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To Protest and (Refuse to) Serve

Many restaurants have long given police officers preferential treatment. But shifting public opinion about the police suggests that might be changing.

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A police car parked in front of a Starbucks. Smith Collection/Gado/Contributor
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

On July 4, 2019, Tempe, Arizona police officers were outraged. After entering a local Starbucks in uniform and hanging around with their drinks, a barista came over and asked them to move or leave, saying their uniformed presence was making another customer uncomfortable. The officers left, but quickly took to social media asking people to “DUMP STARBUCKS” as “making the request at all was offensive.” In a statement, Starbucks condemned the barista’s behavior, saying the officers “should have been welcomed and treated with dignity and the utmost respect by our partners (employees).”

This incident of officers not being treated to their preference is one of many, whether it’s a polite request to leave, having the word “PIG” written on their coffee cups, or being momentarily ignored in a busy Starbucks (to which Starbucks admitted in a statement that “two Riverside deputies were ignored for nearly five minutes”). In recent years, cops were denied service at an Arby’s in Florida, and at a Whataburger in Texas, where an employee refused to serve them because she said cops had beaten up her boyfriend. Each time, the food establishment usually reprimands or fires the employee responsible, and issues some statement about how police deserve our utmost respect.

That law enforcement could be disrespected in public was shocking to many, most of all the officers involved. We’ve all probably been in a restaurant or cafe where a beat cop, gun prominent in its holster, has been given preferential treatment because of their job and the long pervasive perception of police as peacekeepers and protectors.

But police brutality has been an issue for decades, and something about the protests around the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade feels different. Demonstrations against police brutality and anti-black violence have been happening continuously for over a week now, despite curfews, police violence, and groups of vigilantes on “patrol.” There’s been a palpable shift in public opinion about police, to the point where multiple cities are considering dramatic budget cuts for their police forces — and in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, a city council member is now outright calling to disband the police entirely. Understandably, those in the service industry aren’t immune from anger towards law enforcement. And because of that, some restaurant employees are speaking out against serving identifiable police officers, whose presence increasingly make them and their customers feel unsafe.

On Tuesday, employees walked out of work at Condado Tacos, an Ohio-based chain, after being asked to fulfill an order for Ohio Highway Patrol officers in the midst of protests. “Immediately, I just didn’t feel comfortable making that order,” one employee told Eater. They and their coworkers were told that not participating in the order was fine and no one would lose their jobs for choosing not to fulfill it. However, they recount that a district manager initially said that those who refused to make the meals would be fired, and then “chased us down and basically made it clear that we’re not being fired: If we’re choosing to leave, you’re quitting.” The incident has inspired other Condado employees to make a public statement against management, demanding they donate to the Minneapolis Freedom Fund and other causes, and the termination of the district manager. They have not demanded an end to fulfilling all law enforcement orders.

On Wednesday, employees at Philadelphia sandwich shop Di Bruno Bros. also spoke out against serving the police. A location of Di Bruno Bros. had posted a sign in its boarded-up window earlier in the week offering free lunch and drinks to all on-duty officers. In an open letter condemning the giveaway, employees explained that Di Bruno Bros. had also exempted police from wearing masks inside the business, a violation of state rules, and gave them other preferential treatment. By Thursday, the company apologized and announced it would revoke the free meal policy, saying in a statement, “We appreciate our employees and community for encouraging dialogue and growth… We recognize that our ability to rely on the assistance of the police to protect our store in times of unrest is a privilege that many in our city and country have not been afforded.”

It’s not hard to see why food service workers would be reticent to serve uniformed officers, even outside of a week of protests against police brutality. Studies regularly show that people, especially black people and other people of color, feel less safe in the presence of police. And given that minority workers make up a disproportionate amount of the food industry, even a uniformed police officer picking up a coffee could easily make an employee worry for their safety.

According to the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is illegal for a privately owned place of public accommodation like a hotel or restaurant to refuse service to someone based on their race, color, religion, or national origin. The ADA prohibits refusal of service based on disability, and the courts are still deciding about sexual orientation and gender identity. But while Louisiana has passed a law making it a hate crime to target a police officer, refusal of service based on one’s profession or outfit is not generally considered discrimination.

However, refusing or protesting preferential treatment for police officers also requires the presence of police officers to begin with, something that, for many non-chain or less casual restaurants, is not an issue. Josey Baker, co-owner of the Mill in San Francisco, says that while no staff member is required to engage in a customer interaction that makes them feel unsafe, “the reality is that we hardly receive any police officers as customers,” so a policy of refusing to serve them would be more of a symbolic gesture. “We think action is more effective and necessary, especially from people with white privilege,” he said. Instead, the Mill is focusing its efforts on donating to bail funds and local organizations doing anti-racist work.

For many restaurants, giving free food and expedited service to police was way to thank them for their service, with the service being understood as an unmitigated good. But it always had an undercurrent of quid pro quo — take care of them and they’ll keep an eye out for you. An expected gesture given under the guise of kindness, with a threat hovering somewhere offstage. But of course, even that weak promise of being taken care of isn’t the case for everyone. David McAtee, who ran a barbecue stand in Louisville, Kentucky, used to regularly give free food to cops, according to other locals. He was shot and killed by police on June 1, after serving food to protesters.

At the very least, the reactions from these food workers might signal a change happening in the mainstream, public perception of police, and make police consider why so many feel so unsafe in their mere presence. That’s a tall order, but at least they can pay for their own sandwiches.