It's a question that's been percolating for a long time, and it's finally boiled over after the allegedly racially motivated incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks recently: Can you really just hang out at Starbucks without buying anything?

It turns out, Starbucks doesn't really know the answer itself--or at least if it has a policy, it hasn't effectively articulated it to its workers.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Julie Jargon interviewed current and former Starbucks "partners." None of them could explain a clear, quantifiable, chain-wide policy on the issue.

"It's been a gray area at Starbucks for a long time," a Starbucks executive told her, and all of the baristas quoted in her article, headlined, "Starbucks Lacks Clear Guidance for Employees on Nonpaying Customers," agreed.

Making things worse, Jargon wrote, the coffee giant's business model envisions people using Starbucks as their "third place...a place to hang out that isn't home or work."

That squishiness could very well lead to illegal discriminatory treatment based on race, as allegedly happened in Philadelphia, where two black men who were apparently waiting for a third person to join them were ultimately arrested.

Result: protests, an in-person apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to the two men who were arrested, and a chain-wide, daylong shutdown next month for anti-bias training.

I was struck by sheer volume of comments on the article, and the fact that a strong plurality at least made the same point about the two-word phrase that was used repeatedly to describe people who hang out at Starbucks without buying anything: "nonpaying customer."

  • Christopher Olson: "I am confused by your headline. What's a 'nonpaying customer?'"
  • Ian Rood: "Non paying customer. That's like the term career criminal. This is exactly what's wrong with society."
  • Elizabeth Stevens: "Non-paying customer? What's that? And who wants them?" 
  • Albert Connelly: "A 'nonpaying customer' is not a customer. It's a 'free loader.'"
  • Edward Yang: "We live in an Orwellian world with an oxymoron like "non-paying customers."

As a writer myself, and someone who has probably spent a few thousand dollars at Starbucks over the past 20 years, I think I see both sides here. Yes, "nonpaying customer" is an oxymoron.

But I also doubt it's the way that Starbucks looks at people. I'm 100 percent sure they've calculated the long-term value of people who pop into Starbucks to use the Wi-Fi or the bathrooms sometimes without making a purchase--but who also might be paying customers on other occasions.

So where's the line supposed to be? If I want to sit at a table for 30 minutes a couple of times a week and work on an article for, should I have to buy something each time?

Or should I get credit in the Starbucks business model for the many times I've bought a coffee to go? Am I a customer on my writing-only visits, or only on the times when I step in and drop $4 on a latte? I'm the same person, right?

I can imagine that some highly analytic marketers at Starbucks can answer this question very quickly. But the fact that nobody outside the company--heck, or even frontline baristas--can is a problem they need to solve.