WFAEats: Charlotteans Reflect on Starbucks Drama, Consider Their Own Options

Apr 20, 2018

“Coffee folks: Who is making the switch from Starbucks to another coffee store owned by people of color or other minorities?” If you want to know what people think about a hot-button issue, post a question on social media. So on Wednesday afternoon, I did, and within seconds people began responding. 

“I’ll never step foot in there again.”

“I never liked their coffee anyway.”

“Bye bye Starbucks. My SouthPark satellite office has been moved. My money is green and I have choices.”

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Comments poured in faster than I could read them. Two days later, it hasn’t stopped. 

The pot of public opinion has been boiling over ever since a white Starbucks store manager in Philadelphia summoned police on April 12 to arrest two African-American patrons who were waiting for a friend. Claims of racial profiling surprised many customers who believe in the company’s stated commitment to “creating a culture of belonging, inclusiveness and diversity.”

Others, especially people of color, recognized the incident as part of a pervasive culture of racial profiling in the U.S. Some have begun boycotting the coffee giant. 

Justin Perry, a therapist and activist in Charlotte, explained: “There is nothing shocking about any of this. The message young black boys get early in life is the desire of society to control our bodies. This Starbucks incident is merely an outgrowth of the reality that we operate by a different set of rules, lacking the freedom of other citizens.” And here’s another reality from Angie Chandler, a Charlotte educator and actress. “While many people purchase a coffee beverage and stay to use Starbucks wifi or have a meeting long after their beverage is done, I’m always aware that I need to keep evidence of my purchase on my table.”

Joan Hardy is one local resident who’s not going back to Starbucks. “I watched that video [that showed the incident] with tears running down my face. That could easily have been me or one of my nephews.”

Nethea Rhinehardt grew up in Charlotte and just returned after living in Manhattan since 2014. She’s in favor of switching but not specifically in response to the recent incident. She said, “I’d much rather give money to a small business owner than corporate shareholders. And I want white people to support minority-owned business – to prioritize it – as much as I want black people to.”

Small-business owner Carlithea Abram isn’t explicitly planning to boycott Starbucks, but she’s in favor of “local small businesses who support justice and equality for all.” And she’s grateful for that video: “It helps the world to see that racism is alive. People of color are affected daily. We are not in a post-racial society.”

In Charlotte, where chain coffee stores command most of the market, it can take a bit of effort to seek out the independent and minority-owned places. Several commenters recommended Basal Coffee, a bright, modern spot in the FreeMoreWest neighborhood. In Matthews, java lovers frequent Dilworth Coffee at Plantation Market, run by proprietress Hilina Negussie who hails from Ethiopia. Full-service Ethiopian restaurants Nile Grocery and Café and Abugida roast, grind, and brew coffee in a traditional tableside style for guests. Calvine Frazier of Calvine’s Gourmet Coffee sells small-batch beans by mail order; she doesn’t have a storefront but is in high demand for pop-up events and corporate catering. Cowo Coffee specializes in single-origin beans and micro-roasting. Just across the county line in burgeoning Belmont, fans flock to Caravan Coffee and Dessert Bar, which has been operating for more than a decade. With support, these and others will flourish.

Although Starbucks announced plans to shut down nationally for racial-bias training on May 29, many are questioning whether that’s just another business decision to ultimately preserve profits.

“Are they just going to go through the session and at the end get a certificate that you will not be racially biased towards customers going forward?” Hardy asked. “Thanks, I will spend my money at the local shops in the area.”

“The best thing that came out of the event was white people being there and calling out the hypocrisy. We need more of that,” Perry said.

People who haven’t experienced discrimination may want to diminish or dismiss the Starbucks incident. But as others who’ve suffered similar treatment continue to come forward, that’s no longer possible. Understanding those who’ve been marginalized can go a long way toward developing empathy and fostering equality. On social media, in real life – and over a cup of coffee – here’s hoping we’re finally learning to listen.

Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.