Thursday, July 17, 2008

Starbuck's closes its way into racial squabble w/ Chicago-area closing

I’ll give the people with Starbuck’s a little bit of credit – I don’t think the Seattle-based gourmet coffee retailer intended to provoke a race war when they picked which of their Chicago-area stores would be among the 600 nationwide to be closed.

But that is what they have managed to provoke with their choice.

WHEN STARBUCK’S RELEASED their list of coffee shops across the country that will be shuttered due to rising costs and declining profit margins, only one was a franchise located in Cook County.

Hence, only the people of Country Club Hills, a southern suburb, will lose their ability to purchase coffee in the various exotic blends and funky-sounding sizes that the retailer has used to create their corporate personality.

Now as it turns out, I have parents living in the towns both to the west (Tinley Park) and east (Homewood) of Country Club Hills. Both of those towns each have two Starbuck’s franchises in their boundaries.

So one can make a legitimate argument that the Starbuck’s store that was part of the strip mall at 167th Street and Crawford Avenue (in the city, we call it Pulaski Road) will not be missed. There are other Starbuck’s stores within a 10 to 15 minute drive of the soon-to-be-defunct location.

AND FOR THOSE who would argue that people without cars will not easily be able to get to the other locations, I’d argue that the strip mall in Country Club Hills was at a location distant from residential areas. No one from a nearby neighborhood with any sense was walking to the store in question.

So on paper, the corporate decision makes sense. But facts and figures on paper do not always take into account the raw emotions that exist. In this case, those emotions are racial, and they are behind the differing perceptions of the motivations behind the corporate action.

Country Club Hills (in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) is a town of 16,169 people, of whom 81.9 percent are African American.

The two surrounding towns that each will continue to have two Starbuck’s franchises are majority white. Homewood is 78.1 percent Anglo, although a black population was at 17.5 percent in 2000, and evidence exists to show it has grown in the past eight years.

BUT IT IS the other town that has the black activist in everybody upset. Tinley Park is a Chicago suburb of 93.2 percent white people (only 1.9 percent African American). And officials note that at a time when the chain is closing stores (and putting on hold plans to build stores in places such as the nearby suburb of Lansing), they went ahead and opened a second Tinley Park franchise – located directly across the street from the existing store.

These particular dueling Starbuck’s stores are about a five-minute drive from where my mother lives, and I can personally attest that Starbuck’s is not lying when they say that the existing location is in a strip mall with a set layout.

There was no way to amend the structure, particularly not if the goal was to have a drive-up window for people who need their gourmet coffee fix but are too lazy to get off their duffs and out of the car to make their purchase.

The new location on the east side of Harlem Avenue is a new structure, so the drive-up window was included in the design. Corporate officials won’t say so, but it would appear obvious that the old location will eventually be closed once its lease expires (which local newspapers report is in about two years).

SO FOR THE time being, Tinley Park, Ill., will go from being the home of the Bettenhausen family of auto racing fame to being the place where Starbuck’s fights a “civil war” of sorts for the loyalties of the area’s coffee drinkers.

Seriously, the SouthtownStar newspaper published a story Wednesday quoting locals who insist they will remain loyal to the old store, and don’t like the idea of having to walk across the street.

But to the people in neighboring Country Club Hills (the two towns are separated by Interstate 57, which is generally considered the demarcation point between the south and southwest suburbs), they see it as an issue of their predominantly black town losing a franchise so that their white neighbor can have two stores.

Even those black people willing to look at the issue somewhat rationally find it sad that their town’s economic demographics were considered unacceptable by corporate officials in Seattle to maintain the Starbuck’s store.

DOES THIS SOUND ridiculous?

To some, they will want to complain that Country Club Hills officials are guilty of “playing the race card” in being critical of Starbuck’s.

But I see the whole incident (which got significant amounts of airtime in a story broadcast Wednesday by ABC-owned WLS-TV) as more evidence of the way black and white people can perceive the same circumstances so differently.

In a way, it is no different than the poll commissioned by the New York Times, which on Wednesday reported on the differing perceptions of the presidential campaign of Democrat Barack Obama – based on the race of the person being questioned.

WHEN ASKED, “WHO has a better chance of getting ahead in today’s society?,” 53 percent of white people questioned said they think the two races are equal, with 35 percent saying white people have a better chance of succeeding in our society.

When it came to black people, 64 percent think white people have better chances of success, with only 30 percent thinking the two races have equal chances.

There also was the question of whether race relations in this country were “generally good or bad?” Fifty-nine percent of black people picked “bad” while 55 percent of white people picked “good.”

As much as I’d like to say these statistics sadden me, I have to admit they do not surprise me. I still remember how naïve I thought it was when the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy story last November entitled "Whites' Great Hope?" about the Obama presidential campaign having the potential to be one that forevermore puts aside race as an issue.

HOW CAN WE be expected to put aside race when it comes to something significant like a presidential election?

We’re in a situation in this country where the closing of a coffee shop (particularly one as generic as a Starbuck’s franchise) can be cause for a racial debate. They might not be as blatantly offensive as they were a half century ago, but we’re nowhere near resolving the racial tensions of this country.


EDITOR’S NOTES: It lasted for barely over one year, but the Starbuck’s franchise in the predominantly African-American suburb of Country Club Hills ( is history.

Tinley Park’s “War of the Starbuck’s” is a case (,071608starbucks.article) of misplaced consumer loyalty.

We the people of this country can’t even agree on whether racial overtones exist with the closing of a coffee franchise. Why should we be expected to agree on the racial ( perceptions involved in the presidential campaign?


Alan said...

Greg, can you shoot me an email? Unless you're blogging from Nigeria where you've got a sick nephew (and desperately need my financial assistance), I think someone's gotten into your gmail account.

Alan H.

Anonymous said...

I'm particularly aware of the retail disparity between the south suburbs and much of the rest of the Chicago area. I grew up in Glenwood and Homewood where the choices of retailers and restaurants paled in comparison with, say, Orland Park or Schaumburg, even though the median household income of those towns would have suggested that they ought to have been retail magnets (and certainly even more so when you add in affluent Flossmoor and Olympia Fields next door). Now, I'm living in Naperville, which is the complete opposite end of the spectrum in terms of retail and restaurants. Every major retailer fights for space in that town and you literally can't walk anywhere without running into multiple Starbucks - downtown Naperville has three stores within a block of each other, essentially every strip mall in town has one, and most Dominick's, Jewel, and Target stores in Naperville have a Starbucks cafe in them to boot.

I'm trained in law and finance while being pretty close to a pure libertarian in my political views, so I completely understand and support economic decisions by organizations to open locations that maximize their earning potential - overall, society benefits from profitable companies because jobs don't exist without them. That being said, there's a nagging perception about the south suburbs in general that they can't support upper middle class retailers and restaurants even though the income statistics would suggest otherwise. I can certainly see how the residents of Country Club Hills and the other suburbs located east of I-57 can interpret this to be some type of racial tint to these business decisions. I don't think that Starbucks or any other Fortune 500 companies are actually engaging in any type of overt racial discrimination, but they do probably provide a lot less leeway for locations that are outside of their "core" city and suburban markets (i.e. areas that instantly are perceived - which is the key word as opposed to "actual" - as homes to the well-to-do or yuppies).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good reporting job with exceptional reasoning and a conclusion that hits too close to home.