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Starbucks is under fire after the arrest of 2 black patrons

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 4/16/2018 Justina Vasquez and Leslie Patton

Starbucks, which spent years touting its commitment to social justice, is scrambling to restore trust in the coffee chain after the arrest of two black patrons in Philadelphia.

CEO Kevin Johnson has apologized for the incident, which involved the police being summoned after the two men waited at a Starbucks table without ordering. That was a “reprehensible outcome,” he said in a statement over the weekend.

Johnson followed up with a video message where he vowed to reassess Starbucks’ policies and practices. The Seattle-based company also may adopt more store-manager training, including instructions about unconscious bias, he said.

“I will fix this,” said Johnson, 57. “This is not who we are, and this is not who we’re going to be.”

The controversy represents one of the first major tests for Johnson, who took the job from longtime CEO Howard Schultz a year ago. The company has prided itself on building community and fighting for social causes, but its actions have been called into question before. Under Schultz, Starbucks had baristas write “race together” on customers’ cups, aiming to spur a discussion on U.S. race relations. The move was slammed on social media for being a ham-fisted approach to a complex issue.

Johnson also is confronting a growth slowdown, hurt in part by sluggish business during afternoon hours. Comparable sales -- a key measure -- rose just 2 percent in the company’s most recently reported quarter.

Local Discussions

There are about 28,000 Starbucks cafes around the world, and local practices can vary widely. In Philadelphia, the company’s regional vice president, Camille Hymes, has been tasked with speaking to employees, customers, community leaders and law enforcement about the incident.

“I think they’ve done a good job of damage control,” said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst at Edward Jones.

Johnson also said he hoped to meet the two men who were arrested and apologize in person.

But the executive said there weren’t plans to fire the store manager who handled the situation.

“I believe that blame is misplaced,” Johnson said.

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