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Why Can’t Restaurant Chains Stop Calling the Police on Their Customers?

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Following controversy, Starbucks reevaluates its policies. Will others do the same?

Scenes from a protest on April 16, 2018, at a Philadelphia Starbucks.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Update: May 21, 2018: As part of a newly announced company policy, Starbucks has outlined eight examples of when employees should call 911, as well as guidelines for how to handle “disruptive behavior.” Per the Washington Post, said behaviors include guests being “unreasonably noisy, viewing inappropriate media, verbally abusing people, making unwanted sexual advances and indecent exposure.”

In April, two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks for using the space without paying, sparking nationwide outrage and protests. Days later, video surfaced of the violent arrest of a black woman at a Waffle House in Alabama. Also last month, police were again asked to intervene in a dispute at a D.C.-area restaurant involving two women who refused to leave after accusing management of alleged racial bias. The pair were not arrested, but their story made waves on social media. “Why are you wasting officers’ time for a situation you could have handled?” Damelia Shaw, one of the women involved in the incident, asked the Washingtonian.

There’s little doubt that each of these incidents has raised serious questions about how race factors into the ways businesses treat individual consumers. Even under circumstances that might potentially warrant calling the cops — such as situations where individuals make threats to employees or customers — the decision can be made hastily with huge consequences. So how exactly do employees know when to engage the police — and in light of the these incidents, have any restaurants changed the policies they had in place?

Starbucks has long marketed itself as a so-called “third place” where customers can find not just coffee but also a safe community space. In practice, as the April incident revealed, Starbucks’ policies are vague when it comes to people who linger without paying. Guidelines are even more unclear for calling the authorities, as managers and employees across the company told the Wall Street Journal. The company itself admits that expectations for what situations warrant involving law enforcement vary from store to store based on who is in charge. In a statement to the WSJ, a spokesperson wrote: “In this particular store the guidelines were that partners must ask unpaying customers to leave the store, and police were to be called if they refused.” However, that same spokesperson noted, one sentence later, that “The police should never have been called.”

“With 28,000 stores globally, different regions, circumstances and cultural norms necessitate different guidelines for their stores,” a company spokesperson reiterated to Eater in a statement, adding that the coffee chain is “working to change our guidelines and practices to ensure Starbucks is safe and welcoming for everyone.” Part of those changes, presumably, will occur during the temporary closure more than 8,000 of its U.S. locations for an afternoon of mandatory racial bias training.

Starbucks is not a franchised company, which gives it the opportunity to enact an enforceable policy regarding how and when authorities should be called. But allowing individual locations to set norms seems to be practice at many franchised chains, and may lead to murky guidelines for conflict resolution. One McDonald’s franchisee offers an employee handbook that does little to address how to handle situations involving police; while a Burger King franchisee’s manager handbook specifically recommends that crew members call the police if they observe anyone loitering in the parking prior to opening the restaurant.

Uneven policies contributed to an embarrassing and unnecessary incident in 2013 at a franchise Applebee’s in Katy, Texas. The restaurant made national headlines for eighty-sixing — and calling police on — a black family because their 1- and 3-year-old children were allegedly being too disruptive. The company made management issue an apology to the family. In a statement to the New York Daily News after the incident, Applebee’s placed the onus of the blame on the franchisee. “When a disruption in our restaurants affects any of our Guests, it is the manager’s responsibility to step in to resolve the situation,” a spokesperson said. “It is exceedingly rare that a situation requires the assistance of law enforcement, and our franchisee is using this instance as a teaching moment to better manage future disruptions in their restaurants.”

Meanwhile, employees at Waffle House — which is also franchised — are trained to call the police “anytime there is concern about their personal safety or that of their customers,” a company spokesperson Pat Warner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the April incident. Waffle House has defended the actions of its employees and police in the Alabama incident by stating that calling for police intervention was “appropriate.”

Most chains have been unwilling to publicly discuss company policies regarding engaging law enforcement. Representatives for Waffle House failed to respond to repeated requests for further comment, as did McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Burger King, and Peet’s Coffee. A Dunkin’ Donuts spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Whether or not they presently have policies in place, restaurants — and especially large chains — should be developing systems to help employees handle different situations, says crisis public relations expert Ellen Weaver Hartman, who’s worked with several national and regional restaurant brands.

Hartman argues that restaurants should create clear policies for employees to navigate a variety of customer interactions. “Restaurant managers should also be able to call their chain of command to seek advice to make sure their decision is the best one for the situation,” Hartman says. “Managers need to think of their decision like a chess match.”

But not everyone believes that company policies are the best route to meaningful change. “It’s actually fairly easy for a company to make a statement,” says Andre Howell of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. “The question then becomes is how you’re complying with that statement and how you’re communicating the statement internally and what are the implications?”

As vice president of operations at MFHA, an organization that an affiliate of the conservative-leaning National Restaurant Association, Howell’s job is to support diversity and inclusion efforts across the food and hospitality industries. Where some see opportunities for clearer policies, Howell sees an opening for more dialogue about bias and higher level industry change. “To me, the long- and short-term answer is to really introduce the importance of folks understanding unconscious bias and that we all have it and it influences our behavior,” he says.

He also recommends that companies take holistic preemptive actions to combat their own internal biases — what Howell refers to as a “pre-mortem.” Companies, he says, should ask themselves hard questions. “How do you select and source talent or hire particularly diverse talent? How do you give feedback in performance management interviews particularly to people of color?” Howell says. Once businesses begins to think strategically about their blind spots and biases, then they can finally begin to “identify where the immediate needs are with an organization.”

It remains unclear how the industry at large will respond to outrage over Starbucks and Waffle House. But Howell is optimistic that the industry is beginning to move towards addressing bias — if not because of public pressure, than because it just makes good business sense.

“This is an extremely competitive industry that we work in,” he says. “How [companies] engage their employees and effectively engage this multi-generational or multi-cultural environment is a competitive advantage.”

Additional reporting by Dana Hatic.