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Jan Lee headshot

Starbucks' Gamble: Can New Rules Make America More Inclusive?

By Jan Lee

Starbucks is working hard to show its listening to consumers these days. After last month’s arrest of two black patrons, on charges of trespassing at an upper-end Philadelphia store and public protesters accusing the corporation of supporting racism, CEO Kevin Johnson announced a number of procedural changes that he hoped would mend the discord.

The first step, the company announced, would be to enroll all Starbucks partners in a half-day of training to address “racial bias” behavior. All 800 Starbucks-run stores will be closed for a half-day on Tuesday, May 29 as a result.

The second, announced last week, would be to open its bathrooms and patron facilities at large, to the public and to rescind the company policy of requiring a purchase before using the washroom. The latter came after it was reported that black patrons have been required to purchase something first before using the facilities, while white patrons in the same store were not.

While the policies seem fairly practical steps for stores that on average serve 500 patrons a day (2013), and that number is still growing), there’s been plenty of criticism and pushback for both changes.

First, when it comes to addressing social biases, say experts, a half-day training likely won’t be enough. Reforming attitudes takes time and repeat training.

“Effective training should be thought of as part of ongoing education, not a one-shot solution to something that ails you,” Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting told Corporate Responsibility Magazine. Sanchez provided a number of examples of ways that companies can take to address such problems, which all pointed toward long-term training.

Last week Starbucks released a statement saying that it plans to publish a copy of the curriculum it uses following today's racial bias training workshop.

“Our hope is that these learning sessions and discussions will make a difference within and beyond our stores. After May 29, we will make the curriculum available to the public and share it with the regions as well as our licensed and business partners ... May 29 isn't a solution; it's a first step," the company stated on its website.

Starbucks changes bathroom policy ... again

But the corporation has also received a fair amount of criticism for its policy change restroom use. In fact, if Starbucks management found the discussion about race relations to be uncomfortable, it may be nothing compared to addressing social mores and consumers’ discomfort about sharing that sacred space with everyone on the street.

Justin Bariso, of Insight, delves into this discussion in his opinion piece for Inc.

“[Will] this new policy embolden an entirely new demographic of vagrants and drifters? If so, how will this change the atmosphere of Starbucks as the ‘third place’?” asked Bariso, who wondered whether overcrowding could become the new norm, and whether paying customers would actually become discouraged toward visiting Starbucks.

What is interesting is that this isn’t entirely a new transition for Starbucks.  New York Times writer Josh Korman points out that New York City Starbucks bathrooms were open to the public until November 2011, when the company changed its policy and began converting some facilities to employee-only access.

According to Korman, Starbucks changed the policy after it found its staff were having to line up behind customers to use the facilities. But other factors highlighted by Starbucks employees and former staff suggest that the problems faced by Starbucks stores went beyond inconvenience during break times.

“We closed off the public bathroom because it was just too messy,” Korman was told by a worker.

Several other Starbucks employees added that the problem wasn’t just having to clean up messes. It was what was left behind.

“I've known [Starbucks] partners who were pricked with needles changing garbages, I have personally cleaned up almost every humanly fluid and plenty that didn't seem human. I have personally worked 10 hour days without a toilet accessible because of the failure of leadership to address the issue,” commented one Starbucks partner who did not give a name.

Those health concerns, and the worry that patrons may be using the bathrooms for illicit purposes has prompted some gas stations to install blue lighting in washrooms, since it makes it harder for people attempting to ‘shoot up’ to see the veins in their arms.

According to CNN writer Amanda Watts, blue is becoming the new color for extensive bathroom remodels – those that are continuously open to the public, that is. Biohazard boxes and coded door locks are also new features. Starbucks, which has employed coded door locks and reportedly in one location, a complex ticketed access at the top of an escalator, had turned to gated systems as well in recent years.

But employee frustration and safety issues aren’t the only challenges stores wrestle with when maintaining public venues. Cost, says Windy Campbell, owner of Campbell Communications, is a major factor. Keeping up with a high-trafficked location isn’t cheap.

She estimates that a medium-sized business will run through 150-200 paper towels a day. A coffee shop that services an average of 500 patrons a day will use about 3 times that amount, at an average of $200-225 a month for towels alone.

Cleaning costs are the most overlooked costs associated with restrooms,” James Piper points out on FacilitiesNet, His article focuses on sustainable ways to address facilities management, including practical renovations, which often aren't cheap.

And yet, what’s a company to do if it wants to manage costs but knows its patrons will be expecting clean, available facilities during their stay? According to a survey of restaurant patrons, 56 percent of participants said they wouldn’t return to an establishment if the bathroom was left in disarray.

That’s important news for Starbucks and its specialty coffee competitors. An estimated 70 percent or more (depending on age group surveyed) said they are particular in selecting the businesses they frequent, and the condition of the bathrooms influences their decision.

Settlements reached

But Starbucks and the city of Philadelphia do appear to have made some strides in addressing the arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two young men who had been arrested for taking a seat in a coffee shop without making a purchase first.

The company announced earlier this month that it had reached a settlement with Nelson and Robinson, which entails paying for courses that will lead to the completion of their bachelor’s degree. Johnson has also offered to personally mentor them in their business aspirations. And the two men will be participating in Starbucks “racial bias” workshops.

The city has also reached settlement. It will be contributing $200,000 toward an entrepreneurial fund designed to help foster support for young local entrepreneurs, making it possible for Nelson and Rashon to launch the new program.

But there are still challenges to overcome. Can Starbucks become a business leader in teaching other companies how to foster a better, cooperative space for public use? Can it build inclusiveness not just into its rapport with customers but its compassion in the open setting?

The coming week will say a lot about how well it is able to translate the topic of racial equity into a power-packed discussion forum, but that may be just the beginning to broadening America’s personal definition of an inclusive environment.

Flickr image: Nick Amoscato

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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