The arrests of two nonpaying guests at a Starbucks Corp. cafe earlier this month have raised questions among some employees about how to handle such situations.
Starbucks Chief Executive Kevin Johnson said it was wrong that a Philadelphia manager called the police about two black men who asked to use the bathroom without purchasing anything and then allegedly refused to leave when asked.
Interviews with current and former Starbucks managers and baristas across the country suggest that the company's guidelines on how to treat lingering nonpaying guests in general are vague at best—if they exist at all.
The people interviewed said they were unaware of a written policy on how long guests are allowed to stay in a Starbucks cafe without buying anything.
Contributing to the lack of clarity, employees said, is that Starbucks and its business model foster the idea of its shops as the “third place” in customers' lives, a place to hang out that isn't home or work.
The people interviewed said training hasn't taught employees— Starbucks calls them partners—to deal with lingering guests, instead focusing on what to do in the event of a theft or armed robbery. They said their understanding is decisions about whether and when to ask nonpaying guests to leave and whether to bar bathroom access are left to the discretion of individual store managers.
“It's been a gray area at Starbucks for a long time,” said a Starbucks executive who used to manage stores. A spokeswoman for Starbucks said because it has 28,000 stores world-wide, “different regions, circumstances and cultural norms necessitate different guidelines” for each.
Sarah Madden, a former Starbucks barista in New York City who now works at another restaurant, said, “There was no policy at my store—we did what we wanted, we were in a high-volume store, so we didn't really care if people hung out.”
“If a company has a policy and doesn't support a store when it enforces that policy, it seems very hypocritical,” said Ms. Madden, who while at Starbucks was involved in some unsuccessful efforts at unionizing.
A current Starbucks employee said within the company there are mixed feelings about the way top executives treated the Philadelphia manager. “Store managers are more sympathetic to her because most managers have had to ask people to leave their store at some point,” this person said.
Sena Reid, a barista at a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles, said she feels the Philadelphia manager's decision to call the police was “totally wrong,” but added that a policy stating it would be appropriate to call police about nonpaying guests only when they are disruptive might have prevented what happened.
Leaving such decisions to an individual employee's judgment without more corporate guidance can lead to problems, organizational experts say. Even the definition of what constitutes “disruptive” can vary from person to person.
“It's not enough to say it's OK to call police when someone is loitering. You have to define what loitering is,” said Joelle Emerson, founder and chief executive of Paradigm, a consulting firm that advises companies on inclusion and diversity.
Jamie-Lynn Riffenberg, who worked at Starbucks stores in Colorado and North Carolina on and off for five years, said it was hard to know where to draw the line with nonpaying guests, who often included homeless people coming in to warm up or to get a free cup of water.
“If you're too welcoming, they want to come more and more, and stay longer, and it can snowball,” said Ms. Riffenberg. Ms. Riffenberg and others said people have different ideas about how long is too long to stay without buying something.
“To some people, that might mean hanging around for 30 minutes without paying, but to someone else it might mean two hours,” she said. “There's too much room for variance.”
|Philly Location Had No Clear Guideline|
|Starbucks's own explanation of its guidelines for employees in the Philadelphia store appears contradictory.
“In this particular store the guidelines were that partners must ask unpaying customers to leave the store, and police were to be called if they refused.
Of course there are circumstances where the police should be called, for example when there's a major disruption or dangerously aggressive behavior, but that was not the case in this situation. The police should never have been called,” a company spokeswoman said in a written statement.
The spokeswoman said all of the company-owned Starbucks in the Philadelphia area have signs informing people that the bathrooms and the lobby are for paying customers only.
The Philadelphia store manager who called the police hasn't been identified. Starbucks said she has left the company as part of a mutual decision.
An attorney representing the two men, who appeared on television-news programs on Thursday, didn't return calls seeking comment.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross apologized to the two men who were arrested The police commissioner told reporters at a Thursday news conference that he assumed Starbucks didn't allow nonpaying guests to linger in its stores, and he believes the officers who made the arrests thought so, too.
Starbucks said it is working with outside experts and community leaders to review its training and practices.
The company plans to close all of its more than 8,000 company- owned U.S. stores for an afternoon in May for antibias education sessions for its employees.
An additional 5,000-plus stores operated by licensees will receive the antibias training materials later.
BY JULIE JARGON