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Starbucks says everyone’s a customer after Philadelphia bias incident

Starbucks employees called the police on two black men in April for doing nothing. The coffee company’s changing its policies in hopes to avoid a similar incident in the future.

A woman protesting outside of a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018 after two black men were arrested there after employees called the police.
A woman protesting outside of a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018 after two black men were arrested there after employees called the police.
Mark Makela/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Starbucks will treat anyone who walks into one of its cafes as a customer, whether or not they buy anything, the company said on Saturday. The announcement is the latest step the coffee company is taking as part of its ongoing response to the public outcry over the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The men were waiting for a business associate to arrive and had asked to use the bathroom in April when Starbucks employees called the police, eventually leading to them being arrested and escorted out.

In a letter to employees first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, the company said “any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes, and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer.” Employees are expected to follow the company’s procedures to respond to customers who are “behaving in a disruptive manner,” including calling 911 if the person is an immediate danger, but sitting without ordering anything or asking to use the bathroom without making a purchase is now okay.

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz earlier this month telegraphed the change while speaking at an event hosted by think tank the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. “We don’t want to become a public bathroom,” he said. “But we’re going to make the right decision 100 percent of the time and give people the key.”

On May 29, Starbucks will close all of its 8,000 US coffee shops for the afternoon to provide racial bias training to all of its employees. The company has tapped a number of big names for the event, including former US Attorney General Eric Holder, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund president and director-counsel Sherrilyn Ifill, and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

The company has also undertaken efforts to streamline guidelines for all of its stores surrounding how to engage with nonpaying patrons. The guidelines for employees at the Philadelphia store where the April incident happened were for employees to ask nonpaying guests to leave — not call the police.

Starbucks’ updated policies include an ask for customers as well that they “behave in a manner that maintains a warm and welcoming environment” by using spaces as intended, being considerate of others, communicating respectfully, and acting responsibly. Employees are instructed to calmly approach customers who engage in behaviors such as smoking in the cafe, shoplifting, or making unwanted sexual advances. The men arrested in Philadelphia, of course, weren’t doing anything disruptive or wrong at all.

The Starbucks incident is part of a broader problem of white people calling the police on black people

The arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson on April 12 in Starbucks kicked off a major firestorm. The company initially issued a less-than-satisfying apology, and CEO Kevin Johnson later issued a lengthy statement on the incident in which he apologized to the men arrested, laid out plans to investigate the incident, and affirm Starbucks’ stance against discrimination and racial profiling. “You can and should expect more from us,” he wrote. “We willlean from this and be better.”

The company soon announced the manager who called the police in Philadelphia no longer worked at the store, and Johnson met with the men arrested.

In May, Nelson and Robinson reached a settlement with the city of Philadelphia over the incident for $1 each and asked the city to fund $200,000 for a grant program for young entrepreneurs. They reached a financial agreement with Starbucks as well for an undisclosed amount as well as “continued listening and dialogue between the parties and specific action and opportunity.”

The Philadelphia Starbucks incident highlights a much broader and more pervasive problem in America: the frequency with which white people call the police on black people without cause. In recent weeks, a number of racial profiling incidents have made the news — the owner of a Pennsylvania country club called the police on five black women for playing too slowly, a black woman was violently arrested in an Alabama Waffle House over a dispute over her bill, Nordstrom apologized after calling the police in Missouri on three teenagers shopping for prom. This week, a video went viral of the police defending a black real estate investor after a white woman called the police on him.

As Vox’s PR Lockhart recently pointed out, people of color have long been subject to racial profiling in public and private spaces — what’s different now is social media and cellphone cameras that make it easier to draw attention to such incidents. But even though racial segregation is no longer legal, biases about who belongs where and when persist.