20 Years Later, Starbucks Still Remembers Hero Partner Tony McNaughton

Tony McNaughton is a name that rings bells for Vancouverites.

In January 2000, the 39-year-old Starbucks manager died after selflessly protecting his fellow partner (employee) from her estranged husband. The incident at the West End cafe stemmed from a domestic dispute, and the saved employee managed to escape unharmed.

Tony McNaughton

McNaughton was awarded the Vancouver Police Department’s Certificate of Merit as well as the Governor General’s Medal of Bravery. But while he was hailed a hero for his courageous act, people who knew him would say, “Well, that’s just who he was,” said Allen Sawkins, McNaughton’s partner of 12 years.

“Looking after other people was second nature to Tony,” Sawkins said. “He was a very gentle soul. He had a very generous spirit and a childlike enthusiasm for life.” 

The news of McNaughton’s death shook Vancouver’s West End community, and not just because “it was such a horrible thing to happen,” Sawkins added. McNaughton was well-loved by the community, where he was a friendly face to customers and an active member of a local Buddhist group.

So in honour of the store manager’s brave sacrifice, Starbucks set up the Tony McNaughton Memorial Fund with the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF). The non-profit organization works to end violence against women, move them out of poverty, and empower them.

Starbucks Store #129 in Vancouver
Starbucks Store #129, where McNaughton worked in Vancouver.

Every year on the anniversary of McNaughton’s death, all proceeds made at his Starbucks store on Lower Robson St. (and at the Times Square store after the former cafe closed) have gone towards this fund. As a result, Starbucks has helped raise $110,000 to date and plans to top up contributions made on Jan. 29 this year to $5,000.

Domestic abuse is more common than people think. According to CWF, 67 percent of Canadians know a woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. That’s why donations to McNaughton’s memorial fund are so important.

“[The donations] are used to support grants to women in the area of domestic violence, and in particular direct support to women and their children who have to leave their homes to guarantee their safety and stay at shelters for women only,” explained Anuradha Dugal, CWF’s senior director of community initiatives.

“At the shelters, women are helped with deciding what to do next – find affordable accommodation, make sure their children are safe, possibly start legal proceedings, and get back on their feet. It takes courage to leave an abusive relationship and women and their families need many different kinds of support to do this. Shelters provide a huge variety of this and are lifesaving for women who stay there.”

A group gathers at Starbucks to pay tribute to Tony McNaughton.
A group gathers at Starbucks in 2014 to pay tribute to Tony McNaughton.

In addition to raising money, the Vancouver community gathers at the Starbucks store every year for a coffee tasting in honour of McNaughton. However, this year, on the 20th anniversary of his death, the annual event will take place at Starbucks Vancouver Regional Office instead. This will allow more people to attend and for the community — which includes family, friends, customers, and Starbucks partners — to share a special photo montage to celebrate McNaughton’s life. 

Starbucks district manager Diane Shakeshaft, who’s been a partner for 26 years, believes the company’s culture of caring has played a big role in bringing the Vancouver community together every year for McNaughton. 

“Our culture is so strong,” Shakeshaft said. “Taking care of people, whether it be our partners, our customers – we truly are a part of something bigger. I am so proud to work for Starbucks!”

To this day, Sawkins can’t believe that people continue to show up on the anniversary of McNaughton’s death to pay their respects. “I’m extremely touched and honoured that Starbucks still remembers Tony and still honours what he did,” he said. “I think it’s extremely commendable, especially after all this time, especially after 20 years.”

An image of the "Hero Painting" by local artist Joe Average
The "Hero Painting" by Joe Average now hangs at the Starbucks Times Square store in Vancouver.

In addition to the memorial fund, Starbucks commissioned a painting by local artist Joe Average in honour of McNaughton. Appropriately titled “Hero Painting,” the art piece now hangs at the Times Square store and was also featured on a one-year memorial tumbler sold by Starbucks. The proceeds from that tumbler also went towards McNaughton’s memorial fund.

“[Tony’s death] had such a profound effect [on the Vancouver community] that people after all these years will say, ‘Oh, I remember that story,’” Sawkins said. “I want people to just remember [Tony’s] generosity of spirit and to remember that he always tried to find the good in people.” 

To find out how you can get involved with helping end violence against women, visit the Canadian Women’s Foundation. For more information on signs of domestic abuse, visit Ending Violence Association of British Columbia or Western Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children.

Signs of domestic abuse are “rarely the same for everyone, so you have to be careful,” Dugal, of CWF, warned. “Believe survivors, listen to them and learn from them directly about what abuse looks like.”

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