A Starbucks community store in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Credit: Courtesy Starbucks

Starbucks has chosen West Philadelphia as the home of one of its new “community stores,” and plans to open the cafe within the next two years, Billy Penn has learned.

What is a community store, as Starbucks defines it? It’s a cafe that taps local, women- and person of color-owned firms for construction, hires local women and POC artists to decorate, uses local companies as suppliers, and dedicates interior space to programming designed to help residents flourish.

The initiative was announced in 2015 and debuted in 2016 in Ferguson, Mo. Hailed as a success, it has since spread to other “diverse, underserved, low-to-medium income” urban communities like Birmingham, Trenton, Seattle, Baltimore and more.

Leading the community store program is Rodney Hines, Starbucks’ director of social impact for U.S. operations, who happens to be a West Philly native.

The Philly store is not a reaction to the unwarranted arrests of two black men in a Rittenhouse cafe, according to Hines, who spoke at the GPLEX conference in Seattle last week. On the contrary, the legwork in Philadelphia started about a year ago, he said. The recent rift almost blighted the initial plans.

“I think here in Seattle we were shocked” about what happened at 18th and Spruce, Hines said. “Because we know who we aim to be. Many of our leaders spent time in Philly after that.”

The company’s extended response to the arrest incident convinced local stakeholders that Starbucks had good intentions.

“In any relationship, there comes a bad day, and that bad day was when those two men were asked to leave,” 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. told Billy Penn. “Bad days happen, but it is what you do next that matters.”

Jones said had his protest sign “teed up,” ready to march in solidarity with Nelson and Robinson, he said, but then Starbucks got ahead of the narrative. The company quickly apologized, worked out a settlement with the men, and closed more than 8,000 stores nationwide to conduct racial-bias training for employees. The company also engaged local black-owned firm Bellevue Strategies to communicate with officials and get them on board with Starbucks’ efforts, including the community store.

Jones and others negotiating at the “mayoral level” were invited by Hines and other Starbucks representatives to check out the corporation’s community store model at work in East Baltimore, he said.

“I had the opportunity to speak with everybody in the ‘Starbucks family,’ as they call themselves,” Jones said, “I have to say, I was thoroughly impressed.” He was most intrigued by how friendly and enthusiastic all of the employees at the community store were. They mentioned feeling hopeful for their futures, felt they had upward mobility and liked learning different aspects of what would make an employee “valuable” via training, he said.

Chatter after Hines gave his presentation in Seattle last week included the question, “Why do we need a corporation to open a community store? We already have locally owned cafes.”

The answer, per Jones, has to do with the cachet the brand brings. This community store in Baltimore, which Jones referred to as being “hood adjacent,” given its location between the campus of Johns Hopkins and the surrounding neighborhood, had a cross-section of different, varied customers that Jones felt was integral for creating a sense of community.

“Once you get a Starbucks, that is the cherry on top. That says, ‘this neighborhood has arrived,’” Jones said. “It doesn’t mean that the neighborhood is about to be gentrified, it just means that the neighborhood is about to do well.”

Along with Pa. Rep. Morgan Cephas, Jones took Starbucks to look at at three to four locations within the elected officials’ districts (they have similar boundaries). He and Cephas were able to convince Starbucks to take the risk with West Philadelphia instead of opening a location near St. Joseph’s University, which Jones referred to as a “safe store.”

So far, no lease has been signed, so the exact location is not public. Hines did confirm that the store will be built by local contractors, will likely sell baked goods provided by local companies owned by women and POC, will offer a youth employee training program for 16 to 24-year-olds and will serve as a “center for discourse for conversation for social change” while invigorating the local economy.

“The community model helps create an enthusiastic employee who has the option to become an enthusiastic manager,” Jones said. By creating a worker that understands the value of customer service and enhancing the consumer experience, he argued, they then can go into almost any environment and take that principle with them.

“You give them a work environment where they understand corporate norms,” Jones said, “and begin to add value and experience to their lives. Entrepreneurs aren’t born, they’re grown.”

The Starbucks community store in West Philadelphia will be opening sometime within the next two years.