Heroic or foolhardy? Starbucks manager defies workplace dangers

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are saddened, stunned by the terrible news surrounding a shooting of four police officers this weekend at a coffee shop in Parkland, Wash. All four died, leaving a total of nine children and three spouses behind. With the horrifying events outside of Tacoma as a backdrop, the heroic, if possibly misguided, efforts of a Starbucks (SBUX) manager later Sunday night in Kansas City, Mo. seem a welcome contrast.

While the manager of the Starbucks at 4140 Main St. was getting ready to close the store and counting the money in the back office, reports the Kansas City Star, a would-be robber with a gun walked into the store and told the manager to get in the freezer. Instead of complying, he took a box cutter out of his pocket and began a scuffle with the suspect that ended with the coffee shop manager disarming the man, cutting him, then shoving him out the door. Victory! Right?

Well, perhaps not, according to StarbucksGossip, where it's noted that Starbucks company policy is to hand over the money in an attempted robbery. Commenters jumped in, saying the manager could have been afraid he'd be left in the walk in freezer to die. No one mentioned it, but fear of being locked in small spaces is likely a far more motivating factor than protecting a corporation's money.

While Starbucks wouldn't discuss cash-handling policies in order to protect the "safety of our partners and customers," partners commenting on StarbucksGossip said his actions were consistent with company policy. As to whether he'd acted against policy in fighting back, a Starbucks spokesperson wouldn't discuss that either, but gave this statement: "We trust that our store partners will act appropriately under the circumstances. We are working in full cooperation with the local authorities to provide any information that will help in their investigation of this incident."

Indeed, while not quite rising to the level of the modern bank heist, coffee shops are frequent targets for robbers these days. Leanly staffed in evening hours and often open long after the businesses around them, they're ripe for the sorts of would-be criminals who choose their targets based on convenience, ease, and little likelihood of armed security guards. Customers are more likely to pay with cash than in many other retail businesses. And who would ever risk his life to save a days' revenues from lattes and scones? Well, beside that guy in KC.

A law student in Grand Rapids, Mich. did, after a man brandishing a rifle entered the Bitter End Coffee House, where students and other patrons were wifi-ing into the wee hours. The gunman ordered customers to hand over their laptops and other valuables. A Cooley Law School student, planning to become a criminal defense attorney, deprived the world of one more crime, slamming the robber against a wall and taking away his gun.

One coffee shop robber even has an international flair; police in Burlington, Vt. have arrested a man charged with robbing a series of Tim Horton's coffee shops in the area; Niagara Falls, Ontario police believe he's also responsible for several Canadian Tim Horton's holdups. Though these did not seem to include a gun, in most of the situations, the employees handed over the money, and the same is true for several other coffee shop holdups around the country in November.

Tim Horton's has yet to return my call inquiring whether it trains its employees to avoid conflict in burglaries; that seems likely given the string of weapon-less holdups.

These incidents and the policies behind them, however, illuminate what is infrequently identified as a characteristic of the modern coffee-shop culture: Especially in those shops located in business districts, it's a surprisingly dangerous job. One commenter on StarbucksGossip mentioned a holdup in his store in the financial district of Vancouver, B.C., at 7 p.m. In dark, quiet inner urban neighborhoods, when a Starbucks, Tim Horton's or a Caribou Coffee is the only thing open for blocks, these businesses are far less protected than other late-night businesses (gas stations, convenience stores), and they -- and their employees -- are vulnerable.

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