Good Things Happen: Zombies, The Great Pumpkin and barista Iron Man

Welcome to Good Things Happen, a monthly roundup of the best real-life moments from Starbucks stores worldwide.

Zombies, they’re just like us

Kelly Roberts and her team have firsthand experience with the walking dead. They come at night, usually just before close.

“Usually they come in spurts – maybe three nights in a row and then we won’t see them for two months,” said Roberts, manager of the Starbucks in Peachtree City, Georgia.

And they’re surprisingly thirsty, for zombies.

A growing number of films and television shows are now filmed in Georgia, including a certain breakout hit about the undead that sometimes films several miles away from Roberts’ store.

“That makes us the closest Starbucks to the zombies,” she said.

Barista Kendra Thomas stands next to more than 40 beverages she and her teammates in Peachtree City, Georgia, prepared for some thirsty zombies. (Kaysi McNicols, Starbucks) 

In June, a production assistant ordered 68 beverages at once for the cast and crew of humans and zombies. On one recent night, they came for 41 drinks. Turns out zombies (and those who hunt and/or evade them) prefer mostly grande lattes and mochas, either iced or hot, according to season.

“It's kind of fun when they come in because customers are always baffled by what could possibly be going on that someone would need so many drinks,” said Roberts, who was born and raised in Peachtree City, and is even named for one of its main roads, Kelly Drive. “It’s kind of fun for us, too. I never imagined anything close to this cool would have happened in my town, but here I am, 34 years later and serving zombies coffee.”

'His Iron Man isn’t working!’

Spoiler alert: This is Good Things Happen, so everyone in this story lives to tell the tale. And, in the case of Mason Dunkin, to crack wise about one of the scariest days of his life.

A year ago this month, Dunkin had 10 minutes left on his shift at a Seattle Starbucks when he jokingly told his supervisor, “I’m going to go home early.” As he turned back to the register, he had what he can only describe as “a massive body pulse.”

“I’ll be right back,” he told his supervisor, and walked to the back. He knew something wasn’t right. Then the weird full-body pulse happened again.

“That’s when I knew I was having a heart attack,” said Dunkin, 27.

Shift supervisor Olivia Aldridge was working in the back when Dunkin walked in and told her he didn’t feel well. She told him to sit down, and put her hand on his shoulder.

“The second I did, I knew something was very wrong. He was wearing two shirts and he was sweating so much he had drenched them both,” Aldridge said. “I said, ‘Mason, I’m calling 911.’ He said, ‘No, don’t call, I just need to sit.’ But I called anyway.”

Dunkin was born with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease in which the heart muscles thicken, making it harder to pump blood. After an operation a few years ago at the Mayo Clinic to try to reduce some of his heart’s thickness (“they carved my heart like a pumpkin”), doctors also implanted an automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (AICD) in Dunkin’s chest to monitor his heartbeat and, if needed, to shock it back into rhythm. The AICD is visible from the outside; Dunkin said it looks like a “big ‘ol hockey puck.” As Aldridge spoke to the emergency dispatcher, Dunkin tried to tell her through labored breaths that he had HCM, and an AICD.

“I knew Mason had a heart problem for most of his life, and a defibrillator in his heart, but he kept trying to tell me what it was called and for some reason I couldn’t seem to repeat all those letters  to the operator,” Aldridge said. “This is the part he gets a kick out of, and I wish I could get a recording of it, but I said, ‘It’s his Iron Man! In his chest! His Iron Man isn’t working!’”

When the EMTs arrived, they found his AICD wasn’t working properly, and his heart was beating 180 times a minute.

“The funniest thing – well, maybe not the funniest, but one of the interesting things is that you don’t really know what kind of person you will be when you realize it might be the time you’re going to die,” Dunkin said. “I was cracking jokes with the EMTs, and my teammates were saying, ‘Mason, please take this seriously.’ When they finally took me in the ambulance to the ER, they told me they had to cut my shirt off and I said, ‘Wait! What am I wearing? Oh, American Eagle. Go ahead – rip it away.’”

Despite his jokes, Dunkin was moving deeper into the woods. Doctors couldn’t get his AICD to shock his heart back into rhythm, and his heart rate climbed to 230 beats per minute.

Barista Mason Dunkin, 27, on the one-year anniversary of his heart attack in a Seattle Starbucks, holding a photo of his teammates greeting him when he was released from the hospital in 2017. (Olivia Aldridge, Starbucks) 

“The last thing I remember hearing the nurse say is, ‘It’s not working. We need to put him out.’ Then I started crying. This was probably one of my biggest, scariest moments,” Dunkin said. While he was unconscious, doctors used defibrillator paddles to shock his heart into a regular rhythm. They figured out his AICD had malfunctioned because his heart had changed so much for the better after his “pumpkin carving” surgery. When Dunkin was released from the hospital 24 hours later, half of the partners from his store were waiting for him. They took a selfie together – store manager Ben Jones, Aldridge and other teammates, with Dunkin in front holding his hand over his heart. This month, Aldridge took a photo of Dunkin at his store holding the original photo outside the ER to commemorate the one-year anniversary of when his Iron Man stopped working.

“To be able to take that second picture with him a year later was just a really great moment,” said Aldridge, whom Dunkin calls a “mama bear best friend.” “He’s something else. He’s a jokester, and he knows all the customers, and he loves his job. He’s sweetest, kindest person.”

It’s the great Pumpkin (Spice Latte)

This might be the most action a $12 pumpkin costume has ever seen.

Years ago, Brooke Wilner’s mother bought a pumpkin costume at a drug store as a last-minute costume for the office. In 2009, Wilner – then a barista – saw her mother’s costume and had an idea – a really gourd idea. She would wear it on Pumpkin Spice Latte launch day.

Unlike those vaguely unnerving signs at barbecue restaurants with cartoon animals beckoning you inside to eat, people find it perfectly charming for a pumpkin to hand out pumpkin beverages. Partners and customers alike love her costume, and in the way that legends begat legends, it’s become a Pumpkin Spice Latte tradition ever since.

Brooke Wilner as a barista pumpkin in 2009, the first year she dressed up for the launch of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, and this year as a store manager pumpkin. 

“It’s always a huge hit,” Wilner said.

At one time the $12 pumpkin costume had eyebrows, but Wilner says otherwise it’s holding up fairly well. This year, Wilner stood outside in the drive-thru of her Phoenix, Ariz., store for an hour and a half during the busy morning hours, dressed as a pumpkin and handing out food and beverage samples. Wilner said as long as she has the costume she’ll be a pumpkin on Pumpkin Spice Latte launch day.

“People got so excited. One mom with kids in her car said, ‘Can I take a picture of you? Would that be weird?’” Wilner said. “It just adds that extra excitement to launch day. Obviously, they can see Pumpkin Spice added to the menu board, and we can talk about it, but having someone in a pumpkin suit hand you a sample makes it that much more special.”