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Starbucks scrambles to rebuild trust after 'reprehensible' arrest of 2 black men

Starbucks scrambles to rebuild trust after 'reprehensible' arrest of 2 black men
Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif holds a bullhorn inside a Starbucks store in Philadelphia on Sunday, demanding the firing of the manager who called police on two black patrons. (Michael Bryant / Philadephia Inquirer via Associated Press)

Starbucks Corp., which spent years touting its commitment to social justice, is scrambling to restore trust in the coffee chain after the arrest of two black patrons in Philadelphia.

Chief Executive Kevin Johnson has apologized for the incident, which involved an employee calling police after the two men waited at a Starbucks table without ordering. That was a "reprehensible outcome," he said in a statement over the weekend.

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Johnson followed up with a video message in which he vowed to reassess Starbucks' policies and practices. The Seattle company also may adopt more store manager training, including instructions about unconscious bias, he said.

"I will fix this," said Johnson, 57. "This is not who we are, and this is not who we're going to be."

Starbucks also confirmed in an email that the Philadelphia store manager doesn't work at that location anymore. Previously, Johnson said that person was not to blame.

The controversy represents one of the first major tests for Johnson, who took the job from longtime CEO Howard Schultz a year ago. The company has prided itself on building community and fighting for social causes, but its actions have been called into question before. Under Schultz, Starbucks had baristas write "race together" on customers' cups, aiming to spur a discussion on U.S. race relations. The move was slammed on social media for being a ham-fisted approach to a complex issue.

Johnson also is confronting a growth slowdown, hurt in part by sluggish business during afternoon hours. Comparable sales — a key measure — rose just 2% in the company's most recently reported quarter.

There are about 28,000 Starbucks cafes around the world, and local practices can vary widely. In Philadelphia, the company's regional vice president, Camille Hymes, has been tasked with speaking to employees, customers, community leaders and law enforcement about the incident.

"I think they've done a good job of damage control," said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst at Edward Jones.

Johnson also said he hoped to meet the two men who were arrested and apologize in person.

Stewart Cohen, the lawyer for the two men, said he hopes "something productive for the community" can come out of such a meeting.

On Monday morning, about two dozen protesters took over the Philadelphia shop, chanting slogans that included, "Starbucks coffee is anti-black." A Starbucks regional vice president who tried to talk to the protesters was shouted down.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who met with Johnson on Monday, said the city will review its guidelines on how to respond to future requests for police assistance.

Police haven't announced the names of the two men who were arrested Thursday. They were released after the district attorney's office said there was lack of evidence that a crime had been committed.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

UPDATES:

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3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with Starbucks' email about the Philadelphia store manager, comment from attorney Stewart Cohen, comment from Philadelphia's mayor and information about a protest.

This article was originally published at 8:05 a.m.

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