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When wildfires hit customers, Petaluma barista served love

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On Oct. 9, the day massive wildfires raged throughout Sonoma County, customers flocked to places like Petaluma Coffee and Tea Company to escape the smoke-filled air and commiserate. Star Downey, a barista at the downtown coffee shop, served up lattes and mochas that day with an extra cheerful smile in an attempt to brighten the day for many worried people.

When regular customers Tyler Johnson and his wife, Julie, came into the shop, Downey learned that Julie’s mother Chris had lost her home in the Mark West neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Downey went home, filled a backpack full of clothes, and donated it to Johnson. She also brewed dozens of pots of coffee to take to Petaluma shelters for fire victims.

“The fires were really shocking that day. People kept coming in shell shocked. People needed that familiarity of their daily coffee,” said Downey, 56. “You gotta do what you can to help people. You can’t leave anyone in need.”

Downey, who has been working at Petaluma Coffee and Tea for nine years, is the service person of the week for the Argus-Courier. Before becoming a barista, she was a full time mother, raising three children, ages 17, 21 and 24. She has lived in Petaluma with her husband for the past 29 years and enjoys hiking, painting and learning new skills, like playing the didgeridoo.

She enjoys working the morning shift, recognizing familiar customers, making their drinks just the way they like them, and sending them off on their day.

“I like getting to know people,” she said. “I like helping people get what they want when they come in. We are the first thing in people’s routine, so I like to give them a smile and make them feel great. It’s like ripples in a pond, it expands throughout their day.”

Johnson, who nominated Downey for the service person award, said she helped them through a difficult time during the fires.

“Over the course of those few weeks as we included her in our daily coffee ritual, Star cried with us, sat down with us, donated clothing, bags and even some hard earned money directly to Chris to help her navigate the loss,” he wrote in an email. “Frankly, she’s just about the sweetest woman you can imagine. She bikes to work every day, takes swims in the Petaluma River and has been a part of the Petaluma community for decades.”

Downey said she prefers tea to coffee, having tried most of the shop’s more than 100 varieties, though she doesn’t have a favorite. She said Petaluma Coffee and Tea is a fun place to work.

“I really enjoy it,” she said. “It’s a little off beat, not a corporate feeling. The customers are kind and generous. Everyone is in a good mood when they are getting coffee.”

Downey is the first of five nominees for the Service Person of the Year award, which will be selected by a poll of readers. The winner will be honored at the 2018 Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence, co-sponsored by the Argus-Courier and the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce.

Email a nomination to matt.brown@arguscourier.com or write us a letter to tell us why you think your nominee should be considered for the service person award (no phone calls, please.)

Nominations can cover all aspects of the service industry, from cashiers and clerks to baristas and servers — not business owners, managers or directors.