What Restaurant Operators Can Learn from the Starbuck's Race Controversy

To say the last fifteen months have been tumultuous is an understatement of epic proportions. So many societal norms have been upset, modified or wiped out altogether. From the incivility of politics to the #MeToo Movement, Americans have been forced to examine their own beliefs and values more so than since the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s & ‘60s. The backlash from a recent incident of racial profiling at Starbuck’s is just another example of how we need to be honest about our differences and find solutions that respect all of our citizens.

That this example of bigotry happened in a Starbuck’s is both ironic and predictable. Ironic because most folks would have picked Starbuck’s last on the list of restaurant operators that could be guilty of racism. Predictable because restaurants are made up of people and those people come from a myriad of backgrounds and values.

Even the most sensitive companies are capable of stumbling on these complicated issues and Starbuck’s is no exception. Initially, they made a tepid attempt to address the situation, but ultimately were driven to schedule a day to completely shut down for racial sensitivity training.

What happened & why did their reaction take the course it did?

Let’s be honest, no one wants to admit their restaurant is guilty of racial profiling. Especially a company like Starbuck’s, whose reputation has hinged on their progressive and inclusive values. While they aren’t perfect, as of 2015 40% of the company 200,000 employees were of color. Unfortunately, at that point only 18% of their executives were minorities. But they have been at the forefront of the conversation surrounding race. Howard Schultz, the former CEO, has pressed multiple initiatives surrounding race with their guests, but not clearly with his own employees.

The restaurant industry relies on entry level supervisors. Operators use them because they are less expensive than more seasoned managers and it provides growth opportunities for young people that want to elevate their career arc. Of course, youth alone doesn’t explain this issue. This begs the question, “How did this happen?” There are likely many answers to that query, but first and foremost is training.

Poor training is partly to blame

To start, this manager must’ve received bad direction and training to end with this response. It’s highly likely that the issue of lingering guests that don’t spend money had come up in that location’s training or across the Starbuck’s system. Certainly, in some management memo or direction, the supervisors were told to try to combat “squatters” to improve service for their paying guests. The problem is that implementation of policy without real life scenario exploration can truly be destructive.

If this supervisor had been given the scenario that guests (irrespective of their color) who don’t order should be approached with hospitality and understanding and not with confrontation, the outcome might have been different. Add to that the implicit cultural biases experienced by people of color and you have a toxic mix of unnecessary confrontation and inherent racism.

So, yes, Starbuck’s has a responsibility to explicitly tell their staff that being aware of and resisting their own biases is a condition of their employment. Because they didn’t previously articulate this, the price they paid has been steep.

Starbuck’s aiming to improve racial training

Now, we can’t ignore the potent turn that Starbuck’s took when they announced they’re closing all locations on May 29th, 2018 to properly train their entire staff on implicit racial bias and how to identify and address it. While some may argue it took them too long to arrive at the right choice, that’s unfair for a company that has at least earned the benefit of the doubt as pertains to their business practices. They have been at the forefront of employee advocacy and treat their associates with courtesy and respect.

This was something different and they simply weren’t prepared.

What’s truly important is the leadership they are showing by taking the dramatic (a $61 million expense) step of closing their restaurants for a day to train their teams on this important issue. It is one thing to talk a good game, but Starbuck’s is ponying up to prove that talk is cheap, but actions are the real measure of commitment. It’s our hope that their commitment inspires a wider conversation about bias in our industry (and all industries for that matter).

So, what can restaurants learn from Starbuck’s mistakes & response?

At minimum, you should review your restaurant’s policies and make sure you aren’t causing confrontation with a guest by accident. Also consider discussing the role racial and other biases play in the treatment of your guests.

Below are some links to resources to help you in directing your staff how to resist their own inherent biases while delivering fair and respectful service to any and all guests that come through your doors.