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Questions (Still) Linger Over Starbucks’s Claim It’s Closing Canal Street Shop Because of Worker Safety

It’s one in a wave of national closures, part of the company’s “reinvention”

A round Starbucks sign off the side of a brick building with a blue sky in the background.
Starbucks is closing 700 Canal Street, effective October 3.
William A. Morgan/Shutterstock

The announcement that coffee conglomerate Starbucks was closing a downtown New Orleans store last week quickly became a sort of media litmus test. Global fearmonger the Daily Mail seized the story; local media somewhat predictably focused on the company’s crime narrative.

But Starbucks’s official list of reasons for closing was all-encompassing and vague. In a statement provided to Eater, the company said: “Our stores are windows into America and every day, our partners witness the challenges facing our communities — challenges to personal safety and security, racism, a growing mental health crisis, and issues magnified by COVID. These challenges play out within our stores — affecting our partners, our communities, and our customers alike.”

The closure of its 700 Canal Street store, effective October 3, is the latest in a wave of store closings across the U.S., including cities like Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. When six Los Angeles Starbucks stores closed earlier this summer, the company line was similar, but added “rising drug use, mental crises, and chronic homelessness” to the mix; the company declined to go into detail about the frequency of store incidents or note when workers began citing problems, Eater LA reported. The chain recently abandoned its “third place” framing and instead is leaning into being a fast-food store, with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz characterizing the closures as part of the company’s reinvention earlier this summer. “We need to reinvent Starbucks for the future. And to be successful, it will take our collective courage to begin again,” Schultz stated in a letter sent to store employees.

In its process of “reinvention,” Eater’s Amy McCarthy writes: “Starbucks has acted like any other massive, business-as-usual chain. It’s refused to bargain fairly with unionizing workers at hundreds of stores across the country, threatened some with the loss of trans-inclusive healthcare benefits, refused to offer wage increases at unionized stores, and fired union organizers over petty rule infractions.” Locally, the company fired the worker that led unionization efforts at a Starbucks on Maple Street (the store voted to unionize, but the company has yet to begin bargaining, as with the hundreds of other unionized stores in the U.S.).

The 700 Canal Street store, which opened in 2013 with a custom “old-fashioned apothecary” design, has been deemed “high incident.” In response to questions about that evaluation, a representative tells Eater that while the company does log safety-related incidents “as they occur,” they are not making that information public. In addition, no single incident led to the decision to close this location, the representative said. “However, incidents related to these challenges have made it increasingly difficult to offer that safe, warm, and welcoming environment that customers expect from Starbucks,” the representative told Eater.

Closures across the country including Canal Street were spurred by a “renewed commitment to safety and security in our stores,” announced in July, a spokesperson told Eater, not a national review of stores, as previously reported. When asked how closures were quantified or qualified, and what measures are taken toward addressing a store’s safety concerns before closing it, a representative said that in a July 11 letter to employees that addressed worker safety, the company provided “a number of tools for local leaders (who know the neighborhoods and store-level businesses best)” to address challenges, “including changes to store layouts, hours of operation, and, where necessary, store closures.”

As with all capitalistic entities, these decisions come down to the company’s bottom line — so “safety and security concerns” may reasonably be interpreted to mean the cost of safety and security concerns. According to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, workers at the Canal Street location had not filed an application with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union.

Meanwhile, a story about another downtown restaurant claiming its business is suffering due to crime is getting roasted on Twitter, with commenters pointing to myriad other possible reasons the business is suffering, like the fact that it’s a pancake restaurant not open on weekends.