By now you’ve heard about the ugly incident in which an employee of Starbucks called 911 to have two black men removed because it seems they had not yet placed an order. Here’s the skinny on the story as it was described on LinkedIn:
Starbucks will shut its 8,000 U.S. shops on the afternoon of May 29 for racial-bias training. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, the NAACP and others will help develop the training, which will be provided to some 175,000 employees. The announcement follows the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia location; Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson also apologized in person to the men, who were arrested for trespassing and later released with no charges filed.
Now I’ve spent a lot of time during the last five years in a local spectrum of Starbucks restaurants. As a freelancer, I depended on the free and fast wi-fi at Starbucks in order to work online and communicate with clients. There are six different Starbucks within five miles of my home. I’d move around day-to-day for variety’s sake. Thus I got to witness how an array of employees conducted themselves at a variety of locations.
On top of the local interactions, I traveled to Chicago frequently doing contract work. The urban Starbucks were sometimes only a block or so apart from each other. It’s always interesting to see how Starbucks squeezes itself into a specific space and slaps up the branding. It’s also interesting to see how an urban Starbucks differs from a store out in the suburbs.
IN terms of product, things are pretty consistent despite these variations in location. But here’s the funny part about my relationship with Starbucks: I don’t even drink coffee. Don’t like it. Don’t want it. Don’t walk around clutching my pet concoction as if it were nectar of the gods.
I haven’t even used my Starbucks Rewards card. But that’s plain laziness. My problem.
When my wife and I went to London, we depended on a Starbucks for quick food and drink during a busy schedule. The food was slightly different, a touch of England you might say, but it still had the Starbucks feel. Never big portions. A few healthy options. A few rich in fat and sugar. You literally get what you pay for.
I drink the teas instead of coffee but have learned to order them with limited shots of sweetener. Otherwise, they pump up to four shots of sugary tonic into the tea. Then it tastes more like Kool-Aid than a true tea.
My habit of drinking tea at Starbucks started five years ago when our triathlon group met at the Starbucks in Naperville, Illinois for winter run club. We’d pile into the place, sometimes thirty people strong, to meet before going on our Saturday morning long run. Then we’d come back, change in the restrooms and enjoy the pleasantries of club fellowship.
Thus over time, I’ve gotten to meet plenty of Starbucks associates. I’m always amazed at how they keep all those orders straight. I know I could not do it. My ADHD brain would mix things up. Now that I think about it, I do recall an older person who seemed befuddled working the cash register. She was new and struggled with the system. It caused delays. People in line got fussy, fast. Some muttered. And I felt bad. But I don’t think her problems stemmed from the fact that she was an older person. Some people just don’t have the brain type for that kind of operation.
Not every Starbucks is full of whiz kids either. While doing some writing at a Starbucks in St. Charles, Illinois, I noticed a woman standing near the counter who was clearly not a paying customer. She was holding a stopwatch and was clocking each phase of the operation as employees scuttled around handling drive-thru and over-the-counter orders. Occasionally she’d point out or correct some flaw. Obviously, this was a quality check or efficiency study of some sort. Like I said, working at Starbucks is not necessarily easily. Nor is it for everybody.
Racial bias and homelessness
Which makes me think about the problem Starbucks faced recently when one of its employees made that poor judgment call amounting to an expression of racial bias. The guys hung out longer than she liked and she seems to have freaked.
Yet there have been plenty of times I’ve walked into a Starbucks, plopped down directly with my laptop and did not order for more than an hour. No one questioned me. But then I’m a senior-aged white man in a suburban town. Not much risk there in the minds of those who might regard me. And that’s racial bias. Thanks to my color and my age, I get to live life in relative peace.
That’s not the case for many black men in America. And when it’s a cop telling you to stand still or lie down, and you haven’t done anything wrong, things can get hairy in a hurry.
The world is a cruel place. Crueler still for some than others.
Homeless and away
There is a homeless man whom I met for the first time at one of our local Starbucks (that shall not be named or mentioned here.)
My friend has one leg because he lost the other to diabetes. For shelter, he sleeps in a tent in the woods overnight. He’s told me that he has to use a stick to beat back the coyotes trying to steal his food once it’s cooked. I’ve given him money or purchased food a number of times. He needs it.
He wheels himself around town in a wheelchair, and the wear and tear on that implement is considerable. When I first met him, the chair he owned was literally falling apart. I drove home that day and brought back a wheelchair that my late father had owned. For another year, that chair served him well.’
Everything put together falls apart
Eventually, it too fell apart. Most wheelchairs aren’t really designed for rugged outdoor use or the constant banging they receive while bumping over curbs. The wind and rain and weather also have deleterious effects on his chair, especially the seat. Soon enough the foam sticks out, frays and falls off. It’s a rough existence. But it’s his lifeline.
Some locals have raised money to help James. One even used his name on a GoFundMe page to raise several thousand dollars. She told James about it and he asked for the money. She decided to not give it to him the money because she thought he’d piss it away. Her plan was to help other homeless people. “You used my name!” he admonished her. But she was unmoved.
Well, James is nice to a limit. There are times when he can get testy, and this was one of those times. Can you really blame him? He gets $700 a month from a government check, has no health insurance and no real help from family. So he makes a choice between eating and having a place to live.
At least that’s his story. We’ve all tried to get him to live in a local shelter, but they have rules he doesn’t like. Thus the quandary of trying to help homeless people can quickly become exasperating, even impossible. If they don’t want your help, you can’t force it on them.
But the heart-rendering part is that James sometimes falls out of his chair, and it’s quite a struggle to get himself back into it, especially when snow and ice cover the ground. I guess the local police are hamstrung and/or not allowed to touch him in that circumstance according to certain ordinances. That’s how James explained it to me. Whether the police thing is true or not, it does illustrate the many challenges he faces.
So by the time he rolls in the door at Starbucks, there is a heap of drama already surrounding his life choices. There are plenty of people who see James around town. You can’t really miss him. He sits at the train station in the morning. A few people every day hand him money for his morning coffee, some breakfast or lunch. He’s not an irascible man generally and doesn’t really beg. People just offer him stuff out of the goodness of their hearts. He’s got a big smile and a friendly voice. But as demonstrated, he doesn’t like to be trifled with. That’s how he’s survived despite the handicaps and his own stubborn nature.
Which brings us back to the Starbucks thing. Because my friend James visits the Starbucks in town fairly frequently. People there buy him drinks and food and stuff. Generally, this is well-accepted by the Starbucks staff.
But the manager eventually got wary that James might be annoying customers. It’s a difficult and touchy situation engaging with the homeless. Who (and what?) determines how long is too long to hang around a store? After all, some Starbucks customers stay all day long working on their laptops or jabbering on their phones. Are they homeless as well?
Right down the street from Starbucks there is a local coffee shop that does a great business. I love that place as well, and know the owners from years of membership in the same church. The presence of Starbucks less than half a mile away hasn’t hurt them one bit.
Here’s the kicker. There are regulars who use that shop as an office every day. They come in at 8:00 a.m. and leave at 5:00 p.m. I’ve gotten to know them. So how does one distinguish between the rights of a homeless person who wants to sit inside a warm business sipping coffee for a couple hours and the businessperson or community organizer who perches in their local coffee house doing business all day or night?
It often comes down to physical appearance and the perception of the manager who should get to stay and who should leave. If we reach all the way back in Christian tradition, there should be no difference between the two. Yet there is. We haven’t really come that far in the last 2000 years. We judge each other in the moment, and we judge each other eternally. All because of human circumstance, which is ironic, because life itself is a ‘pre-existing condition’ according to life insurance terminology.
We can all agree in principle that the manager in the Philadelphia Starbucks made a racist call by having two black men removed from that location. Starbucks is responding with a massive employee training day in which 175,000 associates will take time off to learn how not to engage in or tolerate racial bias.
That’s a good thing. But I’ve also seen that Starbucks hires plenty of people who seem to meet criteria of many types of diversity. Even from my obviously limited perspective, the company appears to employ people of all kinds of color. I’ve met them in all sorts of cities across the country. Frankly, that’s what I’ve come to expect from Starbucks. I don’t like their coffee, because I don’t like any kind of coffee. But I do like the people who work there and have made many connections simply by striking up a conversation. I’ve met so many people that way, and in a sadly liberal way that makes me very happy in the long run, have learned so much by talking to people different from me it shocks me into reality.
Because there are also folks who work at Starbucks whose gender is not emphatically clear. But in a practical sense, which is what so many people seem to care about, it doesn’t affect their ability to make good coffee or treat customers with the sunny disposition so many Starbucks associates seem to embrace.
I’m serious. Only rarely have I encountered a grumpy Starbucks employee. Frankly, I often wonder to myself why more aren’t nasty given the pressure of customer expectations and the pace of their jobs. It’s hard work. Anyone who denies that is full of eternal crap.
But like I said, I’m no real coffee clutcher. I’m not speaking out of fear of losing access to my favorite drink if a boycott were to sink the Starbucks chain.
)But I do know people who might think that way.(
It won’t happen, nor should it. The place seems like it’s trying to be a socially responsible company in its communication of green initiatives, but that probably bears research as well.
Paying the price
As for me, the price I pay for my tea may be a little higher than other shops. But not really. The local coffee shop in the town where I work charges $3.50 for a medium chai tea latte. In some ways, Starbucks has actually benefitted little shops like that. They know they can charge higher prices these days, and get it. And I love to sit there and write as well. I try to spread my business around.
Each Saturday when we get out for a long run go to yoga, we swing by and grab a couple of those little eggy things for breakfast. Sue gets her vanilla something-or-other with almond milk, and sometimes they forget the last part.
But that’s only because they’re human. Starbucks responded quickly with an effort to communicate that humanity and help people understand the costs of racial bias. The company invites ideas, so if you have a good one, try sending one here.
When they’re done training their employees, perhaps they could work on the rest of the country. Because like a hot cup of Venti tipped over by a careless elbow, America seems like a hot mess right now.