Starbucks closed 8,000 stores on Tuesday for what was widely billed as anti-bias training that focused on discrimination, racial justice and the experiences of people of color in Starbucks stores and commercial spaces nationwide.
But the four-hour training session for 175,000 employees also, in many ways, seemed designed to perform double duty, an attempt to reinforce the coffee behemoth's long-cultivated image as a “third place” to employees and customers — and to take what might be seen as a trite corporate credo and try to throw it into sharp relief.
During the training, employees watched a slickly produced documentary by filmmaker Stanley Nelson that focused on the experiences of people of color and access to public spaces that's now making the rounds on social media. Training session guidebooks touted “Starbucks: the third place” in emerald green block letters, a phrase chairman Howard Schultz has been using for decades to describe his belief that Starbucks could offer a place of refuge between home and work.
A summary of the training curriculum warned employees that “discrimination is a real threat to the ‘third place,’ ” and executives said it’s that mission that drove Starbucks to reconsider its policies and introduce a new one that allows anyone to use its bathrooms and sit at its cafes without making a purchase, which the company labeled the “Third Place Policy.”
Schultz, speaking in a video that workers watched on iPads during the training, talked about his early observations in Italy of the sense of place people found in cafes, asking employees to do their part to uphold that ethos in their stores, communities and neighborhoods. “That’s my hope for the company, and that’s literally my hope for the country,” he says.
Experts say companies rarely have such chances to promote their founding missions or corporate creeds when the world is watching so closely. “It’s going to make people who come into their stores think about Starbucks’s stated purpose that most people brush off as branding,” said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser based in New York. “It’s a huge opportunity that not a lot of companies get.”
Starbucks executives announced the training days after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store while waiting for a business meeting. Two minutes after they arrived, a white manager called 911, and soon after police led the men away in handcuffs. Within days of the arrests, Schultz, as well as chief executive Kevin Johnson, met with the men to apologize and began plans for company-wide training programs.
At the same time, the incident, and the massive attention it received, presented a brand crisis that posed core questions about the third-place notion Starbucks has long promoted in its stores.
“When you are taking your company and your brand into … the public square of relevant current issues of social justice, when you are saying, ‘We are the public square, and our values are tied up with how we respond,’ you sure as hell better have a public square people can walk into,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School who has written case studies about Starbucks.
Yet “crises are these crucibles, where you get a chance to do something redemptive but also something very positive,” she said.
She and others said the focus on Starbucks’s effort to position itself as that public forum carries risk along with an opportunity. “They’ve raised the ante again,” she said. By emphasizing the notion of its cafes as a public space, if another incident occurs, they’re even “more vulnerable than they were before.”
“From the beginning, Starbucks set out to create just such an invaluable opportunity,” Schultz wrote of this in-between spot, “a social yet personal environment between one’s house and job, where people can connect with others and reconnect with themselves.”
The concept of the third place is not originally Schultz’s; he pointed to sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s writing on the idea in his first book. And some say Starbucks has never entirely filled that role.
Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University who wrote a book about Starbucks and American culture in 2009, said the concept of a third place — a public space — is not only a place between home and work, but also one where people meet others different from themselves, interact in a public forum, and even see the same people again and again.
“Essentially, they created a simulacrum of a third place,” he said. But “it wasn’t really a third place — it was a place to be alone in public.”
While he says “the idea of a third place is probably the right thing to say at this moment,” its creation by a corporation like Starbucks “defies a lot of logic, a lot of history and a lot of hard work. … Do they really want people to be able to say whatever they want? Do they really want to hash out political issues in the stores? Do they really want to schedule [employees’ time] so people can meet each other and know each other? That’s what happens in public spaces.”
Meanwhile, the new rules have triggered a backlash. NBC host Megyn Kelly targeted the bathroom policy, saying, “Do you really want to deal with a mass of homeless people or whoever is in there — could be drug-addicted, you don’t know.”
And Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, penned a column titled “Starbucks’ Homeless Problem” and wrote that “no matter what you do to try to appease unhappy progressives, you will be wrong.”
Starbucks’s response: So long as customers use stores and bathrooms as intended, the third place will stay intact.
“We don’t want to become a public shelter,” Schultz told reporters on Tuesday. “We don’t want to become a public bathroom. But in the same context, we want to lead the company, and we want to manage the company through the lens of humanity. That’s a very fragile balance given these systemic issues.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Ray Oldenburg's name.