Burning Brew

Starbucks' PR machine tries to throw cold water onto inquiries into scalding incident

Early last month my father, a retired Methodist pastor in Red Bluff, three hours north of San Francisco, ordered a cup of coffee for himself at Starbucks. Before Dad picked up the coffee, the barista bumped it off the counter. It spilled on the front of Dad's pants, burning his crotch, then running down his legs and settling into his shoes.

Instead of running to get some ice, the barista grabbed a questionnaire.

"I don't remember all the questions, because I was thinking, 'What am I going to do with this burn?'" Dad recalls. "There was a man in the shop who was a male nurse. He came from where he was sitting and said, 'I've been watching this, and I'm a nurse, and I must say to you, you must not fill out this form. You must take yourself to the bathroom and make sure you get some water on your foot.'"

The nervous employee persisted. "He said, 'I'm almost done.' I said I had to go to the bathroom and cool my foot," Dad recalled.

The resulting burn was so bad that Dad had to go to the emergency room, get the welts on his foot treated, and take pain medication so strong he wasn't supposed to drive for three weeks. His hospital visit and medicine cost around $500.

"I thought they'd call and say, 'We heard you were injured, and we want to know what we can do in response to that, and these are our protocols, and we want to do what we can,'" Dad said.

Such a humane approach would apparently fall outside the guidelines of a secret corporate "program" Starbucks has in place to deal with scalding incidents.

In terms of PR, Starbucks is a superhero. The company has managed to craft a public image as a sort of environmentally and culturally sensitive Santa Claus.

But for all the good feelings associated with coffee and caffeine, the fact is that, when served at piping-hot temperatures, it can and routinely does cause severe injuries. This consumer safety issue has been pushed from the public's mind over the years in part by a popular coffee-based PR legend stemming from a 1992 case involving McDonald's. The legend says Americans don't take responsibility for their actions and corporations are victims of a justice system that is out of control.

While I'm clearly biased in favor of my dad here, I think it's in everybody's interest to know that the world's most ubiquitous coffee shop apparently approaches scalded customers as PR problems, rather than burned human beings.

After he was scalded, Dad waited several days without hearing from Starbucks. So he went back to the store.

The employee who'd read Dad the questionnaire conferred with a manager, and returned 20 minutes later with a telephone number and a "case number."

"I went home and called the number, and it was essentially a person who takes care of PR. They said the case would be referred to an assessment group, and they would determine what would be done, and that I would then hear from them. And I didn't hear from anybody," Dad recalled.

Two weeks after he was burned, Dad got a $50 gift card in the mail covered with feel-good expressions.

"But there's nothing about what we'll do for you if you happen to get burned," Dad said.

I asked Starbucks spokeswoman Tara Darrow if the company instructs employees to help people who are burned at their stores. In other words, should people feel safe patronizing Starbucks?

"Do we have a policy in place for responding? Yes, we do. We have a policy in place. I can't really give you details," Darrow said.

She said that scalding incidents do happen at Starbucks stores, but that it's a secret how often.

Can't you explain how you care for people who are scalded in your stores? I asked.

"No, because, first of all, we don't give specifics on the program," she said.

Did you just say "program?" I asked.

"Our scalding incident program," Darrow said. "They have guidelines for how to respond. I'm not sharing those, because they are part of an internal practice."

Customers might like to know what's going to happen if they're hurt.

"I'm sure they would," Darrow said. "But that's internal information."

She said the company sometimes pays for customers' medical bills. But under what circumstances Starbucks decides to leave scalded customers to fend for themselves is a company secret.

Darrow said that the company keeps first-aid kits on site, and that employees are trained to use them, but that the specifics of this training are also secret.

"I can't give you the specifics of step by step what our response is. That's internal information," she said.

To my father, the information is plain: The company knows it burns people, and it has put a low priority on taking care of them.

 
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