.”

Fortunately, Cazarez got a reprieve from the murky tepid stuff being served in the mess hall. In the six months he was deployed, his unit received nearly a dozen shipments of Starbucks coffee from a San Antonio store managed by his cousin, Esther Ortega-Johnson. More than 200 military units have been connected with a store through Adopt a Unit, a U.S. initiative that encourages Starbucks partners to donate coffee, treats and useful items such as socks and soap to soldiers overseas. In some cases, stores extend the donation option to customers as well. And partners in the Starbucks Support Center (the Seattle headquarters) also participate, stockpiling donations and organizing “packing parties.”

When a package would arrive at the military installment, its contents aromatically announced themselves, seeping through the cardboard. “You can smell the coffee coming through the box,” said Cazarez. “As you open it and smell the different aromas of the different coffees they sent, we would tell stories.”

One soldier reminisced about mornings spent tagging along with his father for doughnuts and coffee. For Cazarez, who worked as a Starbucks barista from 2006 to 2007 while recovering from an injury, the scent of coffee summoned to mind the partners who were his colleagues. A decade later, he said, “they still reach out and support me.”

It’s not surprising that a whiff of coffee’s earthy decadence can conjure up another place or time. The olfactory system — a person’s sense of smell — is part of the limbic system, which processes emotion and emotional memories. In fact, research has shown that brain activity accelerates more when sniffing a scent associated with positive memories — perfume, in one study — than when inhaling an unfamiliar odor. Other research has observed more brain activity from a scent than a sight — smelling a rose versus simply seeing a rose, for example.

The power of odors to stimulate memories is especially strong when the aroma is not encountered regularly. “Presumably these soldiers did not walk into a Starbucks coffee shop yesterday in Afghanistan,” said Pam Dalton, an olfactory researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center. “If you start smelling a scent every day, it loses some of its potency to evoke emotion and memory. It’s the novelty that brings back that very strong emotional memory.”

Of course, scent is not always associated with happy times. Vietnam war veterans, Dalton noted, have reported negative associations — flashbacks to combat — when smelling jet fuel.

But Dalton was pleased to hear of coffee’s apparent ability to elicit positive emotions in soldiers. “It could make them feel more comforted in a deployed situation, which is actually very cool,” she said.

‘Taste of home’

That’s exactly what happened with Sgt. Major Fletcher Whittenberg’s unit, the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, now deployed in Kuwait. Since May, the 2-7 CAV has been the recipient of 25 boxes of coffee and other goodies (think must-haves like beef jerky and sriracha sauce) from 11 Houston-area stores. Store manager Paula Lee started her district’s Adopt a Unit program after her district manager suggested she might find it particularly fulfilling considering that her son is in the Army. Lee was connected with Whittenberg, who welcomed the bounty in the middle of his unit’s sandy environs.

In an email, Whittenberg wrote: “My soldiers and I have been truly reminded [of[ the taste of home…. It warms my heart and soul to know that corporations like Starbucks respect and defend us soldiers in these perilous times… Maybe the rest of America can take notice from Starbucks on how you support us all regardless of our race, religion, color or creed, we all bleed red and maybe someday we will all see that.”

Lee was struck by the gratitude that Whittenberg expressed on behalf of his soldiers. “They are so thankful,” said Lee. “Even though it’s 120 degrees in the desert, they say that coffee is always good.”

For deployed soldiers, coffee serves as both a morale booster and a matter of practicality. Cazarez’s battalion worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. “That caffeine was a big part of it — it keeps you going,” said Cazarez. “That and doing a FaceTime call with family…those two things and you’re good to go.”

Part of the fun, say soldiers, derives from not knowing when the coffee will come. Mail is sporadic and inconsistent because essential supplies such as ammunition, food and medicine take precedence. “Sometimes you’ll get a package that someone sent a week ago at the same time as something that was sent a month ago,” said Cazarez.

His unit’s chaplain had come equipped with a coffee grinder and a milk steamer, so bags of whole beans were particularly popular.

Coffee provides succor before a battle

In addition to Adopt a Unit, Starbucks also supports large-scale donations through its “at-risk” coffee distribution program. Sometimes, a coffee’s taste profile doesn’t match that of previous years’; sometimes expiration dates are approaching. In those cases, Starbucks coordinates shipping of that product. In 2016, Starbucks sent 60,000 pounds of whole beans and 200,000 Via (instant coffee) sticks to deployed troops.

Steve Chavez, a project manager in Global Coffee Engagement, received Starbucks coffee when he was active duty Army. “I’d pull it out when we had our most dangerous missions,” he said.

After one especially harrowing operation in a dangerous district, Chavez received a package containing a makeshift coffee maker and a bag of Starbucks single-origin Ethiopian beans from his “little brother,” a younger soldier with whom he served in combat. The two would send the coffee maker back and forth when one of them was deployed. Inside was a note: “Use this to keep the people you want close to you and to bring others you want closer to you.”

On a day when five soldiers were seriously wounded, Chavez recalls that the coffee was an “uplifting bit of goodness that we immediately drank.”

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