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A Starbucks in Center City Philadelphia prompted nationwide outrage this month after two black men were arrested and handcuffed there for the crime of waiting to meet a friend without ordering an overpriced cup of espresso or even an almond croissant. (To view a video of the arrest, click here.)
The humiliated, shaken men were released after the company declined to press charges. Protesters subsequently demonstrated outside the offending coffee shop; Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson abjectly apologized via video; the company announced it would close all its U.S. stores and corporate offices on May 29, 2018, to spend a day training its 238,000 employees against racial bias; Philadelphia’s police commissioner (also a black man) apologized profusely; and the Center City Starbucks employee whose overreaction set off this ludicrous chain of events was fired.
But a question persists: What should Starbucks do when anybody, regardless of race, occupies its precious space without ordering anything? To answer that question, we must consider this company’s basic business.
A surefire plan
Starbucks is a phenomenally successful chain that has grown from a single outlet in 1971 to 28,000 locations worldwide today by a) conferring social acceptance upon an addictive albeit legal drug called caffeine, b) transforming millions of millennials and wannabe millennials into caffeine addicts, and c) providing a safe and welcoming environment to millions more potential addicts. For the price of a frappuccino, if you belong to a certain demographic group and sport a backpack or laptop, Starbucks will allow you — nay, encourage you, with offers of free Wi-Fi — to sit in its window for hours pretending to be tapping away on your Ph.D. thesis, even if you’re really just playing video games. Your mere presence there constitutes valuable advertising for Starbucks; it persuades passing pedestrians that this particular Starbucks shop is busy and popular among folks just like you.
On the other hand, if you don’t belong to Starbucks' preferred demographic — if, say, you are old, homeless, a purveyor of some drug other than caffeine, or have failed to compensate for your skin color by conspicuously carrying a laptop— well, that sort of negative advertising could wreck Starbucks’ entire business plan, don’t you see?
My personal boycott
The trouble with last week’s anti-Starbucks demonstrations is that they play right into the company’s hands. They reinforce the fallacious notion that the Starbucks chain is a wholesome global community that all vibrant people aspire to join. Those protesters outside Starbucks last week are Johnnies-come-lately in my book. I’ve been boycotting Starbucks for years — not for sociopolitical reasons but on the advice of my doctor.
Although, as a white man, I’ve never been arrested for the crime of loitering while black, in one sense I can empathize with last week’s two Starbucks victims. I’ve always adored the seductively friendly ambiance of coffee shops and yearned to hang out there. I just can’t stand coffee.
All public-accommodations businesses — hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, clothing stores — appreciate the critical importance of appearances. When I was growing up in the ‘50s, most such places enforced dress codes. An adult man couldn’t eat in a respectable restaurant unless he wore a tie; if he lacked a tie, the restaurant would lend him one, even if he’d just come off the golf course or was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
Of course, dress codes (not to mention racial restrictions) are much more tolerant today. Even the Union League no longer requires a tie, nor does it restrict its membership to white male Protestant Republicans. But dress codes do still exist, albeit in more lenient forms: When a friend of mine recently walked into Tequila’s in Center City wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, the restaurant furnished him with a conventional T-shirt to wear for the duration of his meal.
So what should Starbucks do? In the tradition of Tequila’s, the company should equip each of its locations with a couple of spare laptops to keep behind the counter. If a black person — or even a white person — walks in and sits down without ordering, lend them a laptop and insist they use it. They’ll blend right in, and they’ll be doing Starbucks a favor. And if they can avoid drinking the coffee, they'll do a favor to their heart, nerves, and muscles.
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