It’s a familiar routine for any Starbucks customer: a barista first takes your order, then asks for your name.
The usually innocuous exchange became a humiliating exchange for one customer.
According to a Facebook post Sunday by business school student Tan Lekwijit, his friend Sam stuttered “S-s-s-a-m” while ordering a drink at a Philadelphia Starbucks on June 27.
The barista then replied, “Okay, S-s-s-sam,” Lekwijit wrote.
And when the drink made its way Sam, the label said “SSSAM” — an apparent reference to Sam’s stuttering.
Sam contacted Starbucks to complain about the incident and was offered a $5 credit, according to Lekwijit, who said that the coffee giant had “missed the point.”
In his post, Lekwijit said that he “didn’t want to get anybody in trouble,” but that he wanted to “raise awareness among the employees.”
“There are many people with speech disorders who are in a worse position than my friend’s and struggle with self-esteem and self-confidence,” Lekwijit wrote. “Getting this kind of treatment from people, especially service employees, only scars them — and I beg Starbucks employees to have this in mind.”
Starbucks spokesman Nate Nesbitt confirmed to The Washington Post Thursday that a barista typed “SSSAM,” adding that the company has “no tolerance for this type of behavior.” The employee has been terminated, Nesbitt said, though the company prefers to use the term “separated.” Starbucks has not released the name of the employee.
The incident occurred barely one month after Starbucks closed 8,000 stores for sensitivity training spurred by an incident at another Philadelphia location. In that case, a manager asked police officers to remove two black men from the store because they wanted to use the restroom but had not ordered a drink. Following a backlash and protests, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized for the “reprehensible outcome” and the company told employees that people were not required to buy drinks before using Starbucks spaces.
The corporate-wide sensitivity training did not touch on communication disorders like stuttering, but a guidebook and accompanying videos included a scenario about a customer with “a thick accent” and asked employees to consider how they would have handled a similar situation.
Nesbitt told The Post that “there will be additional training on additional topics in the months to follow.”
Stuttering affects roughly 3 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. NIH reports that 5 percent to 10 percent of all children will experience a stutter and while many will learn to speak without a stutter, it will persist into adulthood for about 25 percent of affected children.
Experts say that stuttering — and the ridicule surrounding it — can be an isolating experience that dissuades people from speaking in public.
“The ridicule should stop,” says University of California Riverside’s Gerald Maguire, chair of the National Stuttering Association, a group that leads advocacy, research and empowerment efforts on behalf of people who stutter.
Maguire says that it’s time to retire the jokes about stuttering and characters like Porky Pig. “Stuttering is a disorder in the brain development,” Maguire says, and people who stutter deserve the same sensitivity and respect as people with any visible handicap.
Maurice Schweitzer, professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, says that Starbucks, which employs roughly 175,000 people in the United States, faces an “extremely difficult” challenge as it seeks to train employees to treat customers for who they are, not how they appear.
“There’s no way to effectively meet the prejudice that people have in a single afternoon training session, ” Schweitzer says. Complicating the task, he said, is the fact that Starbucks, like other corporations in the food service industry, has “high turnover and a lot of customer interactions.”
Lekwijit could not be immediately reached for comment. Lekwijit’s Facebook profile says he is a student at the Wharton School. A representative from the Wharton School told The Washington Post that neither Lekwijit nor Sam was available for an interview. Sam’s surname and his affiliation with Wharton are unclear.