Local Starbucks Under Fire After Racial Slur on Cup

OUTLOOK photo
A Latino Los Gringos Locos employee
received beverages labeled with a derogatory term at the Starbucks on Foothill Boulevard.

Allegations of racism put Starbucks in the national spotlight again last week. The latest incident occurred in La Cañada Flintridge, following those in Philadelphia and Torrance.
On Tuesday, May 15, a Latino customer who ordered two drinks at the Starbucks location at 475 Foothill Blvd. received beverages labeled with a derogatory term used to refer to people of Latino descent.
“The mistake is unacceptable and we’re absolutely taking additional steps,” said a Starbucks spokeswoman, who identified herself only as Ann, by phone last week. “Our leadership team did meet with the customer and he accepted our apology.”
Without offering specifics, she added: “We’re taking additional steps to make sure we understand exactly what happened and how our partners can be better.”
The popular coffee chain had previously publicized plans to close more than 8,000 of its company-owned stores for an afternoon of employee “racial-bias education” on Tuesday, May 29.
Starbucks didn’t return messages this week regarding what additional measures it might be planning or what the company learned from its investigation into the events in LCF, as local residents expressed different perspectives on what happened. Some found it plainly offensive; others said they believe it was a mistake.
According to Bent Hansen, owner of Los Gringos Locos, one of his restaurant’s employees ordered two drinks at the coffee shop on the morning of Tuesday, May 15. Hansen said the employee, who’s been identified only by his first name, Pedro, didn’t notice what had been printed on the drink labels until he returned to work and a colleague saw the slur.
“The employee who was the one who picked up the drinks, he did not want any recognition or anything, it was the other employee who got the second drink who was upset and then he posted it to social media and then it took off from there,” said Hansen, noting that his staff was overwhelmed by the response in the hours that followed.
Before the story went viral, Hansen said, his general manager called the Starbucks store to complain, after which the coffee shop’s manager went “right away” to Los Gringos Locos to offer an apology and a $50 gift card. None of the Los Gringos Locos employees accepted a gift card, Hansen said in a phone interview last week.
Meanwhile, news of the incident spread rapidly across social media. (Curiously, in at least one case, a post from an account repeated, word-for-word and with an identical image, an original post by a Los Gringos Locos employee.)
Before long, word of the incident reached local news outlets. Hansen said there were six TV reporters in his restaurant’s lobby Wednesday seeking comment from his employees, and by that evening, the story was featured on all L.A.’s TV news broadcasts. Additional media followed up Thursday and Friday, with the L.A. Times, CNN and the Washington Post among the news outlets covering the incident.
The local Starbucks also was vandalized on the evening of Wednesday, May 16, when someone used shoe polish to write “BNR??” on the store where the incident occurred, according to the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Department and local media.
“Talking to everybody, I believe it was a legitimate mistake,” said Mayor Terry Walker, who said she, like others in the community, thought the barista who took the order could have confused “Peter” with the derogatory term.
“I feel bad for the gentleman; I can see how it would be offensive, but I can also see how the name sounds the same,” said Walker, who learned of the situation while she was in Spain, visiting Villanueva de la Cañada with the LCF Sister Cities Association. “It’s my understanding that the service wasn’t compromised toward him. Whether it was a mistake or not, I can’t say for sure, but it certainly sounds like it was.”
News of the slur also spread quickly in LCF, where other residents also wondered whether the label had been a mistake and some questioned the authenticity of the initial reports.
“This is true, this happened,” Hansen said. “We think La Cañada is a bubble, and it’s not; it’s part of L.A.”
Others in LCF never doubted the account, and found it troubling and disheartening.
“If it was a joke, it was an extremely insensitive one,” wrote Dean Florez, a LCF resident who served as a state senator from the 16th District in the Central Valley from 2002 through 2010, in an email. “If it was specifically targeted, it’s criminal. Starbucks needs to tell us clearly what they are doing about such incidents. Who wrote such a message on someone’s coffee cup? Who is being fired as a result? Their lack of transparency tells us that they still don’t get it.”
His daughter, La Cañada High School senior Faith Florez, said the news, which was a topic of conversation in all of her classes Thursday, shook her sense of community.
“To think that members of my town, whom I go to high school with, go to Mass at church with, see at the grocery store and greet while driving down the streets, might feel this way about my ethnicity makes me feel so alienated,” Faith Florez wrote in an email.
She said she learned about the incident from LCHS junior Amanda Gómez, who said she wondered why more students in her classes were not discussing the incident Thursday.
“Most people in La Cañada want to think of themselves as pretty socially liberal, but when something actually happens close to them that they can do something about, little action is actually taken,” Gómez said.
The other recent Starbucks incidents included cellphone video footage of the April 15 arrests of two black men who’d been waiting at a Philadelphia store. That same week, details surfaced of a Jan. 23 incident in Torrance, when a Starbucks store manager allegedly refused to give a bathroom code to a black man.
Hansen said Starbucks faces a challenge with its more than 175,000 U.S. employees.
“It’s hard for everything to be in lockstep,” he said, adding that the staff at his restaurant undergoes regular training to avoid similar situations. “We have weekly newsletters, training that goes out on all types of topics, from sanitation to guest services to food quality. We’re constantly training, and this opens our eyes. We will be making sure we train on this also, every level of it.”
Walker said she was concerned all the coverage of the latest incident would leave people with a negative perception of LCF.
“To be honest, I don’t even know if the employee lives in La Cañada,” she said. “It’s so completely not a reflection of our community. Our community wants to do everything we can to make sure we’re welcoming to everyone. I don’t know what we can do in town to address it, other than set a good example and be welcoming. I feel badly for all involved, but I want to make sure our town doesn’t get a bad rap.”
Faith Florez said she is hopeful the situation will prove enlightening for fellow LCF residents.
“I can only hope that incidents like these make us more aware of the prejudices that exist,” she said. “Though there are few Latinos in our community, we contribute so much to this town. We should be treated with respect and dignity.”

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