Starbucks' new open-door bathroom policy signals a dramatic shift in American middle-class values

StarbucksStarbucks’ identity is shifting.

Starbucks’ new open-door policy reveals a shift in American middle-class values – and a transformation for the coffee giant.

The coffee chain recently announced that all people could visit and use the bathrooms at the chain’s locations, even if they hadn’t made any purchases. The new policy comes after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks when one had tried to use the bathroom without first making a purchase.

Starbucks has long been a cultural icon in the United States. For a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s, it was even a status symbol, signalling a certain cosmopolitan coffee knowledge when much of the country didn’t know how to pronounce “latt√©.”

While Starbucks’ reputation evolved from Euro chic to basic, it has continued to maintain a certain cultural cachet. Starbucks can charge more for coffee than McDonald’s because of its more upscale reputation and community-centric mission.

However, when two black men were arrested at a Starbucks, both the chain’s reputation and its perceived mission took a major blow.

Starbucks’ response speaks to the often-competing desires of the American middle class. The coffee chain is founded on the idea of being somewhat elite, where regulars know how to order and are introduced to the latest coffee trends. Most Americans can’t afford a BMW, but buying a cup of coffee at Starbuck similarly signals a certain level of taste and a willingness to spend a few extra dollars. Starbucks isn’t just another fast-food chain – it is something more.

However, for Starbucks to be something more, it needs to be both inviting and exclusive. Higher prices and social norms once allowed Starbucks to regulate who felt comfortable spending time at the chain. However, these practices have also often excluded people who aren’t white as well as individuals who appear to have less money to spend.

Losing the exclusivity factor

StarbucksShutterstock/Savvapanf Photo

As the arrest footage went viral, Starbucks executives and their customers were forced to choose between siding with aggressive inclusivity or racist exclusivity.

Starbucks picked inclusivity.

The open-door policy speaks to competing ideals of middle-class America. Equal access is an avowed American value, even though many people want to simultaneously establish themselves as better – trendier, more in-the-know, “woker” – than others.

In years past, Starbucks has clung to its exclusive status in some ways.

While the chain has pushed progressive policies, it also typically opens stores in more affluent areas that are predominantly white. Prior to the new policy, stores have attempted to dissuade homeless individuals from lingering, taking actions like closing bathrooms to all people in areas with significant homeless populations. Even Starbucks’ progressive policies can be seen as a way for the company to elevate itself to be more than just another chain.

By putting the new bathroom policy in ink, Starbucks has made a morally sound choice for a company that wants to be a welcoming space. But, it also will likely sacrifice parts of what made the chain a status symbol.

“Do you really want to deal with a mass of homeless people or whoever is in there – could be drug-addicted, you don’t know – when you’re there with your kids?” Megyn Kelly said while discussing Starbucks’ new policy on her NBC show.

While many criticised Kelly for her comments, the new bathroom policy does present practical issues when it comes to Starbucks’ reputation. For a chain that has branded itself as being more upscale than other fast-food chains, encouraging people who will not pay for food or drinks to visit has the potential to completely change the in-store experience.

Starbucks is betting that millions of middle-class Americans across the country now value inclusivity and fighting bias more than they want to be able to use a coffee chain as an elite status-signifier.

Starbucks’ best-case scenario is that it becomes a new type of status symbol with the policy. The open-door policy, combined with chairman Howard Schultz’s involvement in social issues, could help make the coffee chain a progressive icon. Inclusivity is important to many Americans, even if they also desire superiority.

However, the days of Starbucks being seen as an achieveable luxury or status symbol are over. For better or worse, Starbucks was forced to pick which middle-class American value it wanted to make official – and it picked opening its doors.

Read more on Starbucks’ new policies:

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.