A story that made headlines in May is giving cause for restaurant owners to ponder how to handle situations like the one that recently occurred at a Starbucks in Philadelphia.
It’s a scenario all restaurant owners have seen—a “freeloader” walks off the street to use the restroom or to just sit at a table without making any purchases. For business owners, there are so many things going through their heads—We pay to stock, clean and maintain our restrooms and we should not accept that people use our facilities without making a purchase; if we allow one person to use our facility without patronizing our establishment financially, then we are opening the floodgates and our customers will suffer.
One manager we spoke with who ran busy a bakery café in a downtown urban location indicted that he could not count how many times he expelled people from his establishment who were “loitering” on the premises. “We have free wi-fi, and people think that it means we are a public library; that they can come and sit and use our wi-fi, our restrooms, our water dispensers and not make purchases. We have rent. We pay for the wi-fi. We pay to keep the restrooms clean and functioning,” he complained. “How is it that we should allow people to exploit those services without paying for them?”
“And that’s not to mention the people who come in and harass customers for change, or to purchase bootleg DVDs or tickets,” he continued. “If I don’t chase those people out, then my customers will leave.”
But in today’s racially charged atmosphere, these situations can become tricky when the “freeloader” is black.
What happened at the Starbucks in Philadelphia serves as a cautionary tale. For those unfamiliar, two young African American men walked into a Starbucks and sat down. They were not making any purchases. One asked to use the restroom and was refused. They were then asked to leave, and when they did not comply, the police were called to expel them. A guest with a cell phone captured most of the episode on video, which was promptly uploaded to the internet, where it went viral. In the video it seems that the two men were meeting a friend at the coffee shop, who happened to be white.
The incident is not isolated: In May, a group of black teenagers were asked to prepay for their meal at an IHOP in Maine, while a Missouri Applebee’s came under attack when it falsely accused two African American women of skipping out without paying.
The Starbucks incident raised important questions: Would the manager had called police if the two “freeloaders” had been white? Was the manager guilty of racial profiling? I’m a white man, and when I’m on the road I usually stop at a Starbucks when in need of a restroom and I seldom make a purchase. I’ve never experienced anything of the nature that occurred in Philadephia. (But then again, I never bother to ask anyone permission to use the facilities; I just do it.)
Of course, the video does not capture everything. Were the two men planning to order something when the friend arrived? What kind of exchange took place between the men and the manager before the video begins?
At the end of the day, none of the particulars matter, as Starbucks found itself under the gun, accused of racial insensitivity at the least. Moving into damage control, the coffee giant issued an apologetic statement, changed its policy (people are now allowed to sit without buying anything), and closed 8,000 locations for several hours to conduct sensitivity training.