Two Starbucks on Opposite Sides of Portland Are Closing Due to Safety Concerns. We Spent 48 Hours at Them.

We encountered relieved baristas, skeptical customers, a lot of panhandling, and one man who offered us a beverage that wasn’t coffee.

Abdul was shocked to learn his neighborhood Starbucks would disappear within the month.

Abdul, who declined to give his last name, had stopped by the coffee giant’s Gateway store on Northeast Halsey Street for a Friday afternoon caffeine boost. That’s when he found out the location was one of 16 shops that the Seattle corporate office was closing—saying it had become too dangerous to operate.

He was dismayed. Sure, the place had hosted enough disturbances that police were regularly called and baristas expressed relief at working someplace else. But it still felt like home.

“I’ve been coming here for 15 years,” Abdul says. “I know everybody here. Some of the customers are like me: They know everybody.”

Starbucks announced July 11 that its safety closures will include two Portland stores. One is in downtown Portland, at the corner of Southwest 4th Avenue and Morrison Street. The other is a short walk from the Gateway Transit Center, in a shopping plaza in deep Northeast Portland.

The announcement said all 16 stores were closing for the same reasons: mental health crises, drug use and other safety issues at the Starbucks locations, though the company would not recount any specific incidents or the types of incidents that spurred the closures.

“You’re also seeing firsthand the challenges facing our communities—personal safety, racism, lack of access to healthcare, a growing mental health crisis, rising drug use, and more,” Starbucks executives wrote to employees in a July 11 public letter. “We read every incident report you file—it’s a lot.”

Starbucks declined to provide an incident log to WW from either store or to say how many calls were made to police from the two locations. A Portland police spokesman could not be reached for comment on how often cops respond to calls from the stores.

In Portland and other cities like Los Angeles (which is losing six Starbucks) and Seattle (losing five), the closures are the latest insult to the reputations of progressive cities. The problems cited by Starbucks are all too familiar: property destruction and crime, persistent homelessness and visible drug use, and a gutted downtown core after two years of an ongoing pandemic.

Jason Renaud, a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland, isn’t impressed by Starbucks’ rationale.

“Blaming people with [mental] troubles is asinine,” he says. “There may be people causing troubles, but blaming them for your business failure, that’s not real.” But Renaud acknowledges that such blame is increasingly common. “Pretty much everybody who sits by a door in the metro area is having this conversation.”

Starbucks’ decision as to which shops to close remains mysterious. Nine other Starbucks operate within a mile of the doomed downtown location; two are less than a couple of blocks away. A Starbucks kiosk operates inside the Fred Meyer across the parking lot from the Gateway store.

And the closures arrive as Starbucks faces a nationwide unionization drive. Neither the Gateway nor downtown location is unionized, but workers at the downtown store filed May 31 to unionize and are currently in a voting process scheduled to end Aug. 5, despite the fact the store will close July 27. (Less than half a mile away, at Southwest 5th Avenue and Oak Street, is a unionized store that will remain open.)

While only 1% of Starbucks locations nationwide are unionized, 19% of those being shut down are unionized shops, reports The ºWall Street Journal. “It’s pretty egregious union-busting,” says Quentin Kanta, a lead organizer of Starbucks Workers United.

Following Starbucks’ announcement, WW reporters spent two days at both locations. We encountered relieved baristas, skeptical customers, a lot of panhandling, and one man who offered us a beverage that wasn’t coffee.

DOWNTOWN

Thursday, 10 am: Suzi Chan, a regular at the store, says she thinks the closure is due to “mainly druggies walking around. It’s uncomfortable more than anything. I don’t think it’s unsafe as much as it is just uncomfortable.”

The store is now “grab and go” only, meaning it no longer offers a seating area or access to restrooms.

Another patron blames the vandalism: “That’s when it happens, when they have too many people and the protesting promotes more bad influence on people doing stuff like this—vandalism.”

Thursday, 3:35 pm: A young person comes in for coffee and mumbles quietly, then exits the store and rolls a shopping cart full of personal belongings away.

Thursday, 3:40 pm: A guy whizzes by on a scooter, carrying a stack of dirty scooters while he rides. The MAX line passes by, adding a rumbling, ambient noise.

Thursday, 3:50 pm: Barry, a young homeless guy, sits cross-legged outside the store and holds a sign that reads, “Any $$ U can spare, help thank u.” Barry’s girlfriend is seven months pregnant, and he’s unemployed but trying to get a job at a nearby hotel. “We’re a week away from housing, so you’d think we’d be at the top of the list,” he says.

Thursday, 4:30 pm: Puna, a Nike store security guard on the same block, says he’s felt less safe lately due to people doing drugs. “We often have to kick people out of here,” he says, pointing to alcoves near the store’s entryway.

Friday, 1:25 pm: A visibly inebriated man sits outside the store and talks unintelligibly to a truck driver. He holds a full bottle of wine. He offers it to a WW reporter as well as other passersby.

Friday, 1:46 pm: A man sits down across the street in the shade with a sign that reads, “Any $ helps.”

GATEWAY

Thursday, 10:30 am: The shopping plaza along Halsey seems to be still waking up. An older man outside tries to move one of the green Starbucks umbrellas to a sunny spot. A man in his 30s named Shy and an unnamed man in his 70s are doing a Bible study together.

Thursday, noon: A woman waiting for her drink in the lobby begins yelling unintelligibly, having what appears to be a mental health crisis. “Why do I have to go outside?” she yells at a security guard who approaches her. “Get the heck away from me.” After the guard escorts her outside, she collapses on the sidewalk. The guard picks her up by her armpits, and she walks into the parking lot.

Shortly thereafter, two Portland police officers show up, speak to employees, and drive off in the direction the woman was last headed. Police categorize it as a “priority disturbance” in a running incident log.

Employees at the Subway, which shares a door with the Starbucks, say such incidents happen frequently; last week, someone threw a chair through the window. A Starbucks employee nods affirmatively and makes a lips-sealed motion.

Thursday, 4:08 pm: A man who appears to be intoxicated asks for water and lemons and enters the restroom. His clothes are dirty and a yellow bungee cord keeps his pants from falling down. He staggers around the store for several minutes before leaving.

Starbucks employees have a small walkie-talkie at the register to communicate with security. But the baristas seem familiar with this man and don’t reach for the radio.

Thursday, 4:14 pm: A woman browsing the cup collection tells the barista she’s sad the store is closing; it’s the closest one to her home. “It definitely feels unsafe,” the barista replies. “We’ve had cops many times.”

The customer tells the barista she hopes that safety, not racism, is the reason the store is closing. There’s a large Ethiopian community in the area, she says. The barista replies that drugs are the overwhelming issue.

Thursday, 4:45 pm: A patron orders a frappuccino and asks about the closure. The baristas say they’re mostly moving to the Airport Way location. One says, “I’m excited for a new beginning.”

Friday, 10:54 am: A man in a wheelchair orders a drink from a barista, and she brings it to him outside. There’s a lively, bustling atmosphere both inside and outside the store as people chat with one another.

Friday, 12:20 pm: A man in ragged clothes stumbles around, gets water from the Starbucks, goes outside, and pours the water on his head. Another woman sits outside the Subway adjacent to the Starbucks with a suitcase.

Friday, 1 pm: The store closes early due to short staffing.

Correction: Due to an editor’s error, this story misidentified the Starbucks grocery kiosk in a Gateway shopping plaza as being located inside a Safeway. It is inside a Fred Meyer. WW regrets the error.

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