Sure, everyone has a story. But what happens when you actually walk up to them and ask them to tell it?
In college, I took a class from a writer named David Johnson who was so convinced everyone had at least one heart-stopping story to tell, he started calling people at random from the local phone book. Sure enough, every person on the other end had something to say, and their stories became his weekly column, “Everyone Has a Story,” which ran in Idaho’s Lewiston Morning Tribune, fueled for 30 years entirely by the stories of strangers.
As a young journalist, I was genuinely taken by David’s egalitarian approach to storytelling (not to mention the way he often wrote his stories on a portable typewriter while sitting on a stump in the woods – #goals). What if I took a page from David in my job as a writer for Starbucks Stories?
There are more than 28,000 Starbucks stores worldwide, and more than 330,000 employees (we call each other partners) working at those stores. Add to that the roughly 100 million customers a week who walk through the doors. Every one of those humans carries with them their own experiences, challenges, dreams, fears and wisdom. This is the only kind of mathematics that has ever made my heart skip a beat. Even if I did nothing more than walk up to people in Starbucks stores and ask them to tell me their stories, it could be a near limitless proverbial phonebook of storytelling possibilities.
Enter Joshua Trujillo, a longtime newspaper photojournalist and Starbucks Stories teammate, who has been talking for years about creating a series featuring portraits of customers. As we worked on other story assignments together, we kept returning to Josh’s idea, but with a twist: what if we walked into a Starbucks and not only asked to take customers’ pictures, but asked them for their stories as well? Would people actually be willing to open up to two strangers from Seattle who approached them out of the blue?
In early May, Josh and I were in Atlanta to cover an Opportunity Hiring Fair for Starbucks Stories. We had a few hours before our flight left the following day and decided to head to a store north of Atlanta to answer our big question. We are both former seasoned newspaper journalists but may as well have been junior high schoolers headed to our first dance; we were nervous about the cold approach, and worried about bothering people as they enjoyed their third place.
The secret to life
We eventually made our way toward an older gentleman on the patio holding an adorable baby and introduced ourselves.
“What brings you here today?” I said, opening my notebook to a new page and hitting record on my iPhone.
As luck would have it, it was his 70th birthday. His name is Alan Ahmadpour, and he is a regular at the Roswell store. He was there having coffee with his daughter, Mastoureh, to celebrate his birthday; the baby in his lap was his 9-month-old granddaughter, Zoya. Alan didn’t hesitate to tell us his story and did so using a mix of English and Farsi with his daughter translating as needed and his granddaughter punctuating with squeals of delight.
When he was a young father in Iran, he desperately wanted a different life for his seven children, and the family decided to flee in 1990, he told us. They lived as refugees in Turkey for two years, sharing a small apartment. The children couldn’t attend school during this time, and he was desperately worried they would fall permanently behind in their education. When the family was finally granted U.S. citizenship two years later, he watched his children thrive, and his fears were allayed.
He beamed as his daughter chimed in to pick up the story. “He has a computer engineer, a dental hygienist, one graduating from pharmacy school, a CPA, one in dental school, I’m an optometrist … his sacrifices made a big difference for us. We’re all somebody here,” she said. “His children and grandchildren are his biggest joy.”
We talked about the current divisiveness in the world, especially regarding immigrants and refugees, and I asked Alan whether he had any advice to help people navigate their feelings on the matter. The secret to everything, he said, is love.
“I love every country. I love every people. I even love animals, you know? And the trees, and the mountains. To me, I love everything in life,” he said. “Many people, they’re not liking each other. If you love everybody, you are happy, you know? When you love everybody, life is good.”
Josh and I shook our heads and smiled as we walked back into the store. The very first customer we approached was not only willing to talk, but it was his birthday, and he had an epic story. Beginner’s luck?
‘You’ll notice I didn’t order a drink’
Back inside the store, and a bit emboldened by our first interview, we decided to approach a table of three women. I introduced us and told them what we were doing.
“It’s interesting you’re here today, because I didn’t want to be here today,” said one woman, who we later learned is Rebecca Franklin. “My friends really wanted to meet at Starbucks, so I eventually agreed to join them, but you’ll notice that I didn’t order a drink.”
She went on to explain it was her first time stepping foot inside a Starbucks since a few weeks earlier, when she’d read the news about a store manager in Philadelphia who called the police on two young African-American entrepreneurs, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, who were sitting in the store waiting for a business meeting to begin. The men were led out in handcuffs, and a video of their arrest went viral.
We asked if we could sit down to talk with them more. We ended up spending almost an hour and a half together. Rebecca and her two friends, Juanita Bates-Washington and Towonda Kilpatrick, shared their take on what happened in Philadelphia, and their conflicting feelings of community, identity and brand love (all three are longtime Starbucks customers).
“I just was hurt. I was hurt, because I’m an African American woman and so often people that are not of color always want to understand, ‘Well, why are they acting like that? What’s wrong with them?’ They don’t really understand the scars and how deep things are,” Franklin said.
“I wouldn't have come back. But they have hearts of forgiveness,” she said, gesturing to her friends. A magazine publisher and fierce advocate for women in business, Rebecca speaks in the direct, unselfish manner of the successful publicist she is, frequently shifting the conversation to highlight the accomplishments of her friends.
And oh, her friends. Juanita is a healthcare entrepreneur, a natural storyteller with an infectious laugh. Towonda, a writer, is stylish and warm with a broad, friendly smile. You’ll hear much more from all three women soon as part of the project we’re calling To Be Human, featuring your stories and your voices.
The conversation was fascinating – electric. Josh and I didn’t want to leave, but we were dangerously close to missing our plane back to Seattle. We all exchanged business cards and LinkedIn information, selfies and hugs.
“I feel like it was divine intervention that we all ended up here at the same Starbucks today,” Rebecca said as we stood to leave. She thanked us for listening and told us she thought she was ready to forgive.
“But I’m going to keep my eye on you,” she said with a grin.
The quest to connect
“I think we really might be onto something,” Josh said on the drive to the airport. We marveled at the four previously strangers we’d met, and the stories they’d told us, and the connections we’d made – and all in one store.
Was this an anomaly, this random Starbucks in Georgia full of fascinating people willing to tell us about their lives, or could the same magic happen at other stores -- at every store? Josh and I are now packing our bags – audio recorder, cameras, Spotify playlists, road atlas, high-protein car snacks – and hitting the road to find out. Our goal is to visit stores in all 50 states in search of customers from across the country willing to share their stories. Beginning today, we’ll be publishing those stories each week on our Starbucks Stories web site and on social media. The To Be Human series features audio so you can hear customers telling their stories in their own voices. We want you to be able to hear what we heard – the joy, the pain and everything in between.
At a time when we seem to be falling deeper into our devices each day and designing and digitizing all new ways to avoid even the most basic human interaction, we are on a quest to connect. There’s something beautiful about the act of listening to a person talk about their life over a cup of coffee. And by sharing those stories with the world, we acknowledge and celebrate the power of these small connections and the grace, humor, courage and grit that exists, most of the time quietly, at every table and in every crowd.
Each story is unique, but we hope together they will tell a larger tale about what's happening in our country – what we value, what we fear, how we can better understand each other and what it means to be human.