Philly Starbucks arrests

The Year in Starbucks: How the coffee giant has remained in the local spotlight

There’s been no lack of Philly drama since last year’s unwarranted arrests.

The Starbucks at 18th and Spruce

The Starbucks at 18th and Spruce

Google Street View

It’s been a hell of a year, Philadelphia. If you’re wondering what we mean, just ask Starbucks.

Today, April 12, the international coffee chain reckons with a problematic anniversary. On this day last year, a manager at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce streets called the police on two black entrepreneurs while they waited for a friend. Philadelphia officers responded and subsequently arrested them.

The incident shook the entire city, inciting immediate backlash, protests and ultimately some actual policy change.

Locally, Starbucks has stayed in the public eye. In the last 365 days, the business has come into the Philly spotlight over its treatment of customers, its proposals to build new stores and even a visit from its former CEO on his presidential exploration tour.

So here’s a recap of what happened this year — from the arrests to the present day.

April 2018: The arrests

It was an average Thursday evening at the beginning of spring when two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, entered a Center City Starbucks last year. They didn’t order anything while they awaited the arrival of a friend.

It’s a pretty standard practice for Starbucks patrons — but the two young businessmen were arrested despite a lack of any criminal or suspicion behavior.

Right away, the incident provoked protests and generated national media attention.

The men were released from custody after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to have them arraigned. Starbucks tweeted an apology to the men, and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross weighed in via Facebook Live.

Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement a few days after the incident, expressing his dismay over what had happened.

“I am heartbroken to see Philadelphia in the headlines,” the statement began, “for an incident that — at least based on what we know at this point — appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”

Starbucks, for its part, responded with direct action. Less than a month after the incident, the coffee chain changed its policy to allow anyone to use the bathroom, regardless of whether they’ve purchased something. It also shut down 8,000 company stores in the United States to conduct anti-bias trainings — hopefully preventing another incident like this.

Philly police followed suit, releasing updated guidelines on how officers should respond to trespassing calls.

Meanwhile, Nelson and Robinson took the high road — opting not to sue the city, settling the case for $1 each and instead channeling their energy into the creation of a nonprofit. The men received a $200,000 grant from the city, which they’ll use to pilot a program for Philly highschoolers with aspirations of becoming entrepreneurs.

July 2018: Mocking a customer with a stutter

Three months after the wrongful arrests, a West Philadelphia barista reportedly mocked a man with a stutter — mimicking his verbal tic and writing his name “Sam” on the cup with extra letters at the beginning: “SSSam.” That was just 29 days after the national anti-bias training.

At the time, Starbucks regional VP Camille Hymes reached out to Sam personally to apologize, and the barista in question was fired.

October 2018: A huge job fair…with Meek Mill

Starbucks officials took it upon themselves to make positive news in the city, and six months after the initial unwarranted arrests, the company hosted a massive job fair at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Attendees included 1,700 people look for jobs, plus Philly companies like Aramark, PNC Bank, Peco, Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health. Oh yeah, and Meek Mill showed up.

October 2018: A new community store

As Billy Penn first reported in October, the coffee corporation decided to open up a “community store” in West Philly’s Parkside neighborhood.

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 store’s expected to be up and running in two years — and neighbors are actually pretty darn excited about it. Planning for this started a year before the arrests, according to several involved.

A Starbucks community store in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

A Starbucks community store in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

Courtesy Starbucks

January 2019: Needle disposal units

Starbucks opted to try out a controversial new idea at the same location of the April 2018 arrests.

In January, KYW reported that the Rittenhouse location installed a needle disposal unit, meant to provide people who use drugs with a safe way to toss their equipment. It’s part of an effort to keep Starbucks employees and customers safe from touching the used syringes.

January 2019: Former CEO runs for president

After all this, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz thought he’d ride the wave of media attention, announcing his unexpected bid for president. He’s been slammed for this decision by Democrats and Republicans alike — including by Philly coffee connoisseur Todd Carmichael, who founded La Colombe.

Schultz made a pseudo-campaign appearance in Philadelphia in February, when he spoke at the Free Library’s Parkway Central branch.

February 2019: A Starbucks in Dilworth Park

Public art advocate Conrad Benner of the Streets Dept blog caught wind that the Center City District was allowing a Starbucks to open at Dilworth Park. Benner’s post was like lighting a fuse, one that almost instantly set ablaze Philly’s internet community. Folks were enraged that public space would turn into a corporate outpost.

Things got more dramatic when Benner started a petition against the development, which raked in more than 8,000 signatures.

Eventually, the two sides came together — with Benner conceding that it was too late to undo the Dilworth Park Starbucks, and CCD President Paul Levy admitting that the process could’ve been more inclusive of public input.

“It is a sign of success that people are so passionate about the place, even if they sometimes disagree on specifics,” the two wrote in a joint statement. “We value that passion, and we will work together to give voice to all who love Dilworth Park.”

Rendering of the incoming coffee kiosk at Dilworth Park

Rendering of the incoming coffee kiosk at Dilworth Park

Center City District

April 2019: Fishtown wants no part of all of this

Meanwhile, Fishtown is thoroughly uninterested in the spectacle that is Starbucks.

For nearly a year, the coffee giant was planning a store for an under-construction building on Frankford Avenue. But the idea required a zoning variance, and when it came time for the neighborhood to weigh in, they were less than enthused.

At a Fishtown Neighborhood Association meeting, the RCO voted 50-14 against the shop.

With an unruly year behind us, only time will tell what’s next for the billion-dollar coffee chain. But if we could stomach the last 12 months, it’s safe to say Philadelphia’s can handle it.

Want some more? Explore other Philly Starbucks arrests stories.

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