A customer leaves a Starbucks store in San Francisco in 2018.
For those in the Bay Area who rely on Starbucks as a destination to plug in your laptop and get work done, things just got a little less reliable.
Earlier this month, a former Starbucks barista made a viral TikTok video alleging that Starbucks was removing power outlets at stores due to “‘safety concerns’ regarding the homeless,” read the text in the video showing a blank plate covering an outlet. “… they said ‘nah, we hate the homeless more than we like the billions of customers who come into our store simply to work on their laptops.’”
In a direct message to SFGATE on Twitter, the TikTok creator Lizette Roman-Johnston told SFGATE that she heard this explanation from a barista at the Starbucks in Oakland’s Lakeshore neighborhood. She later filmed the TikTok video, which now has more than 218,000 views, at another Starbucks at the Concord Park & Shop Center when she noticed its outlets were also covered.
I recently stopped by another Oakland Starbucks and glanced under the tables to see the outlet situation for myself. Just like in the TikTok video, they were all covered up with blank faceplates. When I asked the baristas why this was, they echoed that it was due to concerns over unhoused people — but said they didn’t agree with the decision.
At another, newer Starbucks that opened in Oakland this summer at 2800 Telegraph Ave., I couldn’t find any outlets — not even one covered up with a plate. They had never been there at all.
Starbucks spokesperson Sam Jefferies said the decision to get rid of power outlets is up to individual store managers as well as district managers. He explained that the decision can be made for a variety of reasons.
“I think at the 2800 Telegraph location, that was done really trying to focus on more of a grab-and-go experience … because mobile orders are so popular,” Jefferies said. “… And sometimes in certain spaces where there isn’t that much seating, outlets are covered, just to encourage table turnover and so other people can use the space as well.”
When asked if this was a measure intended to discourage unhoused individuals from charging their devices at stores, he denied the accusation.
“No, we’ve never made a policy targeting individuals experiencing homelessness,” he said. “We welcome folks in stores as long as they respect the positive third-place environment.”
Starbucks’ “third place policy” listed on its website asks patrons to “use our spaces as intended” (no sleeping, smoking, consuming alcohol or “improper use of restrooms”), be considerate, communicate with respect and act responsibly, it reads.
In July, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told the Seattle Times that it was closing a number of stores due to “an uptick in safety-related problems including crime, homelessness and drug use in bathrooms.” Schultz also recently told the New York Times that the company may end its open bathroom policy soon for the same reason (a policy first instituted in 2018 after two Black men were denied use of a Philadelphia store’s bathroom and were subsequently arrested).
As Jefferies said the decision to cover up outlets is made by local store managers, he couldn’t speak to how many stores in the Bay Area have done so — but he did say that it’s not unique to the Bay Area. All the way back in 2011, a Starbucks spokesperson told Reuters that some stores in New York City were blocking outlets to discourage laptop users from hogging seats.
People working at Starbucks are a common sight.
I called the Starbucks in Oakland’s Lakeshore neighborhood to ask to speak with the store manager about the outlets, but they hung up. When I called back, the manager declined to speak with me, and I was told to contact the district manager. The Oakland district manager did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
As for all the customers who rely on Starbucks as a “third place” where they can plug in their laptops, use the Wi-Fi and get some work done — is removing outlets meant to discourage them from doing so?
“No, not at all,” Jefferies said. “I think the vast majority of stores in the Bay Area still have electrical outlets available for customers, and they’re available for use and get used quite a bit.”
But with outlets disappearing from more and more stores, the popular use of Starbucks as a home office or a study spot for students becomes less and less realistic.
In tandem with the opening of more “Starbucks Pickup” locations, a concept the chain launched in 2019 that doesn’t offer any seating or public bathrooms, “all of these changes add up to a less-welcoming, volume-obsessed Starbucks, one that is essentially just like any other fast-food restaurant,” Eater wrote. So far, there is one Starbucks Pickup location in San Francisco at California and Drumm streets.
Meanwhile, Starbucks employees across the country have begun attempts to unionize over the past year. But some employees allege that the company has engaged in union-busting behavior, from firings to store closures, Bloomberg reported. In August, the Castro Starbucks became San Francisco’s first to vote in favor of forming a union.
“If you actually think this $104 billion corporation is doing that [removing outlets] just to protect their employees,” Roman-Johnston said in another TikTok video. “The ones they’ve been trying to, like, crush the unionizations of — that’s just not true.”
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Madeline Wells is a reporter for SFGATE covering food and drink in the Bay Area. She grew up in the Seattle area and received her B.A. in English and Media Studies from UC Berkeley. Prior to SFGATE, she was an associate editor at East Bay Express and freelance writer covering the Bay Area music scene. Email: email@example.com
Viral TikTok says Bay Area Starbucks are covering outlets – SFGATE
A customer leaves a Starbucks store in San Francisco in 2018.