Cool Beans: Starbucks’ product encompasses more than just coffee

Joscelyn Stocks | Daily Trojan

My decision to attend USC was a daylong ordeal — I left my house bright and early on the first day of May only to skip school and hunker down at the nearest Starbucks for 13 consecutive hours.

I sat there for a long time, scrolling through College Confidential and binge-watching decision day YouTube videos, that the staff started asking me to move my feet as they swept the floor — covertly suggesting that I leave. By the end of the night, I clicked on the “submit” button, sealing my fate as a Trojan, and left Starbucks 10 minutes before closing, weighed with the slight guilt of sapping up its Wi-Fi all day but only ordering two drinks.

Starbucks has become an extremely lucrative business, almost monopolizing the coffee chain industry, because of its sheer ability to accommodate with a space. Starbucks relies on creating a clean, welcoming, ambient space for customers to enjoy their drinks. Part of the company’s product is the experience of drinking coffee in the physical environment, and as a result, employees have to consider the lowest common denominators among their customers.

This can lead to generalizations and assumptions, but it also requires a high level of observation and awareness of everyone in the room. A single location’s team is responsible for ensuring that people enjoy their time but do not overstay their welcome or encroach on anyone else’s experience.

This means that Starbucks constructs social cues so that customers want to return to the inviting space, but feel guilty, as I did, for overusing it or not purchasing anything. Overt interior design choices, like the paucity of outlets in smaller locations or the convenient location of an exit at the end of the coffee bar are a few factors, but staff behavior is often the most important.

Starbucks made headlines throughout the year with a slew of announcements: the replacement of plastic straws with a more environmentally friendly lid design; the departure of former CEO and executive chairman Howard Schultz; and the single-day shut down of more than 8,000 U.S. locations.

This shutdown was to conduct implicit bias training of about 175,000 employees, following an incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks, in which a manager called the police to arrest two black men after they asked to use the restroom without ordering any drinks. Outrage at the manager and her team ensued, as well as a training day to “address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome.”

Many dismissed this day of training as a publicity stunt — how could a single day of training reverse deep-rooted prejudices? Starbucks’ 2015 campaign “Race Together,” fell slightly short of an entertaining failure, and its training processes only became transparent to the public following the incident in May.

Implementing diversity and inclusion training during standard barista staff training, rather than making the biggest splash possible on a single, seemingly arbitrary day, could have a longer lasting effect on the company as a whole.

But in a way, it was a necessary publicity stunt. Starbucks’ business model relies on the regulation of interactions with customers and creating the cafe experience. If Starbucks had not addressed that serious incident of racism in a widespread way, the core component of the product it serves would be at risk.

Starbucks lost millions of dollars that day, which represents neither a simple cleanup of their corporate standing nor a mad dash to bring up their numbers — it was a public admission that what they serve is more than coffee.

While the effectiveness of implicit bias training is still unclear, the public acknowledgement of fault sends a clear message to customers — and more importantly to employees — that the need for an inclusive, welcoming and thoughtful experience is far more important than coffee.

Breanna de Vera is a sophomore majoring in English and journalism. She is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Cool Beans,” runs every other Thursday.