The regulars showed up as usual at the Falls Church Starbucks one day in late June, ready to share coffee and conversation with fellow immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
But the men were stunned to find that the coffee chain, an integral part of their daily routine, had removed the outdoor seating that was central to their gatherings.
The disappearance of the tables and chairs came just days after a front-page article in The Washington Post on June 26 described how the Starbucks, located in a strip mall in an area known as Skyline, became such a draw that it is known in other countries.
A Fairfax County official said the store lacked the correct permitting for outdoor seating. A Starbucks representative said the store and mall are working to address the issue and hope to restore the outdoor seating within a month.
“It’s definitely a priority for us to get those chairs and tables back out there,” Stacey Krum, a company spokeswoman, said.
The immigrants had begun gathering there in 1997, a year after the coffee chain opened in the Crossroads Place strip mall. They lingered over coffee to discuss politics, sports and life. They dispensed advice to newcomers and even dug into their pockets to help each other out during crises.
But when the tables and chairs suddenly disappeared, breaking up get-togethers, the conspiracy theories were plentiful.
Concerned readers sent e-mails. “Did your article have anything to do with the missing tables?” wrote Sean Mahoney, who lives in Baileys Crossroads near the Starbucks. Without the tables, he added, “this strip mall has lost a lot of its character.”
The immigrants were confounded, too.
“Some of the guys, they said when you guys put us in the paper, that’s why they took the chairs away,” said Abed Ellafdi, a Moroccan who is a regular there. “I said, no, that’s not the reason.”
County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said Fairfax County received a complaint in May about the outdoor tables and sent an inspector, who determined that the outdoor seating was not part of the store’s original site plan.
To comply with county regulations, the owners of the mall must submit an amended site plan showing that the outdoor seating leaves enough room for pedestrians to walk by unimpeded, Fitzgerald said. The plan would also need to show that there are enough parking spaces to accommodate the additional seats.
“This is really an easy fix,” Fitzgerald said, adding that the owner of the shopping center has requested additional time to make sure all its stores comply with the regulations.
An attorney for the owner was not available to comment.
Starbucks has submitted a plan to the owner that would install a railing around the seating area to enclose it, Krum said. When the store was remodeled in April, space was added for the outdoor area, she said.
Until the outdoor chairs return, the corner where the men once sat for hours will be a bleak tundra. Ellafdi said most of the regulars have found other places to drink coffee for now.
Jesse Foster, the store’s manager, said he hopes the men will return once the permit issue is resolved. In the meantime, he spends most of his time these days dispelling rumors — that the chairs were removed in retaliation against the men who appeared in the article or that their removal was an attempt by Starbucks to reduce the crowds and change the scene.
“People are dreaming up things that might have happened,” he said. “It’s been a hot topic. I’ve had to answer the question of what happened to the chairs probably a couple of hundred times. I hope the chairs come back soon. That’s my position.”