Racist Barista at Starbucks Paris

As I’m getting addicted to the green tea lemonade at Starbucks these days, I’m quite shocked when I came across this on the Huffington Post a couple days ago. Instead of writing the customer’s name, an employee at a Starbucks branch in Paris drew a little caricature on the cup. Here is the picture that the customer’s friend has posted online.

You may guess the ethnicity of the customer right now. Yes! The customer is Asian, and to be more specific, Korean-American. It’s offensive. And it definitely hurts the brand image. As a matter of fact, this is not the first time. Something similar has happened here in the States as well. It was back in February this year in Alpharetta, Georgia. But that time it was two little drawings on both cups for two Korean customers.

Here’s what Starbucks responded back then:

Starbucks does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and has a lengthy history of leading on and supporting policies that promote equality, inclusion and diversity. We were disappointed to hear of the poor experience this customer had in our store and have apologized to him several times. This experience is unacceptable and not indicative of the welcoming and respectful service we strive to offer our customers in our stores. The partner (employee) who was involved in this incident is no longer employed by Starbucks.

It’s been one week and Starbucks has not commented on the Paris incident yet.

Though not Korean myself, I have to say that I’m disappointed as an Asian. Personally I’ve always liked it at Starbucks. Basically it means very nice people making decent drinks for me in a relaxing environment. The Starbucks staffs in Shanghai are far more nice and friendly compared to other local beverage chains or restaurants, which might explain why it has gained a huge success there. You’ll probably encounter at least three green mermaids if you take a 15-minute walk in a busy commercial street in Shanghai. And you know you’ll be welcomed and greeted by smiling faces, just like when you walk into Disneyland. Having your staffs well trained is an important part of branding. Maybe Starbucks Paris should work to score higher in that perspective.

I wonder if that Korean customer would ever get drinks from Starbucks again. And I’m not sure how I would react if I were the victim. Although it has caused quite a stir in the online community, not much is going to change. Will it stop Asians from visiting Starbucks? Probably not. However, one should always keep in mind that in this age of instant communication, anything could be mediated in the blink of an eye. The reason why Starbucks hasn’t yet responded is beyond my comprehension. Maybe this doesn’t count as crisis management but the company should promptly react. You can no longer keep it low profile if it’s already in the buzz. And if branding is about emotional connection with customers, you should at least show some sympathy. Perhaps for Starbucks Paris, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

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6 Responses to Racist Barista at Starbucks Paris

  1. chenshen says:

    This is a very interesting phenomenon I’ve never met before at Starbucks in the U.S. because discrimination is a very serious issue for Americans. The drawings definitely are not appropriate to put on the customers’ bottles since they don’t represent personal behavior but a brand image of Starbucks. The staff of Starbucks might just want to distinguish the Korean customers from other customers with simple drawings; however, the company should have avoided the same thing happened again after the first time.

    Starbucks has responsibilities to offer special training to its employees and educate them how to make appropriate jokes with their customers. To public, Starbucks should find a way to strengthen its brand image and customers’ loyalty with meaningful explanation. Risk management is very important to any company, and any negligence to a small mistake will make the brand get into trouble no matter how many years of history the brand has. To avoid the same thing happened again, Starbucks should have taken action and put some ideas into its marketing campaigns or advertisements to claim it didn’t tolerate any discrimination at any of its global stores instead of just giving a general response online which might make its customers feel Starbuck didn’t take the whole thing very seriously.

  2. fduan says:

    It’s not my first time to hear about this. It seems that Paris is not the only place that had such problems. As for me, it happened in Starbucks partly because Baristas tend to remember their customers by the marks made on the cup, however, this cup finally gets received by the customers, and such marks express what the Baristas think of their customers. Korean people, as well as any other people, are concerned about the image of their racial group. It’s not because they are sensitive, it’s because people don’t want to be judged defined by their races.
    It might be caused by a very small portion of the Baristas in Starbucks, but it will raise serious PR crisis if Starbucks don’t take a serious action to improve their Baristas.

  3. limthong says:

    I don’t think the Baristas think such action is offensive but rather assumed it is normal according to his/her moral values and experiences in association with representation of Asians through certain media. But I have to agree with chenshan that this really damage Starbucks reputation because right now we don’t even know who actually did those drawings but we know it’s Starbucks.

    It is true that Starbucks in Asia are really friendly, and because all most all employees are Asian it would be impossible to discriminate again their own kind but people talk. Especially with social media, these images can really damage the brand’s reputation. I wonder if Asian Starbucks staffs have ever have discriminated any customers of different ethnic before but the stories have never picked up or spread on?

    From my own experience as an Asian, I have not experienced racial anywhere in Europe, especially in London and Paris where I lived in the past. The two capital cities are very cosmopolitan and diverse with lots of Asian-born-French/British. I have only experienced racial discrimination from a group of white men twice in Los Angeles, during USC football game and while I was around Little Tokyo. I don’t think the problem is where it happened, but it is rather the person who did it and what lead that person to think such action is acceptable.

  4. boweidon says:

    Upon reading the first paragraph, I can’t help but instantly and carefully checked the coffee I just bought. Sadly there’s nothing on the cup.
    Personally, as an East Asian, if anything like this happens to me, I won’t immediately take it as some sort of racial insult. And if the drawing is vivid enough, I may even express some gratitude. It’s like those memorizing enhancing method by visualizing whatever you have to remember.
    However, if the customer clearly expressed his unsatisfying , or even anger towards such memorizing tricks, maybe proper apologies and further regulations and trainings for the Starbucks staff are needed.

    • jianshan says:

      This is actually very interesting because I showed the picture to a Chinese friend of mine the other day and he didn’t find it offensive either. I’m not sure if it’s a kind of ignorance or indifference. Of course we weren’t surrounded by racial issues growing up back home. However, it’s always been a touchy topic here in the States. And if we cared more and fought back like black people did, maybe a difference could have been made.

  5. dkennard says:

    As a black man I am not a stranger to racism but this was still a surprise to me. I do not think this is a big deal right now but it can clearly become a problem if Starbucks does not solve the issue with their existing employees around the world. Starbuck employees must understand that at this day and age we live in, anything you do can go viral to the whole world within seconds. I am not sure whether these acts have become a norm in certain starbuck locations or not but it must discontinue immediately.

    Starbucks has a great reputation amongst all people around the world and if they allow situations like this to continue people will start connecting racism to their store brand which can directly affect their customer base. I think it is negligent that Starbucks ignored the incident in Paris. By not saying anything at all they are practically supporting the wrong that their employee did. They must continue to make it clear to their employees and customers that discrimination or racism shown in anyway is not acceptable or I truly believe they will eventually see their brand credibility decrease.