By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
About 30 Starbucks employees picketed on July 18, outside its Union Station store, protesting its closure in Chinatown. Starbucks has announced the closure of six Puget Sound-area stores earlier this month due to crime-related complaints.
The Chinatown-International District (CID) store was closed on July 12, instead of its announced closing date, July 31. Will the store be temporarily closed? What will be the fate of that store?
A customer actually cried upon hearing the news, according to Mari Cosgrove, one of the 15 employees who worked for four years at the store.
“I had to explain to my regular (customers) that we are closing. One of them was crying. They were missing me and they gave me hugs. It was really hard.”
Cosgrove said she and her co-workers were shocked when they heard about the shut down in a virtual meeting on July 11. On the following day, employees showed up to work only to find out that the store was closed. Outside the door, there was a notice, “OUR STORE IS TEMPORARILY CLOSED…”
Erin Bray, CID Starbucks supervisor, also cried during an interview with the Asian Weekly. She said she has never felt unsafe working the past three years.
“It’s ironic” that Starbucks said it’s unsafe, Bray said. “Vulcan’s (property management company) has three to four security guards.
Cosgrove was also skeptical about safety being the reason for the store closing. “Union” was the reason, she said. Both the Chinatown and Olive Way stores voted to unionize, and are on the list of stores closing.
“We were certified on May 27,” she added.
Known to be a progressive leader, Howard Schultz, Starbucks and interim CEO, and his company has donated millions of dollars to communities of color. It has also invested big to revitalize disadvantaged neighborhoods. When NBA player Erwin “Magic” Johnson and Schultz formed a partnership, they showed up for their first store’s opening at 23rd Avenue and South Jackson Street in Seattle’s Central District in 1997. I was present.
“Will Chinatown get a Starbucks, too?” I wondered then. It was exciting for many community members when we heard the news that Starbucks would be opening a CID location.
Since 2000, Starbucks has been in the CID. With over 2,000 square feet, the CID store is in a prime location, at the corner of the gateway to the two stadiums through a bridge.
But Schultz is obsessive about busting the union. According to a CNN report, Schultz has “been working to dissuade workers from unionizing, asking workers to steer clear of unions even before he formally returned to the company as chief executive.” Starbucks employees receive a generous benefit package. However, no matter what he does, “unionization has only been growing.”
The reason for closing
“We were doing so well (financially),” said Cosgrove. “We are one of the busiest stores. We currently serve about 120 people in an hour on our busiest times, like game day,” Cosgrove said. “In the morning, we would be missing about 300 customers who won’t be able to have their morning coffee.”
“Starbucks is closing stores in marginalized communities,” Cosgrove said. “We like to see the community put pressure on Starbucks to reopen the store. I like working at the store.” She said she also likes working in the CID.
Starbucks said it is closing the store due to safety issues. Cosgrove said, “There aren’t any safety issues at the store…I have never felt unsafe (working at the store).”
The problem was at the beginning of 2020, when wearing masks had to be enforced, said Cosgrove. It’s not a safety issue, she said, it’s more like “not respecting the rules” as some people who refused to wear masks were yelling.
“It is being rude,” she said. “Closing the store for rude behavior (of the customers) is not a good idea.”
Some people need food and need referral to food banks. Cosgrove has reported these issues and asked for help from the corporate office.
Bray said her store has asked for the help of community resource officers, also Starbucks workers dealing with these issues, but never got any. She wanted “the community’s help to keep us open.” That’s why she voted to be unionized, “We stand together. We want our voices to be heard.”
“We are doing well financially, we are doing well in the community,” Cosgrove said. We want to continue being here in the CID. I want to keep working here.” Meanwhile, Starbucks CID employees are in limbo.
“These closures were the result of conversations that we had over the last several months since Howard Schultz returned as CEO,” said a Starbucks spokesperson in response to a Asian Weekly inquiry.
Starbucks has been receiving concerns from workers, partners and employees for the last several months about enduring safety concerns, he said, requesting anonymity.
“They felt challenged to deliver a safe and welcoming environment.” And the company “has considered different factors, and has decided in these particular cases, the best thing is” …closure for these stores.
While baristas have told the Asian Weekly that they have not received help from Starbucks on addressing mental health and homeless people, the spokesperson said Starbucks has worked on these issues for months with different groups.
“It will be closed permanently by July 31,” he said. Asked if it will be reopened? He reiterated that it would be “closed permanently” even though Starbucks has a couple of years left on its lease.
CID during COVID
Compared to other communities, CID was hurt most during the pandemic. The community has been stigmatized and traumatized. The first Black Lives Matter protest held in Washington state was in CID on May 29, 2020. Afterwards, splinter groups vandalized and destroyed the CID. The invasion was treacherous, I have no words for it.
Overnight, about 200 stores were being boarded up. It became a ghost town for months and most of the businesses were boarded up for more than a year. Senior residents were afraid to walk out of their apartments, and groceries had to be delivered to them. The fire department and social workers teamed up together to go to their homes for vaccinations.
Some community members were reluctant to dine and shop in the CID due to news of anti-Asian hate crimes. The recovery has taken much longer than other communities.
The CID’s recovery process has been slowly picking up. Yet, the news of Starbucks closing doesn’t inspire confidence in outsiders. It will cause a ripple effect, discouraging potential visitors and investors for our community. Although the CID does have a public safety issue, Mayor Bruce Harrell is working hard on it. Progress has been made. The police are patrolling CID more often. The Union Station building, where Starbucks is located, is well managed by Vulcan. Its security is constantly present. Whatever the real reason Starbucks is closing the CID store, please think again. Don’t abandon the CID.
Starbucks’ impact on CID
Whatever the reason for Starbucks closing, the CID is the loser. What does it mean for our community when a Fortune 500 company abandons our neighborhood?
A once bustling corner of CID, welcoming locals and tourists, rich and poor, young and old, has now been deserted, and for how long, no one knows. All those efforts Starbucks has put in over 22 years is now dissolved into waste like its leftover coffee.
One more empty storefront has now been added to the CID’s list of dead businesses during the pandemic. Every business closed or relocated reminds us of how challenging it is for our community to bring in new ones. And how long do we have to wait for fresh blood to come in and build it up again?
That Starbucks has been a stabilizing force for the neighborhood. I’ve seen restaurateurs and workers enjoying their morning Joe sitting outside Starbucks before their shifts. For some, Starbucks provided them their only break for the entire day. It‘s also a spot for romantic beginnings. A friend of mine used the CID Starbucks as an initial meeting site for online dates, and she did meet the love of her life there after several attempts. It’s also the store where I closed several business deals and interviewed political candidates for endorsements.
A Chinese saying goes, “Either you die or I perish.” Like its coffee getting stuck in its grinder, the tension between the union and Starbucks is only growing and both see no way out.
Mr. Shultz, does it have to be that way between you and your employees and the union, though!? Part of your legacy is identifying weak communities and building them into strong ones. You did it for CID and many others. Thank you. Don’t tarnish your legacy.
Now is not the time to turn your back on us. The CID is vulnerable and needs your support now more than ever.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.