It took Justin Acosta a few seconds to put two and two together, but when he spotted a Hormel Foods sign in the video he was watching and heard his wife’s laugh elsewhere in the room, he knew he’d been had – in the best way possible.
Acosta was attending his retirement ceremony after serving for 22 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. He was also partaking in the custom of receiving an American flag that’s been flown over locations of significance to the retiring member. Acosta’s flag had been flown on board several of the ships he served on – an ordinary occurrence – and another unexpected location, the surprise in the video. His flag had flown over the Austin (Minn.) Plant of Hormel Foods, where the SPAM® brand was born in 1937 and is still made today.
Acosta’s senior chief, Joseph Brame, whom he served with for the last four years of his career, was the mastermind behind the surprise. Knowing his deep connection to Hawaii, Brame wanted to make the ceremony special for Acosta.
“So much of what we do in the military is highly regimented,” Brame said. “But advancement ceremonies and retirements are allowed a certain amount of personalization. I thought it would be fun for him and his family to have his flag flown over the plant that makes SPAM® products.”
A SPAM® Fan
Brame knew Acosta was born in Hawaii, where the SPAM® brand is wildly popular. He was quite sure it was with Acosta as well, and he was correct.
“We don’t ever get tired of it,” Acosta said, adding that in his home state, the SPAM® brand is found in an abundance of convenience stores and even at popular fast-food restaurants. “We don’t eat it every day, but we always have it in our pantry.”
What Brame didn’t know was that the town of Austin also holds meaning for Acosta, his wife, Aubrianne, and their three children. When the family was moving from Hawaii to accept a new assignment in Norfolk, Va., driving from the West Coast of the United States to the East, a billboard caught their attention. Playing on Hawaiians’ documented love of the SPAM® brand, it advertised the nearby SPAM® Museum, calling it the place where Hawaiians go to vacation.
“We had to pull off and see it,” said Aubrianne Acosta, displaying a photograph of the family of five posing outside the downtown Austin attraction. “It was a little piece of home,” her husband said.
You Don’t Know Me, But ….
Brame went to work, not knowing the family’s recent connection to Austin and Hormel Foods. The first order of business was finding the Hormel Foods website for contact information. As luck would have it, the first thing he noticed was a story about the company’s support of the military and its veterans.
Brame began to think his pipedream could become a reality, that he “had a shot.” So, he began making phone calls and eventually connected with Hormel Foods employee Lynn Spainhower. He explained to the Navy mom and member of HMVET – the company’s employee resource group for vets – that he was merely looking for someone to hoist the flag, let it fly at the plant for a few minutes and snap a picture.
With Spainhower’s guidance, Hormel Foods took it up a notch (or 10), inviting members of the local color guard (comprised of representatives of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion) to conduct the flag-raising ceremony at the Austin Plant. A special SPAM®-brand flag was signed by members of the plant team and sent along with Acosta’s star-spangled banner.
When CEO Jim Snee learned of the event, he got involved with a letter of appreciation and a donation of $10,000 to the Coast Guard Foundation in Acosta’s name. Then the story was handpicked for the Hormel Foods Annual Meeting of Stockholders in January 2019.
“It just snowballed,” Brame said, adding he was touched by the level of attention from Hormel Foods. “It wasn’t just somebody going out and putting the flag on the pole,” he said.
Lost at Sea
In the process of honoring Acosta, details of his years of service came to light. In one case, a kayaker was lost at sea off the coast of Hawaii. As hours turned into days, Acosta worked relentlessly to put the pieces of the puzzle together, using a few seconds of calls and extraordinary intuition. When the Coast Guard sent the rescue team on its last mission – this time a successful one – the man was 100 miles away from the “big island” of Hawaii and near death, having been exposed to the elements and wanting for food and drinking water for four days.
The two bonded over the near tragedy, and have remained connected since the 2002 event. Each year on the anniversary of the rescue, Acosta receives a phone call or a text message from the rescued man, now a pastor in Maui.
It’s not only a story of heroism and service, it illustrates Acosta’s belief in the meaning of his life and his career.
“It’s about the people,” he said.