Starbucks customers help pay it forward with free snacks for medical personnel

Tulsa, Okla. – The day after Starbucks announced it would give free coffee to all first responders across the country, Lauren Merhi wondered what else she could do.

A Starbucks barista hired last September, Lauren works at a store across the street from Saint Francis Hospital, the biggest in Tulsa. Many of the store’s regular customers are medical personnel and hospital staff. Every morning, the store preps for the daily “nurse rush.”

“How can we show appreciation and how can we get the community involved?” she wondered.

Her idea? A pay-it-forward campaign, with a twist.

Periodically, in Starbucks drive-thrus around the world, chains of people paying for the order of the person behind them spring up spontaneously. But Lauren had the idea of funneling that spirit of customer kindness in a different way, by inviting those who want to help to buy snacks for medical personnel, hospital staff and other first responders.

In late March, Lauren, a Starbucks barista at a Tulsa drive-through, came up with a pay-it-forward campaign for first responders at the hospital across the street

“It’s being able to make a difference in a time when a lot of people don’t have a lot of control over the situation,” Lauren says. “It’s something small that people can contribute, during a time when people may need something small like that.”

The purchased snacks are put in a bin, and store partners add a note of encouragement. If someone drives up with a hospital badge or medical scrubs or is obviously a first responder, partners offer a free snack. So far, the store has given away about 300 items: protein bars, chips, cookies, nuts. The idea has already caught on with another store in the district.

“We let them know it’s been bought by people in the community who want to show appreciation,” says Jenna Akuma, the store manager. “It’s not just Starbucks doing this. It’s friends and neighbors. It’s been overwhelmingly supportive. Everybody’s pitched in to just lift the community up.”

One regular customer, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Saint Francis, agreed to match all snacks purchased last Saturday – a total of 49. Then the doctor purchased 49 more on Sunday and delivered them all to the nurses and staff in the labor and delivery ward.

“A lot of people feel like anything they do isn’t big enough,” says the doctor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “But the truth is, the simplest things are exactly what people need right now.”

Jenna and Lauren hope the idea catches on, and inspires others to think about how they can be kind and keep creating community during hard times.

“I hope that it inspires our customers to find something they can do,” Lauren says. “My gears are turning. I’m trying to think of something else that can involve us in our community. There are people that deserve to be appreciated, all the time.”

-- by Michael Ko / Illustration by Henry Jarman