Starbucks' new policy welcomes even nonpaying guests to use its tables and restrooms

Five weeks after an international furor over the arrest of two African American men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, the coffeehouse chain has announced a new policy that allows anyone — even nonpaying guests — to sit at its tables and use its restrooms.

In a letter sent to employees working at its 8,000 U.S. stores Saturday, Starbucks said that “any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes and restrooms, whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer.”

The new stance comes after entrepreneurs Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who had been waiting for a business associate at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce Streets on April 12, were taken into custody. One of them had been denied use of a restroom because he hadn’t purchased anything and then refused to leave the store when asked, prompting a manager to call 911. Nelson and Robinson spent several hours in jail before they were released.

Looking to test the new policy, two Inquirer reporters Sunday lingered for more than an hour at that same Starbucks, just off Rittenhouse Square, without buying anything.  As a dozen millennials hunched over their laptops and nursed Starbucks iced coffees and hot lattes, the reporters — one black, one white — sipped coffee purchased from La Colombe, a rival Philadelphia-based coffee chain, without a single barista looking askance.

At another Starbucks, at Eighth and Walnut Streets, restroom signage had not caught up to the new policy. A placard on the door still read “Restrooms are for customers only.” Employees at the cafe said they were not authorized to comment.

Camera icon STAFF
Starbucks changed its policy on May 19 and now allows non-customers to use its facilities without paying for anything. The signs have not caught up in all the stores.

The arrests of Nelson and Robinson were captured on video by another customer. As the video went viral on social media, it stoked widespread outrage and  days of protests, and caused major embarrassment for Seattle-based Starbucks, which has long marketed itself as having a socially enlightened corporate culture. CEO Kevin Johnson, who then visited Philadelphia on damage control, called the arrests “reprehensible” and announced that the chain would close all of its U.S. stores on the afternoon of May 29 for its 175,000 employees to undergo racial-bias training. Some activists said the training would not be enough and threatened boycotts.

In the letter to employees Saturday, Starbucks officials said workers should still call police if a guest appears to be an immediate threat. Previous policies were loose and ambiguous, leaving decisions on whether people could sit in its stores or use the restroom up to store managers.

Nelson and Robinson, both 23, settled with Starbucks for an undisclosed sum and an offer of free tuition at Arizona State University. The City of Philadelphia agreed to pay each man a symbolic $1 each and promised to set up a $200,000 entrepreneurial program for high school students.

It wasn’t clear on Sunday whether competitors will match Starbucks’ new policy, or whether they needed to. At the Lombard Cafe on Jewelers Row at  the corner of Seventh and Sansom Streets, barista Jasmine Lautremama said her coffee shop was too tiny to have public restrooms. As for the sidewalk seating, Lautremama said she welcomed anyone who wanted to sit.

“People hang out at our tables all the time,” she said. “We’re not counting purchases.”

This article contains information from the Associated Press.