Starbucks' San Francisco Seating Controversy, Explained

In January 2023, The San Francisco Standard published an article titled "Where have all the chairs gone?" addressing the rising number of San Francisco Starbucks locations that had removed all their seating options and switched to only serving coffee, Pink Drinks, and pastries to-go or to customers willing to stand at high-top tables and bars. The trend has continued, and SF Gate reported that the Castro Starbucks removed all of its seating in March, leaving customers without places to comfortably gather over cups of coffee.

For patrons and workers of the chair-less locations, the motivation for the coffee chain's decision to remove seating, close restrooms to the public, and cover outlets inside the stores is clear. 

Barista Kyle Trainer, who works at the Castro location, told SF Gate he believes the interior changes are a response to people experiencing homelessness and mental illness, saying Starbucks prefers to "remove the seating, close the bathroom and not deal with it." 

It's Trainer's opinion that Starbucks, rather than educating employees about managing potentially difficult patrons, is simply eliminating those problems, taking what Trainer calls, "the easy way out, regardless of how their workers or customers feel."

Starbucks insists it's not targeting the homeless

When The Standard reached out to Starbucks to ask why seating had been removed from several downtown locations, the company spokesperson said "local leaders" made the decision. They explained that during Covid-19, Starbucks gave more power to individual locations to make operating decisions about their stores, and that some locations have not reversed their seat-free policies since then. 

The Starbucks spokespeople told SF Gate that changes inside stores like covering outlets and removing seating aren't intended to target people experiencing homelessness or mental illness, but rather that all customers are welcome as long as they observe the company's Third Place Policy, which lays out prohibited behaviors like drug use, profanity, sleeping, smoking and "improper use of restrooms."

The regional manager who made the call to remove seating at the Starbucks Castro location declined several requests from SF Gate to comment about the matter, but shift supervisor Greg Zajac explains that during the Castro Starbucks remodel he learned that the location — which is one of the many Starbucks stores that has unionized in recent years — has been designated a "high incident location" by the company. 

Zajac says employees had no say in the decision to eliminate seats, but many are critical of the decision. He says, "We're fighting to get them back."