Starbucks Socialism

For decades, my parents have frequented one “Bamboo Gardens,” a vegetarian Chinese restaurant in possession of that rare treasure in the neighborhood of Seattle Center: its own private parking lot.

Shortly after it opened the owners put up a large sign reading “No Thai Parking.” The allusion was not to some quarrel among the inscrutable orientals, but to the potential free-riders parking Chinese but eating, and paying, at the Thai restaurant next door. It was the totally reasonable desire of the Bamboo Gardens’ ownership to reserve its parking lot for its own clientele.

Even in those less P.C.-ridden days of the early 1990s, that sign needed fixing as it was easily misunderstood. After a year or two, the owners added a word, and the sign now read: “No Thai Customer Parking.” That sign was still capable of willful misinterpretation by the Wahhabis of the Woke, so the last week when we had lunch the sign read “BAMBOO GARDEN CUSTOMER PARKING/NO NEXT DOOR PARKING/ALL OTHER WILL BE IMPOUNDED AND TOWED.”

As everybody knows, Starbucks in April was subjugated by the hipster jihad after a Philadelphia store manager (since purged) attempted to enforce a customers-only policy for Starbucks’ tables and bathrooms upon two black men. Starbucks quickly waved the green flag of surrender: it pledged $200,000 to a “program to support aspiring young entrepreneurs.” Starbucks also proclaimed that “any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes, and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase.” Orwell might have fun with these non-purchasing “customers,” but I won’t—at least not today.

When I first heard of Starbucks’ surrender I thought it was “a terrible business decision.” As the scion of four generations of Philadelphia restaurateurs, it seemed obvious to me that, as Rutgers “employment law and diversity professor” Stacy Hawkins has said, “Most eateries have policies that limit the use of restrooms to ‘paying customers,’ and almost all prohibit loitering and/or trespassing. These are common and sensible policies for businesses that want to cultivate an environment conducive to their customers.”

Now I sit in a Seattle Starbucks, drinking my venti Pike Place (four generations of breeding keeps me from free-riding). The store is clean, inviting, and offers free wifi, thanks to “Google/Starbucks.” Despite the new corporate policy, it is a haven from the disorder and squalor too frequent in Seattle. Every Starbucks I have been in since the new policy was dictated, on the East Coast or the West, has been just as welcoming.

So what is the catch in Starbucks socialism? What giant corporate chain Starbucks can afford, the single unit Bamboo Gardens cannot.

The big chain has slack resources for “customers” who don’t buy anything, the little people don’t. And the new policy will be even more affordable for Starbucks if they can, through competition for virtue-signaling latte buyers or through regulation, impose their policy on every mom and mom or pop and pop coffee shop.

Is Starbucks socialism a good thing? It all depends on what kind of equality you want: if you want to make it easier for the down-and-outs or the apparently-not-insufferably cheap to get free wifi and ice water in a comfy chair—and clean bathrooms when they OD on glacier melt—I have seen the future and it works.

Yet if you want a society where a restaurateur can send a kid through Harvard Med School based on the profits from one restaurant’s’ worth of sweet-and-sour fake pork with a side of not-exactly-free parking, it is not enough to keep the legal right to private property on the books. You have to nurture a society where people are unafraid to stand up for that right against the loiterers, no matter if they are Thai or White or African-American because they know that the police and, more important, their customers, have their backs when they do stand up.

Personally, I prefer a property-owning democracy—where anybody who works hard can make their middle-class dreams come true—to corporate oligarchy, even corporate oligarchy with excellent social services. But after 30 years of Christmas Blend, it is tough to cut up my Starbucks card.

Photo Credit: Chris Wong/S3studio/Getty Images

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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).