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Starbucks Kicks Decisions Back To Their Store Employees


Starbucks will shut down more than 8,000 stores next Tuesday for anti-bias training. From now on, you can simply sit in a Starbucks. That's part of their philosophy. But now, as reporter Ryan Kailath reports, that change starts a new controversy.

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon in Palo Alto, Calif., Jim Stark is at his usual Starbucks charging his phone and listening to Stevie Nicks.

Do you hang out here a lot?

JIM STARK: Every day I'm homeless.

KAILATH: Stark's 71, says he was evicted last year, started sleeping in a parking garage, then a church. He says plenty people camp out at Starbucks all day - students, techies and people like him.

STARK: There's five people right now. You can see a woman who's sitting at the table next to mine with her sleeping bag and her belongings. And I have my shopping cart, and it's been sitting there all day long.

KAILATH: You ever seen somebody getting kicked out or getting in a row or...

STARK: No, never. They treat you as if you are not a homeless person.

KAILATH: How does that feel?

STARK: It's good.

KAILATH: And cut - there's your Starbucks ad. See, since its founding, the company's embraced its identity as a, quote, unquote, "third place," says Joe Pawlak of the industry consulting firm Technomic - a place that's not home, not work, just somewhere you can sit and be.

JOE PAWLAK: This is something that they've kind of incurred. It's helped build their business. And by physically removing people like was publicized with the incident in Philadelphia, that kind of put a black eye in that whole third place philosophy.

KAILATH: That incident sparked a PR crisis. And a week ago, Starbucks put its unwritten policy into writing. Everyone is welcome to use the restrooms and the chairs and the Wi-Fi whether they buy anything or not. Pawlak says lots of national chains have similar rules.

PAWLAK: They're kind of stating the obvious, I think. I don't think it really differs from what their policy was before.

KAILATH: But making it official gave Starbucks a whole new PR problem.

GENE MARKS: It's a terrible decision. They're just making an enormous mistake by doing this.

KAILATH: Gene Marks lives in Philadelphia, goes to Starbucks every day and runs a business consulting firm specializing in customer relations. When he learned of the new policy, he thought...

MARKS: Oh, my God, that's just going to attract so many homeless people or, you know, people that are going to take up space there. And I think that that's going to drive a lot of customers from Starbucks away.

KAILATH: After a chorus of like sentiment broke out on editorial pages and social media, Starbucks clarified. People who are using drugs or causing a disturbance or sleeping may be asked to leave at the discretion of store employees.

MARKS: That decision now has to come down on the head of a barista.

KAILATH: For a brief moment last week, Starbucks took that discretion away from the barista when it stated unilaterally that everyone is welcome. Now that the company has added footnotes to that policy, it's returned the hard decisions with all their uncertainties to the store employees on the frontlines. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "QUIET MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Kailath
Ryan Kailath [KY-lawth] is a business reporter at NPR in the New York bureau.