On Tuesday, May 29, Starbucks locations all over the United States closed for a mandatory, all-hands training. The company distributed multiple iPads to each store, which, along with a personal notebook for recording reactions to the training and a team guidebook, took small groups through the four-hour training.
The iPads came loaded with videos that included messages from high-ranking Starbucks executives (CEO Kevin Johnson, former CEO Howard Schultz, COO Roz Brewer, and EVP Rossann Williams), a documentary on the history of racial bias in public spaces from filmmaker Stanley Nelson, discussions with baristas and other Starbucks partners, and narration from the rapper Common.
The team guidebook, shared by three to five people, prompted the groups to take breaks, reflect privately, discuss how the information was making them feel, and come up with ways to make their stores more welcoming to all guests. The frankly gorgeous graphic design shows how seriously the company was taking this training. No outdated VHS or hastily made copies here, Starbucks spared no expense in putting together a modern and thought-provoking training event.
Some are probably tempted to dismiss the training. The sort of institutional and systemic racism that the training was designed to address is a fundamental problem not only in the United States but all over the world. However well-meaning as Starbucks may be, what impact can they reasonably expect to have?
We ask the cynics to be quiet. Starbucks has proven itself to be the one out in front, doing more than it had to do, faster than it had to, without being forced. This training is no exception. It will set a new standard for corporate responsibility and likely have a butterfly effect on the company, its customers, and its competitors.
The foodservice industry is one of the largest employers on the planet. In the US, seven out of ten adults have worked in a restaurant at some point in their lives. Our economy has become predominantly service-based.
When looked at from that perspective, the potential impact of the training is tremendous. Already, 175,000 Starbucks employees have participated. The program is likely to become a key element in onboarding efforts, meaning that every person who takes a job at Starbucks will get to go through this training.
Though motivated by the racial profiling incident in Philadelphia, Starbucks has taken the potential scandal as an opportunity to reaffirm its core values, which it defined in the training as making sure that every human is seen, respected, and uplifted. Though Starbucks is a strictly secular operation, these values resonate with all of the world’s major religions. If we compare and contrast all the world’s religions and take away the 20% that cause fights, you’re left with compassion, care, empathy, and tolerance, which also form the basis of the service industry.
Shockingly, these basic lessons are missing from most foodservice education. There isn’t a single class at any one of the top-rated hospitality schools that covers the core tenets of hospitality. Training in the foodservice industry has been progressively shifting toward tactical execution — open the bag of coffee beans, pour into the grinder, tamp the grounds, et cetera and so on — rather than the core of the business itself: serving people, and fulfilling needs.
It’s worth remembering that “hospital” and “hospitality” share a root word, so do “restaurant” and “restore.” When you break a bone, you go to the hospital. Restaurants exist to heal your soul.
Starbucks’ training program will raise consciousness about systemic racism in the US and spark conversations among employees about how they can make all customers feel welcome. But, more important, it will instill the most important values of the hospitality industry in these workers, reminding them that service is above us, not beneath us.
This training program will ripple throughout Starbucks staff, both in the US and internationally. But it will also affect how the coffee chain’s customers feel and behave.
The company knew that this training had the public’s attention, so it asked participants to think about how they would describe the event to their regular customers and encouraged them to use #tobeapartner to describe their experience on social media.
Starbucks’ openness about the training — and its employees’ responses to it — underlines its commitment to its community. The executive team has repeatedly stated that what happened in Philadelphia is a reflection of the kinds of problems that are impacting people of color all over the US, and it is positioning its training as a way of intervening in these problems.
More indirectly, the “everyone welcome” policy could have incredible effects on Starbucks customers’ days. For many, the coffee shop is the first place they stop after leaving their homes in the morning; for some, the barista who takes their order is the first person they speak to. Imagine if every one of those interactions made the guest feel welcome — seen, respected, and uplifted. How will this person go about the rest of their day?
In the training, Howard Schultz described the company’s third-place branding as “a feeling,” “an emotion,” “an aspiration”: “Where people come together and are uplifted as a result of the sense of belonging.”
If every Starbucks in the US — not to mention the world — became a place where everyone felt this sense of care, compassion, and empathy, how would Starbucks customers behave after leaving their third place? How would they carry these feelings and aspirations with them into the world?
The event Starbucks put on wasn’t cheap: besides the videos, notebooks, guidebooks, and iPads, they also gave up an afternoon of sales. When asked about spending so much money on one afternoon’s programming, Schultz said he sees training “not as an expense but as an investment in our people and in our company.”
In instances when restaurant operations close for educational events — rather than, say, thanks to a health code violation or food safety scandal — consumers respond positively. We expect that the publicity Starbucks garnered through this crisis will translate into increased sales within a week of the training, so that the program essentially pays for itself.
Other foodservice operations are watching Starbucks closely and will take one of two lessons from these events. The smartest and best of them will recognize that the coffee chain has once again raised the bar and work on figuring out how to catch up. The cynical ones — the ones content to imitate rather than innovate — will see the sales bump after the training as easy money and create their own, cheaper programs in an attempt to cash in. Hopefully, there will be more in the first category than the second.
The issues and emotions raised by the racial profiling event in Philadelphia are some of the hardest to deal with. They touch on the US’s history of slavery and segregation; they force us to face our own unconscious beliefs and potential biases; they remind us of times we felt unwelcome or unseen. They also speak to the core values of the hospitality industry, which — by definition — is supposed to make all people feel welcome and cared for.
It’s true that a four-hour training program can only do so much to solve these problems. But it’s a start, and one that we expect will ripple throughout the company, the guests its touches on a daily basis, and other foodservice operations. May we all become better for it.
Aaron Allen & Associates can help develop internal & external messaging programs, foster associate engagement, develop crisis communication plans and manage them when necessary, help strategize investor relations, monitor and manage brand reputation, and work with companies to invent and refine other systems that enhance communication both among teams and with communities.