Starbucks CEO says the company is considering a major change that will make some people uncomfortable. It points to a growing challenge

Starbucks has long said its mission is to be the number three for its customers. If your home is first and your work is second, Starbucks wants its stores to be the other place you go and spend time.

It seems to have worked. Drive past a Starbucks on any given day and it’s probably packed with people. Yes, most of them probably drink coffee, but that’s not the only reason they’re there. They meet friends, have a business meeting, write a thesis or work on a project. They hang out.

And Starbucks has long wanted to be everyone’s third place, even if they don’t spend $5 on a latte. Following a high-profile 2018 incident involving the arrest of two black men who were waiting for a colleague, Starbucks publicly said that “any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes and patios, whether or not they make a purchase.” .”

But now Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says the company is rethinking its stance because of what he believes is a growing mental health problem. “We need to harden our stores and keep our people safe,” Schultz told Andrew Ross Sorkin in an interview at The New York Times DealBook DC policy forum. “I don’t know if we can keep our bathrooms open.”

For Starbucks, the change would be a pretty significant shift in corporate culture, something Ross Sorkin noted during the interview. If your mission is to become everyone’s third place, hardening your stores is probably the last thing you want to do.

I really don’t think the people who work at Starbucks want to be in a position where they have to control who uses the bathroom, or who sits at a table without ordering a drink. That’s what put the company in a bad position to begin with.

I also don’t think Starbucks management really wants to spend time thinking about how to handle situations where employees have to ask people to leave. If you’ve come this far, you’ve already lost.

At the same time, if you happen to need to use a bathroom and there is a Starbucks nearby, it will probably be inconvenient to find a sign that says to buy something first. It kind of goes against the way we think about Starbucks. It is certainly not the welcome feeling you would expect from your ‘third place’.

The problem is, if you create a place that’s open to everyone, some of those people will take all the baggage they’re carrying with them. And if your bathrooms are accessible to everyone, how will that affect the experience you offer your customers?

Who are your customers anyway? Is it just people spending money in your stores? At some point you have to make tough decisions.

The company’s 2018 position seems to indicate that Starbucks views everyone as their customer. At the time, however, Schultz (who had previously stepped down as CEO) said he wasn’t trying to turn Starbucks stores into public restrooms, but that having open policies would reduce the likelihood of future situations where employees will ask people to leave, especially when bias could play a role.

It’s a real challenge for any business: how to create a welcoming environment for people, while balancing that with the need to keep them safe. Ironically, it’s a challenge that companies have been trying to figure out over the past two years, albeit in the context of COVID-19. However, some of those same lessons apply here.

For example, every company should base its policy on what is most important. During COVID-19 that was health and safety. That meant wearing masks and social distancing, both of which are obviously inconvenient but necessary to stop the spread of a highly contagious virus.

That policy means you have to serve fewer people, both because you want to limit the number of people in your store, but also because some people just go elsewhere. At the same time, taking care of your people should come first, even more than serving more customers. You owe it to them to protect their safety, even if that means you can’t be everything to everyone.

It turns out that the things that are good for your people often benefit your customers. If limiting the number of people who enter your store allows you to better serve your customers, then that’s good for your customers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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