Last week, 23-year-old Matthew Webb died after getting shot in the neck at the Brooklyn McDonald’s where he worked, allegedly by the adult son of a customer enraged over cold French fries. Earlier this year, 19-year-old Burger King worker Krystal Bayron-Nieves was shot and killed at a Harlem Burger King, even as she complied with a robber’s demands. Yet neither of these fast-food giants is leaving the inner city. By contrast, Starbucks is closing locations across the country, including in Washington’s Union Station—not because any worker has been killed recently, thankfully, but because of rampant disorder. The different corporate reactions offer a parable for our times: poorer people stuck living and working in increasingly dangerous inner-city neighborhoods suffer far more than the affluent newcomers who can come and go at will. Unlike McDonald’s, Starbucks could afford to support progressive policies a few years back because it knew that leaving was an option if things got rough.
Contrary to intuition, New York’s fast-food restaurants, until recently, weren’t dangerous places to work—even as Burger King, McDonald’s, and their smaller competitors weren’t shy about locating stores in dangerous neighborhoods and keeping them open well into the night to serve their minority customer bases. According to Bureau of Labor Statics data, New York City had zero homicides of workers at “limited-service restaurants” between 2011 and 2019. Nationwide, such homicides ranged from 14 to 29 annually—low numbers, considering the scale of the business. (These numbers don’t include customer deaths.) Fast-food companies and franchisees have been able to keep risks low for workers in high-crime neighborhoods partly because they take precautions, including hiring guards, quickly securing cash, creating physical space between customers and workers, and restricting locked bathrooms to paying customers. The inside of an urban Burger King feels more like a half-competently run state mental institution where the patients have earned some walking-around privileges than a European “third place” café.
Now, though, fast-food restaurants in New York’s deteriorating residential minority neighborhoods and its troubled central business district are the scenes of increasingly dysfunctional and violent behavior. It’s not just the two murders this year. In March, a knife attacker grievously wounded a McDonald’s worker in Harlem; last September, a customer irate over sugar in his coffee stabbed and wounded an acquaintance of a security guard outside a midtown McDonald’s. On a good day, fast-food employees must contend with vagrants demanding free food, as well as smoking, drug use, and other supposedly minor ills.
But McDonald’s, Burger King, and the like are staying put. They need to: minority neighborhoods are a critical part of their business models. They can increase worker training and hire even more security, but they can’t afford to run away. They must stay where their customers are.
Contrast that outlook to that of Starbucks. It is a fast-food chain, of sorts, but its model is the near opposite—based not on cheap, standardized burgers and fries eaten fast, but on expensive, customized cups of coffee, often consumed at a leisurely pace by customers on site. A Starbucks location needs a stream of customers willing to pay $6 for a latte. It locates its stores not in the most perilous urban neighborhoods but exclusively in thriving central-city business districts and affluent or fast-gentrifying residential neighborhoods and suburbs.
But even some of those neighborhoods are deteriorating now. At the worst locations, Starbucks’s answer isn’t to harden its security measures but to flee. It recently announced the closure of 16 stores, including locations in Portland, Seattle, L.A., and Philadelphia, because of rampant disorder and crime. The store inside Washington D.C.’s Union Station that Starbucks will close has been beset by mentally ill vagrants, aggressive panhandlers, and drug users.
Starbucks will also allow store managers to use discretion in who can access the bathroom. That sounds like a rather obvious step, but it’s an abrupt turnaround from 2018, when the chain, in response to charges of racism over discretionary bathroom access, said that bathrooms would be open to everyone, customers or not. Back then, CEO Howard Schultz baroquely proclaimed that “we don’t want anyone at Starbucks to feel as if we are not giving access to you to the bathroom because you are ‘less than.’”
Schultz sounded like the innocent child who sweetly asks his mother why they can’t help the homeless man on the sidewalk by inviting him to live with their family. So simple, no? Starbucks workers could also afford to be anti-policing, pointedly refusing to service officers in multiple instances in recent years (the company apologized for these incidents).
Starbucks was so naïvely progressive back then in part because it could afford to be. Unlike McDonald’s and its customers and workers, it can follow its wealthy patrons out of marginal, once-gentrifying areas and crime-and disorder-plagued downtowns.
Starbucks’s decision is understandable. It’s a business, and part of that business is maintaining a certain image for both customers and workers. Past a certain tipping point of disorder, it loses its customer base in a particular area, anyway. A job at a Starbucks, too, is more prestigious than one at McDonald’s or Burger King, and Starbucks workers won’t accept the higher levels of disorder and danger endured by fast-food employees, many of whom are forced by family circumstances to take late-night shifts and work near their homes.
But the broader urban fast-food industry is stuck, just like its customers and employees are—and so these businesses are ever-more dependent on policing and the criminal-justice system to maintain public order. McDonald’s notably never insisted that its store workers or franchisees allow anyone and everyone to use the bathroom, and its customers and employees never fomented outrage over this supposedly discriminatory exclusion. Unlike fair-weather urbanists, inner-city mainstays always knew that such a policy would lead to bad things.
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