By Steve Stolder / Starbucks Newsroom
As a 17-year-old high school senior, Nicholas Varvares didn’t fit the profile of a sought-after U.S. Marine Corps recruit. A shaky student in high school, Varvares had a school suspension and other marks on his record. The biggest issue facing him as a possible Marine, however, was his weight. When 5-foot, 11-inch Varvares showed up at a recruiting station in Fort Wayne, Ind., he weighed 262 pounds.
Still, recruiter D.J. Emert believed in him. Emert’s job was to comb the region in search of talented young men and women to serve in the elite fighting force. He identified a certain drive in Varvares, who pledged his dedication to drop tens of pounds in order to enlist. In exchange, Emert pledged his commitment: “If you show the effort on your part,” he told Varvares in 2002 at the recruiting center, “I’ll give you my time and work out with you.”
Mornings and evenings, the two men would sweat together. On Saturdays, there might be a motivational run or a game of basketball. On Sundays, Varvares would join Emert at his apartment’s gym. The aspiring Marine kept coming back, and the recruiter’s support was steadfast.
“He was an awesome motivator and he never discouraged me from anything,” said Varvares, a one-year Starbucks partner. “I wasn’t the best kid. I made bad decisions on a regular basis, and I wanted to prove everybody wrong at this point in my life. It was, ‘You know, you need to start turning your life around. You need to start making some right decisions.’”
The two men bonded over their shared goal: the remaking of Varvares. Emert became Varvares’ champion, with no clue that 15 years in the future, Varvares, now a Starbucks store manager, would get a chance to return the favor.
On March 18, 2003, Varvares signed his enlistment papers. When it came time to start boot camp, Emert drove Varvares to the Military Entrance Processing Station in Indianapolis, made sure Varvares had everything he needed and left him with one last piece of advice: “If the drill instructors don’t know your name, you’re doing something right.”
“I thought, man, I’ll never get to see him again,” Varvares said.
‘I’m wondering if you know D.J. Emert’’
Varvares became a vehicle mechanic in the Marine Corps, serving four years’ active duty and four years’ inactive duty, including seven months in Iraq in 2007. He rose to the rank of sergeant, the same rank as the recruiter who had believed in him. In 2006, while stationed in California, Varvares met a Starbucks shift supervisor named Sharon Aguilar. The two eventually married and settled back in Fort Wayne, where Varvares, now 32, wasted little time in reconnecting with Emert, who is 40. Putting on his dress blues, Varvares paid a visit to Emert at the recruiting office where he’d launched his military career.
“Just seeing that big, ole smile on his face – that was worth it,” Varvares said. “My family, they all had doubts. Maybe he had doubts. But all the work that both of us put in – the work he put into me and the work I put into myself – we could both see that as a success.”
Life intervened, and the two men drifted apart again. Varvares found work at restaurants, which paved the way for his wife, a 12-year partner, to inquire about a job at Starbucks for her husband. In April 2016, district manager Michael Williams hired Varvares as a shift supervisor. Five months later, he was managing his own Starbucks in Auburn, 20 minutes north of Fort Wayne. And several months after that, Varvares answered a phone call from Williams about a prospective Starbucks recruit.
“Hey, I know the Marine Corps is pretty big,” said Williams, “but I’m wondering if you know D.J. Emert.”
Varvares was thrilled to give Emert a glowing recommendation — “to finally speak his praise,” as Varvares describes it. “It reminded me how much he meant to me as a human and as a Marine,” said Varvares.
In April, Emert joined Starbucks after 21 years of military service. He completed his store manager training in June and anticipates managing his own store soon. Meanwhile, he and Varvares have rekindled their bond as peers and as friends. Among the more than 10,000 service members, veterans and military spouses hired as part of the company’s target of 25,000 hires by 2025, they have a deep connection that reaches back a decade and a half. They sit together at Starbucks district meetings. When Emert and his fiancé moved, Varvares helped out. And when they and their mates got together for dinner recently, Varvares pulled Emert aside for a private moment.
“I thanked him for taking a chance on me,” he said.