As a former barista, here’s why I think Starbucks’ #RaceTogether is a terrible idea

It's eSpresso, not eXpresso
It’s eSpresso, not eXpresso

As I have mentioned before, I have spent the bulk of my adult life working in the food industry, most of it spent dealing directly with the public. The horrible, stupid, ignorant public…

When I first read about Starbucks wanting their baristas to engage their customers in talking about race relations, my first thought was, “How in the pragmatic hell is that going to work? When I wasn’t waiting on people, I was supposed to be stocking and cleaning. It was my job to caffeinate the customers, which meant that a lot of them weren’t ready for an involved conversation until after they finished their coffee. And frankly, I didn’t give a rat’s patootie about their thoughts on life as it was.”

And a lot of those customers were jerks anyway. Not all of them, not even most–the majority just wanted to get their coffee and go, and they did. But a significant proportion of which made the job feel like the store could be mistaken for a zone that straddles the Fourth and Fifth Circles of Hell. Occasionally, those terrible were customers were racist toward the few black people I’ve worked with, one of them being a drunken nutbag who was thrown out by the manager after his verbal abuse made a 17 year-old black girl break down in tears.

I did have some regular customers that I look back on fondly, mainly because they also worked in the mall, and we were united in our disgust with the general public. I know this sounds like an utterly bleak view, but the reality is, anyone who works with the public long enough will come to loathe them. This is largely because a lot of people lack empathy and can’t see the world beyond their noses. Also, a lot of customers don’t realize that we’re at work. We’re not being nice because we like you, or kissing your butt because we think you’re wonderful. We’re performing happiness to provide a comfortable atmosphere to make it easier to sell you stuff.

This Starbucks initiative is also very telling of something else: the disconnect between the suits in corporate’s ivory tower and the people who actually work in the stores. I first came to realize this disconnect because the layout of the particular store I worked in was incredibly poor–it was as though they anticipated all their baristas would be 6’5″ and weigh 120 pounds. (It’s worth noting that the store I worked in still exists and has been remodeled, and appears to be more functional.) But there’s also a disconnect between what Starbucks thinks it does and what it actually does.

The classic European coffeehouse has, historically, been the domain of thinkers and artists. In Lauren Stover’s Bohemian Manifesto, she writes, “In Vienna, writers took to coffeehouses like Beatniks to bongos. Cafés started stocking writing supplies. Out of coffee? Out of paper? Out of ink? No problem. Some writers even gave the café as their address and received mail there…The intellectual and creative activity sizzling inside coffeehouses led many political and religious leaders to believe them to be hotbeds of rebellion and decree them illegal.”

Café Central in Vienna
Café Central in Vienna

I can’t help wondering if this old school café lust for life is what Starbucks is trying to cultivate or emulate. If they are, it’s too little too late. Starbucks is responsible for turning a place that was once a haven for society’s free thinkers into a fast food empire. It’s no longer a viable place for conversations that require patience, nuance and empathy, which race certainly does.

If Starbucks wants to go out of their way to make sure their stores are safe havens for people of all races, and all other walks of life, then good for them. Forcing the issue isn’t, I think, the way to go. When I discussed this with a friend who worked in another (now defunct) chain, he said that if this initiative had been proposed in his store, he could see the more redneck element of their clientele lecturing him on the “evils” of political correctness.

The best thing Starbucks does is offer a good cup of  coffee and an occasional sanctuary in a world gone mad. Also, free wi-fi. So I would implore Starbucks to do what it does best. But as a writer, I certainly wouldn’t turn down free paper and pens.

Starbucks does Paris.
Starbucks does Paris.

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