For sleep-deprived college students, Starbucks is the place to be. The popular chain has several locations on the University of Minnesota campus, with Coffman Memorial Union and the Graduate hotel having perhaps the longest lines and the most crowded tables. Students flock to Starbucks to get their caffeine fix, meet up with peers to collaborate on assignments, or just have a relaxing place to study. Lately, the environment has become markedly less relaxing.
The shift began in April 2018, when the manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two black customers. According to reports, the two men entered the coffee house and asked to use the bathroom, but an employee informed them the restrooms were only for paying customers. The men took a seat - without ordering anything - to wait for the friend they had planned to meet, and they were soon arrested for trespassing.
Facing enormous backlash over the incident, Starbucks closed its stores nationwide on May 29 to give its employees racial-bias training. To non-baristas, the content of the training was a mystery, but it quickly became apparent this fall when I returned to campus and stopped at the Graduate hotel Starbucks.
After buying a drink to establish myself as a paying customer, I asked a barista for the code to the bathroom, a practice I had grown accustomed to the previous year. She informed me that there was no code. I approached the restrooms and, sure enough, the keypads had been ripped off the bathroom doors.
Clearly, one of the tenets of the racial bias training was that the restrooms cannot be reserved for paying customers; they must be open to whoever wanders into the store. This naturally attracts people to the store who have no intention of buying anything. For some individuals, Starbucks is now nothing more than a place to doze in a chair, stay warm, and have unlimited access to a private bathroom.
After April’s events, Starbucks employees seemingly can no longer ask anyone to leave. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their complaints.
Because of how often I go to Starbucks, I’ve started to recognize some of the non-paying “regulars.” While waiting in line one day, I overheard the baristas wondering aloud if a certain man had left the store. One barista described him, and I interjected and informed them that he had indeed left. She thanked me and explained that they’d had problems with this man before - he had drawn Swastikas on one of the tables.
Starbucks has made its bed unwisely, but now it has to lie in it. Before, not being a paying customer was enough for one to be asked to leave. But that was unfair and bigoted. Now, Starbucks employees cannot even tell a man who has defaced their property and spread symbols of antisemitism to leave the store. To put a stop to the “hateful” act of excluding non-customers, Starbucks has ironically invited new forms of hatred onto its premises.
That Starbucks location has also become a hotbed of solicitation, something typically not allowed at restaurants. On a variety of occasions, I have watched the same boy sit down next to someone and ask for money. One day, he asked me for money, disappeared, then came back ten minutes later and asked me again.
Starbucks continues to experience booming business, but dealing with a variety of uncomfortable encounters has pushed me to take my business elsewhere. Employees may no longer be kicking people out, but the company’s actions and policies have nevertheless driven some people away.