Starbucks Scales Back in Los Angeles

This week, six Starbucks locations in Los Angeles will close forever, because of what the company calls “a high volume of challenging incidents.” “It’s a whole thing every day,” one barista said. He went on, “People get violent with us. People steal stuff. It’s very aggressive.”

“They spit on us,” another said. A common concern among baristas is having drinks thrown at them.

“Better iced tea than hot tea—look on the bright side,” Ray Indolos, who spends several days each week sitting and drawing in various Starbucks around Los Angeles, said. “I’m super bummed out. Some of my favorite Starbucks are the ones closing.” At the location in the Little Tokyo section of downtown, Indolos sat at a table with two fountain pens, ink brushes, and a sketch pad spread out in front of him. “I do my art work. I thrive on the whole vibe here, the energy of people,” he said.

He looked around the shop. “My first assessment is: Is this guy gonna stab me? And, if not, more power to him. It only takes one glance.” He gestured toward a man dancing alone. “God bless him, whatever he’s going through,” he said. “He doesn’t bother me.”

Indolos started hanging out at Starbucks twenty-two years ago. “I’m from Hollywood,” he said. “I hitched my horse here.” His regular order is an iced Americano with chocolate foam. He used to work in the animation industry, and now works in the office of a mental-health facility. He went on, “I mean, it’s not like a hotbed for the Mafia or anything like that. It’s not so much crime as disturbance.”

“Starbucks is a window into America,” Howard Schultz, the Starbucks C.E.O., said last month, in remarks to his staff. “We are facing things which the stores were not built for.” At the branch on Hollywood and Western, two monitors showed customers live video of themselves: a woman in leopard-print leggings ordering at the register, another woman going through the garbage and fishing out a half-smoked cigarette. At a Little Tokyo location, an employee was jabbed by a used hypodermic needle while emptying the trash.

Starbucks has plans to offer de-escalation training at those locations which will remain open. Indolos approves: “You’re making coffee, and you’re face to face with someone who’s totally out of it, and you will have some tools you can rely on,” he said. Baristas, he added, “should all have jujitsu and karate on their résumés.”

“This one’s not that different from Hollywood and Highland, where people are coming in half naked, yelling at the top of their voice,” he said. “I feel cool about it.”

And now? “I guess I’ll have to drink coffee on the street.” Some people speculate that the closures are a response to baristas’ efforts to unionize. A Starbucks representative disputed this: “Look, there are plenty of other Starbucks in Los Angeles.”

Starbucks has, over the years, taken various measures to deter people from lingering, such as covering electric outlets and encouraging the use of its mobile app. Indolos doesn’t see the point of a drive-through Starbucks. He usually spends two or three hours at the coffee shop. “As an artist, I’m observing people here. I want to know what their deal is,” he said. “Some people are standing in this different way—they don’t have this look of ‘I gotta go pick my kids up.’ ”

“Gone are the days of Starbucks being open until 2 A.M.,” he went on. “That’s the stuff of legends. Now it’s usually 6 P.M. or 8 P.M., for safety. Total killjoy.”

Outside the Hollywood and Vine Starbucks, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, celebrity-bus-tour workers stood around on break. Next to Spike Jonze’s star, an unhoused man sat on a blanket with a Starbucks iced tea. A barista said, “People come in here, they make a lot of noise, they bang on the walls, they yell at us. People come in with their hands in their pants. There was a fight outside. A guy was completely covered in blood. A guy had an iPad, and he was taking a picture of the behinds of the two girls I was taking an order from. I was, like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Give me a water.’ I said, ‘Get in line, and I’ll give you a water.’ People lock themselves in the bathroom. Once it gets dark, we lock the doors, we draw the shades, and we just use the window. We got the security guards, and it didn’t really help.” She went on, “People visit Hollywood and they say, ‘This is not what I expected.’ ” ♦

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