When two black men were arrested and forcibly removed from a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop for the offense of not ordering coffee, a single decision by a single manager thrust the entire brand into a national PR crisis.
Social media outrage turned into protests, planned boycotts and a blazing wildfire of negative media coverage for the brand, which is already under siege by growing competition and shifting cultural trends. Regardless of where anyone, personally, may stand on the issue of the business’ right to deny service or ask the men to leave, the brand was taking a beating that was greatly outsized by the effort it would have taken to simply allow the men to stay… especially since most of the patrons in the restaurant were asking for exactly that resolution. So, Starbucks had to get out in front of the issue, and the brand had to do it fast.
Part of that unilateral mea culpa was to “make it right” with the men who were ousted for doing what millions have done in the past: hung out in Starbucks waiting for a friend to arrive before ordering. Now, the Associated Press is reporting the men have “settled” with the company for an “undisclosed sum” as well as “an offer of free college tuition.”
This announcement came after the news that the men had also settled with the city of Philadelphia for a “symbolic payment” of $1 each, as well as the promise of a $200,000 grant program being set up in their names to benefit young entrepreneurs. The men at the center of the incident said the purpose of the two settlements is to turn something negative into something positive.
Donte Robinson, one of the two men, told the press: “We thought long and hard about it, and we feel like this is the best way to see that change that we want to see… It’s not a right-now thing that’s good for right now, but I feel like we will see the true change over time.”
The change Robinson and his business partner, Rashon Nelson, seem to want is a shift in how young black men are perceived in society, especially in a business establishment. The men are business partners who say they had been waiting on a third party to discuss a real estate opportunity when the Starbuck manager insisted they order something or leave.
Regardless of this outcome, the optics of Starbucks coming down on opposite side of a social justice issue is something the company will have to continue to work to erase. Part of that is planned company-wide training later this month. But it will likely take more than that to calm down the anger over this incident.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5WPR