I was standing in a lower Manhattan Starbucks one day when an odd little dance caught my eye.
A man was lurking in the corridor outside the restrooms. Occasionally, he would peek around the corner at the baristas. He would duck back out of sight when they noticed him. They would shake their heads or roll their eyes and keep working.
Finally, the manager pointed towards the phone and an employee made a call. Minutes later, just as a police officer walked inside, the man darted out the front door.
The officer nodded towards the door. The manager nodded as if to say, "Yep. That's the guy." The police officer shrugged and left.
Three minutes later, the man slipped back inside and into the corridor.
Last month, Starbucks founder and interim CEO (it's a long story), Howard Schultz said the chain may have to re-evaluate its policy allowing anyone, customer or not, to use its bathrooms.
"We have to harden our stores and provide safety for our people," Schultz said. "I don't know if we can keep our bathrooms open." He went on to say a growing "mental health" problem posed a threat to staff and customers, and that the current policy that opens Starbucks's bathrooms to the public made it difficult for employees to manage the stores.
While Schultz didn't elaborate on the mental health problem, the more "difficult for employees" to manage the stores part makes some sense. In places like New York City, where public bathrooms largely don't exist, chains like Starbucks fill the gap. While I haven't actually done this -- if only because it's one of the creepier data gathering exercises I can imagine -- I feel sure the majority of people who use inner-city Starbucks restrooms don't make a purchase.
Keeping constantly-in-use restrooms clean is a major challenge. So is dealing with people for whom the bathroom is a refuge from the elements; do you make someone leave when it's 10 degrees outside and they have nowhere else to go? So is dealing with people like the man I saw in the Starbucks; turns out he had been lurking, then running, then returning all morning long.
But so is enforcing a stricter bathroom policy. In 2018, two Black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while they waited for a friend; one of the men said he asked to use the restroom, was told it was only for paying customers, and minutes later an employee called the police.
That incident sparked an email from Schultz to all employees that said, "Any person who enters our spaces, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer."
Yet opening bathrooms to everyone has clearly created challenges for employees -- but so would having to enforce a stricter bathroom policy, which could cause many people to resent the fact they are no longer allowed to use a Starbucks bathroom without making a purchase.
Either way, Starbucks -- and more specifically, its employees -- can't win.
Especially in areas where a Starbucks bathroom is the only place to (figuratively and literally) go.
So what would I do? While it's easy to spend other people's money, I would leave the bathrooms open to all and add an employee to high-traffic stores to keep the restrooms clean. (In NYC, that would be a full-time job.)
That way, the enforcement challenge is a non-issue. That way, baristas can be baristas, not restroom monitors. That way Starbucks can continue to be its customers "third place."
Sure, it will cost more. But so will the increased turnover that will surely result from constantly replacing employees who just want to serve customers.
Not enforce unpopular policies.