Starbucks Corp. CEO Kevin Johnson faces one of the biggest tests of his one-year tenure as the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain finds itself in the midst of a discrimination scandal involving the arrests of two black men at a Philadelphia cafe.
The men were arrested late last week for trespassing while sitting in the cafe without making a purchase. An employee called police, leading to the men’s arrest, according to the Associated Press and Starbucks. Video and images of the arrest went viral on social media, and the incident triggered protests at the Philadelphia location.
On Monday, about two dozen demonstrators swarmed the Starbucks location. Some stood in front of the counter, holding banners that said: “End Stop and Frisk.”
"We don't want this Starbucks to make any money today. That's our goal," protest organizer Abdul-Aliy Muhammad told AP.
After making two public statements over the weekend, Johnson flew to Philadelphia to apologize directly to the two men, who were eventually released with no charges.
In his statements, Johnson reaffirmed the company’s position “against discrimination or racial profiling.”
Starbucks is investigating the incident, which Johnson blamed on local-store practices that often lead to asking people who are not customers to leave. Some situations, where a threat exists, will lead to a call to police, said Johnson, who took over as CEO last year.
In this case, “none of that existed,” he said. “What happened in the way that incident escalated and the outcome was nothing but reprehensible, and I’m sorry.”
Starbucks, under the longtime leadership of Howard Schultz, has stood for years as a safe, third-place haven within communities. Inclusion, equity and accessibility are part of the company’s stated culture.
It is not uncommon for people — from remote workers to students — to sit all day in a cafe, taking advantage of the company’s free Wi-Fi.
“We extend the Starbucks Experience to all customers, recognizing and responding to their unique preferences and needs. Ensuring an exceptional customer experience by connecting with our customers in a culturally relevant way,” the company’s website states.
Johnson, who plans to meet with Philadelphia leaders this week, said Starbucks will address the incident through better employee training around “unconscious bias.”
“This is not who we are, and it’s not who we’re going to be. We’re going to learn from this, and we’re going to be better from this,” he said.
Starbucks will host a company-wide meeting soon “to share our learnings, discuss some immediate next steps and underscore our long-standing commitment to treating one another with respect and dignity,” he said.
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