‘A Wall of Flame in the Women’s Restroom’: Why Starbucks Is Closing Stores across the Country
Starbucks Coffee workers clean up broken glass and replace several shattered windows in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 12, 2020. (Allen J.
By ISAAC SCHORR
August 8, 2022 6:30 AM
Starbucks announced that it would be closing 16 locations in cities across the country last month — and not for lack of business, but for their proximity to the wrong kind of foot traffic.
In an email explaining the decision to employees obtained by the Wall Street Journal, Starbucks executives Debbie Stroud and Denise Nelson wrote “we read every incident report you file—it’s a lot.”
“We cannot serve as partners if we don’t first feel safe at work,” added Stroud and Nelson.
A spokesman for the ubiquitous coffee chain told National Review that “over the last year, we have seen a dramatic increase in in-store incidents that do not uphold the standards of the Starbucks Experience for our partners or our customers.”
“After careful consideration, we are closing some stores in locations that have experienced a high volume of challenging incidents that make it unsafe to continue to operate,” he continued. That includes six in and around both Los Angeles and Seattle, two in Portland, and one in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Amelia Jones worked at the now-closed East Olive Way Starbucks in Seattle for about three years until this spring, and described her experience in an interview with National Review.
Jones acknowledged there is “a high number of houseless people in the neighborhood,” but pushed back on the idea that that represented a threat in and of itself, calling “most of them . . . quite polite.”
But there were exceptions: “Either late winter 2019 or early 2020, we had a lady come in and actually set fire to the women’s restroom,” recalled Jones. “One of my coworkers noticed a smoke smell and he’s like, ‘Hey, is that bathroom on fire?’ And we open the door and there’s like a wall of flame in the women’s restroom.”
“There was a guy who would routinely come in and threaten people. Either he would have a weapon on him — he carried around a broomstick, without the broom part, basically, and he’d threaten people and call people names,” she continued. “But that’d maybe happen once a month.”
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A review of crime data from those urban centers confirms that Jones’s experience was not unique to her Seattle location.
A National Review analysis of statistics compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department found that between January 1 and July 20 of this year, 1,777 crimes — including only vehicular break-ins, assault, burglary, vehicular theft, robbery, larceny, arson, and homicide — were committed within a radius of 1,500 feet of the six closing stores.
That includes 326 assaults, 141 robberies, 17 instances of arson, 173 stolen vehicles, and 452 vehicles broken into within an area of the city spanning less than two square miles.A Wall of Flame in the Women’s Restroom
To date, violent crime in the city is up 5.8 percent over last year and 13.6 percent over 2020, while property crime is up 12.9 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively.
The experience of employees around Portland’s two closing stores has been similarly dismal. From mid December 2021 until mid May 2022, the two neighborhoods containing the two closed storefronts faced a crime wave that included a combined 729 assaults, 1,820 counts of larceny, 132 robberies, 86 weapons charges, and seven homicides.
The problems are not limited to the West Coast; 562 people in Philadelphia were murdered in 2021 — a 78 percent increase over 2017. In the nation’s capital, homicide was up 95 percent in 2021 over 2017, and, to date, it’s up 11 percent in 2022 over last year.
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In Seattle — the site of Starbucks’ first location and headquarters — stores have been plagued by similarly precipitous increases. According to police data, homicides were up 43 percent in 2021 over 2017. Aggravated assault was up 32 percent; burglary, 26 percent; vehicular theft, 47 percent; arson, 61 percent.
Despite her experience dealing with arson and menacing customers, Jones is skeptical that anxiety over the safety of employees was the driving force behind the closure of her old store. According to the former barista trainer, she and her fellow partners had unanimously voted in favor of unionizing the location, “and that’s when they [corporate] decided ‘No, we’re gonna close the store for safety concerns.”
As evidence, Jones cited her hours being cut back from 35 to 20 hours a week, as well as the tough punishment of other union organizers for minor, first-time infractions.
Starbucks’ spokesman told National Review that only three of the stores being closed were unionized.
“In the three unionized closing union stores, we will engage in bargaining with the union with the hope that we reach an agreement that gives all partners the ability to have continuous employment with no changes in benefits or pay or their average hours worked. If we get an agreement, partners will be able to transfer to agreed upon stores,” he said.
Since leaving Starbucks earlier this year after her hours were cut, Jones has worked at a smaller, local coffee brand, where she’s already observed similar problems.
“Two of our cafes have been robbed in the last month with people breaking in after hours and taking cash,” she said.
In a video of an internal meeting on the closures leaked on Twitter, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz warned that “there are going to be many more.”
“The issue of mental illness, the issue of homelessness, and the issue of crime . . . Starbucks is a window into America, we have stores in every community,” said Schultz. “This is just the beginning.”
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ISAAC SCHORR is a media and enterprise reporter for National Review. @isaac_schorr