Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz said Thursday that the company will now open its bathrooms to everyone, regardless of whether a purchase has been made, following the arrest of two African American men who had asked to use the bathroom at one of its downtown Philadelphia coffee shops.
Schultz, speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington hours before he was slated to receive a business leadership award, said the company is changing its policy, after weeks of controversy, because it wants everyone — customer or not — to feel welcome at Starbucks.
“We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision a hundred percent of the time and give people the key,” Schultz said, “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.”
He said that Starbucks previously had a “loose policy” that only customers should be allowed to use the bathrooms but that it was up to each store manager’s discretion.
Schultz spoke candidly for nearly 20 minutes about the company’s failures over race, from its short-lived “Race Together” campaign in 2015 to last month’s arrest of two black men waiting for a business associate.
“We were absolutely wrong in every way, the policy and the decision [the store manager] made,” he said. “It’s the company that’s responsible.”
In the days after the Philadelphia arrests, a video surfaced of another incident in Torrance, Calif., posted in January, showing a black man claiming he was denied access to a bathroom while a white man was given the entry code. Neither man was a paying customer.
The coffee chain is slated to close more than 8,000 U.S. stores on the afternoon of May 29 for racial bias training, which Schultz characterized Thursday as the “largest training of its kind” on “one of the most systemic subjects and issues facing our country.”
In the weeks since the Philadelphia Starbucks incident, police have been called on African Americans for golfing too slowly, working out at a gym, shopping for prom, napping in a dorm, and renting an Airbnb — all because white people felt uncomfortable.
Schultz said the anti-bias training will mark the beginning of an “entire transformation” of how Starbucks employees are trained and will be part of a documentary by Stanley Nelson, who made the “Freedom Riders” documentary about the civil rights movement. The curriculum, which is being developed with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others, will be made available for use by other companies, Schultz said.
“I think it’s fair to say that most people have some level of unconscious bias based on our own life experience,” he said. “So there’s going to be a lot of education about how we all grew up, how we see the world and how we can be better.”
Schultz had flown to Philadelphia to personally apologize to Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson and said he and his team stayed for days to figure out the best response, including quickly demonstrating contrition on social media and national television.
He had been scheduled shortly afterwards to appear in Montgomery, Ala., at the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and at a town hall at Morehouse College in Atlanta, but said he had been advised to cancel because of concerns he would not be treated well. He attended both events.
“It was tough,” Schultz said. “As a white person, a Caucasian person, I felt the pain and I felt the concern that young African Americans have, especially young African American men have, about the opportunities in America.”
Schultz said Starbucks, as a corporation, has a responsibility to address issues of race in the United States, given the national divisions over the killings of African Americans.
“We can all remember with horror and shame what we witnessed as Americans in watching Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and others be murdered,” he said.
He said he was inspired by those events and subsequent protests to hold unscripted company-wide meetings throughout the country for employees to speak openly about “race, racial divide and unconscious bias” and share their experiences, concerns and personal pain, as well as their own biases, without fear of retribution.
“One young woman stood up and said: ‘My family were members of the KKK, and this is language I heard my whole life. I didn’t know it was wrong,’ ” Schultz said. “And we heard African Americans talk about the fact that they feel all the time that they are not being valued and the system, the playing field is not equal.”
From those conversations sprung the 2015 campaign in which baristas were instructed to scrawl the words “Race Together” on millions of tall-, grande- and venti-size drinks.
“We know this is the third rail. We know how difficult it is,” Schultz said. “But let’s have the moral courage to try and elevate the conversation.”
He said his board spent 2½ hours discussing how risky — yet necessary — the campaign would be. With Starbucks in nearly every community in the United States, the impact could have been “incredible,” he said. “So we leaned into it.”
The company was unprepared for the backlash. He said within two hours, the initiative had been “hijacked” on social media by hate and by anonymous people who “stole the narrative.”
So he ended the campaign.
“We did not shut it down because we thought we were wrong to do it,” he said. “We shut it down because we thought our people were going to be in danger. And that’s a whole other issue with regard to the systemic issue and the divide in the country.”