Tucked on a South Philadelphia street is a family-owned coffee shop with orange walls adorned with framed photos, an Italian flag, and a giant street sign bearing the shop’s name: HomeGrown Coffee & Creations.
The cafe is across from a Starbucks. And that, co-owner James Rossoni said, has been beneficial of late for business.
“With all of the issues [Starbucks] has been having, some of their customers have swayed our way,” he said in an email. “We see more every day.”
The “issues” Rossoni referred to are the April 12 arrests of two black men who were sitting in a Center City location of the coffee chain and a June incident in which a man with a stutter was reportedly mocked by a barista. Both transgressions sparked national outrage, with Starbucks holding an afternoon of racial-bias training for all its employees.
Three months after the arrests, the initial ire toward Starbucks has died down, though there have been some lasting effects. It remains an open question, however, whether the changes will stick — for Starbucks, which has been given more recommendations on how to address bias, at other coffee shops, or among consumers.
It’s about more than coffee
Rossoni said his new customers seem to be enjoying the La Colombe coffee served at HomeGrown, but thinks something more than caffeine keeps them coming back.
“We treat people like people, and I think that is a big plus when it comes to the comparison,” he wrote, adding that both the more “personal encounter” and the shop’s drinks were converting customers.
A store’s products are not always what attracts customers, said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor of operations, information and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“Part of what [customers] consume is not just the product itself. but also the effect and emotional experience of being in one store or another,” he said, noting that this is particularly true for cafe-goers.
HomeGrown is not the only shop that appears to have benefited from Starbucks’ negative PR. Both Rossoni and Green Engine Coffee owner Zach Morris said customers have explicitly said they were visiting their shops in lieu of a usual Starbucks trip.
And at Green Engine, a bright Haverford space with wood accents and potted plants throughout, workers have received new employee handbooks.
Morris said the first thing he did after hearing about the race-fueled incident was update his shop’s handbook with a new section on “appropriate customer interaction.” While this was covered in training, Morris said, he wanted instructions in writing.
For some consumers, changes are brewing
Philadelphia resident Eric Michael, 28, is one customer switching to local coffee shops. While he used to visit Starbucks many times a week, he found it “difficult to cross the threshold” after the arrests, Michael wrote in an email. He sees the habit shift as a positive one.
“It opened my eyes to the local flavors that saturate the Philadelphia coffee scene,” Michael said, echoing other residents who say they’re using the scandal as an opportunity to support locally owned businesses.
Chris Irons, a 35-year-old Germantown resident, had already stopped drinking Starbucks after a series of negative experiences unrelated to the recent scandals. He said he thinks corporate leaders need to specify what they expect from all employees.
Others, however, remain supportive of Starbucks.
“I think any consumer products business that is as large as Starbucks will unfortunately have some incidents. What is critical is how they respond,” Joe Cleary, a 56-year-old Cherry Hill resident, said via Twitter. “I think Starbucks is sincerely working to rectify such situations.”
Convenience is key
While some consumers may be changing their habits, many will likely return to shops they find most convenient, said Penn professor Schweitzer. That could bode well for places like HomeGrown — its proximity to a Starbucks location makes it equally convenient.
Schweitzer said he believes Starbucks, at least in the short term, handled the situation prudently.
“Sensitivity training is a good idea,” Schweitzer said. “But to really change how people orient to others takes a long time.”
That could be particularly challenging for a business like Starbucks, where many baristas only work for a few years, he said.
A learning experience
Starbucks is not the only coffee shop learning lessons.
Green Engine owner Morris said he used the cases as a tool to make sure nothing of the sort happens at his own business.
“I can see how this stuff happens, because people aren’t always nice to each other,” he said. “Best I can do is always learn from others’ mistakes, and learn from my own.”