Will New Starbucks Restroom Policy Foster More Tolerance across the Restaurant Industry?
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By Dr. Sheri Hernandez
Program Director, Hospitality Management, American Public University
Have you have ever purchased a coffee or a snack that you really did not want, just so you could use the restroom at that shop? Have you ever used the free Wi-Fi in a restaurant, but felt guilty until you had lunch there as well?
You may be surprised to learn that it is usually just an establishment’s policy, not a law, which denies non-paying customers access to the restroom.
State, Local Laws Establish Whether Restaurant Restrooms Are Open to Everyone
Federal law requires employers to provide restrooms for their employees. State and local laws, however, establish whether restaurants must offer the use of their restrooms to the general public. Restaurants are free to make policies regarding restroom use, including designating restrooms for customer use only.
Starbucks had policies in place that permitted store managers to decide whether or not to permit non-customers to use their restrooms. Unfortunately, Starbucks made unwanted headlines in April when a Philadelphia store manager called police, accusing two African-American men of trespassing and causing a disturbance.
They had asked to use the restroom while waiting inside Starbucks to meet with a friend. Neither man had made a purchase. The police arrested the pair.
Starbucks was immediately forced into reactive mode in an attempt to save the corporation’s reputation. However, Starbucks did not manage to avoid a public relations disaster that portrayed the store, and therefore the company, as racially divisive.
Starbucks Incident Changes Company Policies on Restroom Use
Regardless whether the store manager acted on preconceived notions or racial bias, the incident raises a question about company policy on the use of restrooms by non-paying customers. Another issue is how that policy should be administered to maintain a company’s good reputation.
Starbucks closed 8,000 of its stores for a half day at the end of May. Employees were trained on how to avoid any appearance of racial discrimination and presumably on all aspects of the company’s operations as well as corporate policy on public restroom use.
Now, Starbucks has issued a public statement that any person, whether they purchase something or not, is welcome to sit on the patio, hang out in the store or use the restroom.
What Will Starbucks Incident Mean for Other Companies That Sell Food and Drinks?
Starbucks has tempered its initial statement by asking everyone who enters Starbucks property to maintain a warm and welcoming environment. But will all restaurants now feel the need to follow suit and make a statement that all are welcome?
Will paying customers have to wait even longer to use the restroom because anyone off the street can come in and use it? Maybe.
According to an article in CNN Money, Starbucks employees were told to use discretion with customers. However, employees can still ask people to leave if their behavior or personal hygiene disrupts other customers.
Does that sound subjective? Probably. Despite the training, it will still be up to individual employees in the restaurant to determine whether or not others there are being disruptive.
What will this incident mean for other restaurants and coffee shops? From a public relations standpoint, Starbucks reacted to a highly publicized situation that certainly painted the company in a poor light. It remains to be seen if other restaurants and companies now step up and change their policies on who may use their bathroom facilities.