Starbucks Coffee Shop Trespassers and the Gig Economy

The harsh lens of racism zoomed in on the USA again last week when two Philadelphia men were handcuffed and arrested in a Starbucks coffee shop for the dubious reason of trespassing.

They had been sitting in the shop for a while, waiting for a business associate, without buying anything.

It was probably their request for the bathroom key that drew the attention of the manager who asked them to buy something or leave. When they did neither and continued to sit in the shop, the manager called the police and had them arrested.

In the video that went viral, we see six policeman making the arrest while the newly arrived business associate watches in horror. Nine hours later, no charges were laid, the guys went home, and the store manager was sacked.

Photo: Melissa DePino

Oh, yeah, the two guys? They were black.

When I saw the video and the ensuing outrage, the second thing that came to my mind was, why didn’t they just buy a damned cup of coffee?

For the price of a Vente they could have saved themselves the humiliation of arrest and the loss of a full day of work, not to mention the aggravation they caused the people around them.

Was it racism that got them arrested? Hell, yeah! It’s not likely a sponging white guy or woman would have been asked to leave, much less have the police called to arrest them.

Were these dudes justifiably entitled to sit around and use the bathroom of a private, for-profit business without financially establishing themselves as customers?

Oh, hell no. This was coffee shop, not a public library. Their inactions were hardly defensible no matter how many white people get away with the same thing.

Perhaps the guys were just treating Starbucks like the town square it promotes itself as, thinking they could sit around waiting for free.

But when they were first asked to buy something, they could have just ordered a cup to avoid the whole confrontation.

Instead, they demurred, got arrested, there were protests, the manager was fired, the CEO rightly apologized, and on Tuesday, Starbucks announced a national day of training with all 8,000 stores to be closed to hold racial bias training for 175,000 employees.

And yet, with only a $3 cup of coffee standing between patronizing and “trespassing,” the whole event feels strangely choreographed.

But I digress…

Our Gig Economy

The reason I rant, patient reader, has less to do with racial discrimination or social media than with the “Gig Economy” that most of us find ourselves in.

The gig economy is a culture where independent contractors are hired for short-term projects. Art, editorial, technology, tutoring and consulting are among the biggest gigs.

coffee shop moii

Income tax software maker Intuit says 34% of the workforce are contractors and predicted that by 2020, 43 percent of American workers would be independent, working gigs. 

Contractors in the gig economy usually work at home and we spend most of our face time with clients in a coffee shop such as the ubiquitous Starbucks. 

Coffee shop meetings are safer than inviting clients to our home office, and saves us the task of cleaning our living room. And the bathroom. And making coffee.

We choose meeting places where there’s food and drink and clean bathrooms where can sit for hours, talking or hunching over a laptop. The coffee shop becomes our office, the cheap table our desk.

So, in this gig economy, should anyone seriously expect to occupy the physical space of the real economy without dropping a few bucks?

Absolutely, not! Especially if the shop is your regular hangout.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that paying for staying is just basic etiquette in a gig economy. 

My client, the trespasser

I may not have been so struck by the Starbuck story, and moved to rant about it, if a similar scene did not play out over the weekend.

I’d arranged to meet a girl at my favorite coffee shop for a WordPress tutorial. I knew she’d arrived early because she texted me.

When I showed up, I found her sitting alone at a table, her laptop opened before her, with not a cup or plate in sight.

not my client coffee shop

Not my client in a coffee shop, but could be.

Before sitting down I said, “I’m going to get some coffee, you want to get something too?” She replied no, she’s good. To emphasize, I said, “Are you sure you don’t want to get anything?” No.

I shrugged off her apathy, but what I should have said is, I come here all the time. If we’re going to stay, we need to buy something.

And here, she was ready to fork over $100 for our session, yet she couldn’t spring for a $3 cup!

Of course, there were no bicycle cops there to arrest her for “trespassing” (don’t be silly, this is Canada), but it strikes me that I need to find a way to remind my more oblivious clients how uncool it is to set up office in coffee shop without buying a cup of coffee.

In the end my client used the bathroom before she left.

You wouldn’t dig it either

Now, if it were my busy brick-and-mortar store, I would not put up with “trespassers” any more than I would abide hackers injecting code into my websites, or bitcoin miners cryptojacking my computer for profit. It’s not cool and verges on theft.

Again, I’m not saying that Starbucks manager was justified in calling 911 on two guys couch surfing in her store. She wasn’t. Nor was the Philadelphia police correct in arresting them.

This Starbucks incident was clearly an example of racial discrimination, but just because the shop was wrong doesn’t mean the inactions of those guys was right.

I’m just saying that in a gig economy like ours, no one of any color should expect to enjoy a roof over their head and a seat under their butt in a business establishment without buying something. It’s rude, arrogant, and unprofessional.

When it comes to turning a coffee shop into your office, if you don’t purchase then you have no purchase. Sorry.

/End of rant.

What do you think about coffee shop trespassing?