For the year I worked at Starbucks, my manager made it very clear to all the partners at our location that the store’s two bathrooms were for paying customers only. (Starbucks calls its employees “partners” because they get an annual share in the company stock, among other reasons).
Like many other Starbucks stores, we set a four-digit code on the bathroom locks so they couldn’t be accessed by just anybody. Paying customers had to ask for the code. And it changed every couple of weeks, so even regular customers had to ask. But there were good reasons behind this mandatory system that has recently been changed to allow non-paying customers to use Starbucks bathrooms, too.
First, the store I worked at was the third busiest in the entire city of Boston, located next door to Mass General Hospital, two large hotels, a train station and a residential neighborhood. The street was also home to many homeless people who slept beneath store awnings and private doorways in early hours of the morning when we opened.
In Boston, it’s illegal to offer shelter to people abusing substances. The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and Emergency Assistance (EA) are legally allowed to perform drug tests on those they believe to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at shelters. Therefore, those who do have alcoholism problems or drug addictions often make the conscious choice to pitch up outside in public areas.
There were regular vagabonds who walked into our store wanting a cup of water, a warmer (or cooler) climate and to use the bathroom. Of course, bathrooms were off limits to everyone but paying customers. And when the homeless loitered in our store and refused to leave, our friends at the fire department or police station down the road would help us escort them out.
The issue was more than just cleanliness or comfort for paying customers; the main reason we weren’t allowed to let the homeless use our bathrooms was because my manager had seen multiple instances in which homeless people had gone into the bathrooms before the codes were put into place, or when they waited outside long enough for a customer to walk out and catch the door before it closed, and then locked themselves inside for so long that we had to call the fire department.
Substance abusers — often homeless — have ruined bathroom opportunities for everyone; businesses cannot take the chance. Those homeless people who take advantage of bathrooms in busy coffee shops and the like use the facilities to do drugs, drink, sleep and sometimes worse.
There were times when I had to give desperate-looking strangers the awkward line, “Our bathroom is for paying customers only.” There were also times, however, when a woman would rush into the store in tourist gear and ask if her child could use the bathroom in broken English and I would break the rules and give her the code. But I wouldn’t give the code to a suspicious-looking person, and by suspicious-looking I mean lacking general manners, the ability to walk in a straight line and cleanliness.
When it comes to making a decision of trust, it should go without saying that some people look more trustworthy than others. The old rules encouraged partners to deny non-paying customers access to the bathroom, regardless of race or ethnicity.
The bathroom policy changed as a continuation of attempts by Starbucks to save its reputation when, last month, a store manager at a Philadelphia branch denied two black men access to the bathroom because they hadn’t purchased anything. When the men waited around afterward for their friend, the manager made a rather impulsive decision — that many blame on her unconscious racial bias — to call the police. When the police arrived at the scene, a bystander recorded the civil encounter in which the police arrest the two men for loitering.
The video went viral quickly. On the surface, it seems to have reached millions of viewers because so many people relate to the issue of micro- and macro-aggressions like this one, but if you look closely, the video went viral because it’s actually ridiculous. Blame it on the manager’s racial bias if you want — I don’t know the reason why she decided to call the police — but I believe the video went viral because things like this actually don’t happen that often and people become fascinated and angry in the rare event that such events do happen.
When the news reached Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, he came out with this public statement: “The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values. Creating an environment that is both safe and welcoming for everyone is paramount for every store.”
The statement continues: “Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome — the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.”
And yet the situation did escalate and continues to escalate further, largely due to public outcry, which leads us to my second point.
After the incident, Starbucks announced that it would close over 8,000 of its stores on May 28, 2018, so its partners could participate in implicit bias training, which most agree isn’t a real solution to the issue at stake. Rather, it was a public display of Starbucks making active plans to address a problem instead of just issuing an apology.
Weeks after the bias training announcement, Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz announced on May 11 that Starbucks changed its bathroom policy so that store restroom facilities are now open to “all.” But Schultz made it clear that Starbucks does not “want to become a public bathroom.” Instead, the company is “going to make the right decision 100 percent of the time and give people the key, because we don’t want anyone at Starbucks to feel as if we are not giving access to you to the bathroom because you are less than.”
In this case, Schultz is using “100 percent of the time” as a euphemism for “public bathroom,” because, of course, Starbucks does not want to become known as the public restroom place — not among its $7 lattés, prepackaged protein bistro boxes and ceramic thermoses.
It’s not about compassion for people who need to use a bathroom. Starbucks will always apologize profusely in response to events like this one to avoid lawsuits and an overall unpopular reputation among the millennial masses who invest so much in their business. Unfortunately, this heavy complacency can only make the occasional social issues that arise next to its name more difficult from here on. The next time Starbucks goes under fire, it will be because someone was denied access to a bathroom.
And with that, we come to my third and final point that bathrooms should be something of a luxury at places like Starbucks for paying customers and employees only. Water, plumbing, electricity and general maintenance do not come at a small price. And Starbucks isn’t paying that price. Its customers are.
Customers are not only paying for the coffee; they are paying for the heat and air conditioning, tables, accessible WiFi and bathrooms. Partners are paid to keep the place clean and comfortable for customers who spend literal hours studying, working, and holding meetings in the store. It seems like a fair trade to me.
It doesn’t seem like a fair trade to me, however, if I pay $5 for my drink and then have to wait in line with a bunch of random tourists who just walked in wanting to use the single-family bathroom without buying anything. It also doesn’t seem like a fair trade if I’m paid to clean a bathroom that has been used for the wrong reasons by people who don’t care about the fact that it’s my job to clean up after them.
I would say that I hope store managers will continue to use their best judgment with their backs turned to Starbucks’ new bathroom policy to decide who should and should not have access to their bathrooms, but that would probably result in another viral video, national outrage, and more policy changes.
So I’ll just leave it at this: The bathroom policy should have never been altered.
Audrey Conklin worked at a busy Starbucks in Boston for a year.