‘It’s at the heart of who we are:’ Starbucks drive-thrus continue to serve

Something happened the morning after Starbucks announced it would pay partners for the next 30 days whether they go to work or not as it closed its cafés and moved to drive-thru and delivery only. Many, many of them still went to work. 

They showed up before dawn to help open their drive-thrus. They showed up to fill in at short-staffed neighboring stores. They showed up in the face of a collective global uncertainty they have not experienced in their lifetimes.

“If you are looking for signs of hope, look no further than Starbucks partners,” said Kevin Johnson, Starbucks chief executive officer. “I am proud of how Starbucks partners around the world are rising to the occasion and demonstrating our resilience and our commitment to the communities we serve.”

Amid the ever-shifting global COVID-19 crisis, Starbucks has moved to an adapted drive-thru and delivery only service model for at least two weeks, closing its cafés in the U.S. and Canada (with the exception of some cafés in or around hospitals and health care centers). On Friday, the company committed to paying its retail workers in the U.S. and Canada for the next 30 days, even if their store is closed or they are worried about or uncomfortable going to work.

And then, on Saturday morning, Starbucks drive-thru stores opened for business. In many ways, it was business as usual – Starbucks partners hustling to make beverages and food and chatting with customers. In other ways, it was business as unusual as the world works to navigate this global health crisis. 

In Kentwood, Mich., Curtis Monaghan waited nervously in his car Saturday morning to see if the partners scheduled to open the store with him would show up, and was delighted when both of their cars pulled into the parking lot. Throughout the day, the store manager had a chance to speak with each member of his team. A few chose to stay home, some chose to work, but all the conversations felt good and honest, he said.

“Inspiration was the last thing I anticipated feeling walking into my store at 5:30 a.m. to open,” Curtis said. “I was truly inspired at how my team held together.” 

Cameron Melcher, a partner since 2008 and two-year store manager, said it was never a question for him what he wanted to do.

“I think it goes back to being an embodiment of the company we say we want to work for and can be proud of,” Cameron said. “I’m thankful to have a store still functioning and still serving our community, a majority of which are now hospital workers and first responders. I know what we represent to people in our area, especially right now, and I didn’t want to see that falter.”

He took over managing a new store in Manassas, Va., a little over a week ago.

“It’s a high-volume, 24-hour, drive-thru store. And it’s next to a Costco,” Cameron said. “So, yeah, it’s been one heck of a week.”

Though he was certain about his own personal decision to keep going to work, he showed up Saturday morning unsure what others on his new team would choose to do.

“I don’t know these partners yet, and they don’t know me. But I do know they have been given this amazing opportunity to take some leave – to take some time to unwind and destress from this crisis,” Cameron said. “I showed up to work this morning with donuts, not sure what to expect, to find everyone was there. Not a single one has taken the time off, other than a couple who are self-quarantining to be safe.”

The store was incredibly busy Saturday – he said the drive-thru line wrapped around the building twice. Still, Cameron said customers expressed gratitude it was open, even with extra wait time. 

Cameron's email sign-off is a Starbucks saying quoted many times by Howard Schultz, “'We are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee,’” he said. “With all the quarantines and social distancing, humanity is feeling some serious disconnect right now. I think it’s important that we can be there for our community and maybe even look at our role a little differently – as essential personnel – because of what we are doing and who we are serving. I guess I can speak for my new team and say they do as well, considering they were all there. Today, we changed things up.”

Tomi Herl is managing two Starbucks stores in Euless, Texas, this week – her own, and another for a store manager who is in self-quarantine. She arrived at the second store Saturday morning to find it was a little short-staffed, as more than half of its partners chose to stay home. Tomi reached out to some fellow managers, and she was soon joined by other partners from the area who volunteered to work with her. The store is next to an urgent care facility, and Tomi said many of the customers in the drive-thru Saturday were health care providers. 

“A lot of them said, ‘You have no idea how much we need this,’” she said. “So much of what I heard from our customers was to thank us for being open.”

The store is also next to a popular fitness trail, and the sun was out Saturday, and Tomi said people on foot and on bicycles also approached the drive-thru menu asking if they could order without a car. (She told them for safety reasons, unfortunately not.)

“Oh my gosh,” Tomi said, laughing. “Of all the scenarios I imagined for today, people out walking their dogs trying to use a drive-thru wasn’t one of them.”

This week, she has counseled plenty of partners at both stores who are uncertain and afraid, including plenty who decided to stay home.

“I’m not going to lie, there are several days I’ve been overwhelmed with emotion,” Tomi said. “I was talking to one partner who was worried about taking the 30 days now. ‘What if I get sick after that?’ she said. I realized, after it took me quite a while to go through all the different benefits and options he has available to him, how much we all have available to us. It’s so comforting. I’m so grateful.”

Tomi said it’s only natural to experience panic and frustration, especially given the way the global and local response to COVID-19 is changing so frequently, but she keeps going back to a mantra. 

“Give grace, and show love,” she said. “Oh, and gratitude. We will be OK. We will get through this.”

On Friday evening, Benjamin Knowles – a nearly five-year Starbucks partner and one-year manager at a store in Manchester, Tenn. – spoke to every one of his team members in person or by phone to explain the closing cafés and the options available to them. In the end, most of his team members decided to stay home. His store has a drive-thru, but because it is in a rural area – the closest Starbucks that could provide backup team members is nearly an hour away in every direction – Benjamin made the difficult decision to close the doors for two weeks. 

“It was, in a very weird way, the most physically and mentally exhausting but also the most rewarding day in my four years at Starbucks,” he said. “Everyone was sad, but everyone pitched in to help close up, and we were also able to donate a lot of our food to local shelters and nursing homes.”

Then, in an effort to lift spirits as his team worked their way through the closing checklist, Benjamin did something his partners have been begging him to do for months – he joined the popular video app TikTok (and debuted in a big way with an enthusiastic lip sync of “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2 using a mop as a microphone).

“I just channeled my inner Elsa and went really hard,” he said, laughing. 

“I have this thing I tell my partners and myself a lot – we can only control what’s in our control. For the things in our control, we have the responsibility to handle ourselves well and to make and execute the best plans we can. For the things that are out of our control, we can only control how we respond,” Benjamin said. “That’s the rock I keep going back to, especially this past week.”

Store manager Leah Lavasseur said she will miss the café while it is closed, but the drive-thru still offers a lot of chances to safely connect with people. Years ago, an experience as a customer in a Starbucks drive-thru is what led her to where she is now.

“I realized after I ordered, but before I got to the window, that I’d forgotten my wallet. I was like, ‘No, no, no!’ I’ll never forget – it was a vente nonfat latte and a pumpkin scone,” Leah said. “I told them at the window what happened, and that I’d have to run home and come back later, and they said, ‘Sounds like you’re having a rough day. Don’t worry about it. Your order is all ready to go – hope your day gets better.’ I left feeling wonderful and thinking, ‘Wow, I want to work there.’” 

Leah has now been a Starbucks partner for 12 years and a store manager for five, most recently at a store in Glendale, Ariz. This week has been one of her toughest on the job, but also one of her most meaningful.

She recently transferred to Arizona from Minnesota, where everyone in the area knew her well. She’s been in her new store for a few months and is still getting to know her team, so when she reached out to them Friday, she was unsure how they’d react to the news that their store’s drive-thru would remain open, and that Starbucks would pay them for the next 30 days whether they come to work or not. Then came the texts and phone calls. 

“Hey, just want you to know I’m here for you.”

“As long as I can wear gloves in the drive-thru, I’m good.”

“I’m in.”

“I’d do anything for you.”

“I’m not a crier. I’ve never cried at work. But I’ve been crying all day today,” Leah said. “When you share your heart with people, and do what you can for them, and then get responses like that? What on earth? How awesome is that, that we’ve crossed that threshold together.”

Leah and her partners had the opportunity to chat briefly with many customers as they passed their orders out the window, and conversations frequently turned to lines at the grocery stores and supply shortages, including toilet paper. A highlight was when a couple who had been through the drive-thru earlier in the day returned to order more – and also to deliver a bag with a few rolls of toilet paper to the barista working the window. Everyone laughed, and Leah snapped a photo.

“It’s so easy, day to day, to kind of be bogged down with the negative stuff and frustration and the crabby attitudes and I get it. It’s scary and it’s hard. But people can have a complete 180 by being shown care. Genuine care,” she said. “When I get frustrated with people and hard situations and feeling like I don’t want to love a person, I remind myself of Mr. Rogers. I have loved Fred Rogers since I was a small child, and some things I’ve taken from him are one, to be calm. Panicking doesn’t help any situation. And two, that people matter. All of this is worth it if I make sure my partners know and my customers know they matter to me and they matter to Starbucks. It’s the heart of who we are.”