Daniel Lui says the Starbucks employee told him,
Daniel Lui says the Starbucks employee told him, "Just remember that, you won't get our training in China, and that's something we'll never give to you." Courtesy Daniel Lui

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Remember the whole Starbucks #RaceTogether thing?

Well, just a few days after the company canceled the campaign (amid a flurry of criticism that they deny had anything to do with the decision), an Asian American man says a Starbucks corporate employee at Capitol Hill's Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room accused him and his friend of trying to copy company secrets for use in China. The surreal story feels like a fitting epilogue to the ill-fated #RaceTogether campaign.

In a one-star Yelp review posted on March 26, Sunnyvale, California, resident Daniel Lui says he was visiting Starbucks's new Reserve Roastery with a friend on the morning of March 11. Lui said they were impressed by what they saw and tasted but, in his words, "Funny how a little racism can add an acrid taste to it all."

According to Lui, there was a meeting of Starbucks corporate employees at the roastery. When the meeting let out, one of the corporate employees began leading a group of customers on an impromptu tour. At one point, Lui and his friend (who are both Asian American) joined the discussion. That's when the employee somehow decided that Lui and his friend worked in the coffee industry in China.

...the man stopped and looked at us. "You're part of the business, right? The coffee business, right?"

My friend and I looked at each other confused. Before we could answer him, he cut us short and said, "Look- you are completely free to copy all of the stuff we have here and the equipment we have in China. We're an open book. If you want to steal our stuff for your store in China, go ahead, we're fine with that."

He smiled, hoping to get a laugh from us... not that funny (me and my friend are both Asian... but definitely not in the coffee business).

We decided to let it slide, so gave him a short chuckle and ignored him.

That was bad enough. We could have just shrugged it off- i've met tons of ignorant people before. BUT THEN, 15 minutes later, he creeps up behind both of us and put his hands on our shoulders (hella creepy). He then proceeded to paternalistically lecture us (who he thought were chinese spies trying to steal secrets... I guess we just smack of yellow peril), "Look. You can take all of our equipment. You can copy everything we have. You can even steal our beans and our suppliers. But let me tell you what you CAN'T get if you copy us in China- our training. Just remember that, you won't get our training in China, and that's something we'll never give to you."

Lui said he felt "talked down to" and "degraded," and his story gained a wider audience when it was picked up by the blog Angry Asian Man. On March 30, Starbucks replied directly to Lui's Yelp review, stating that they were following up with him "in order to better understand the interaction, clarify any misunderstandings, and apologize for any inappropriate conduct."

In a phone interview, Lui told me that "the [Starbucks] customer service rep apologized. I felt honored that they followed up on it. They wanted to get more of a description of the guy who did it and said they’d be fully investigating who that person is. They also said that they’d be putting some sort of gift in my Starbucks Gold account."

When asked for comment, a Starbucks spokesperson had this to say: "We have followed up with the customer and spoke with him directly in order to better understand his perspective on the interaction. These conversations have been, and will continue to be, held privately."

But rather than keep things private, Lui wants to have a real dialogue with Starbucks and, potentially, the employee. "I have the right to be someone who rages against a corporation," he said, "but I want to see real change from Starbucks, because they’re the 'big man' [in the coffee industry]. I really want to see them follow through in terms of the integrity of their corporate leadership."

The RaceTogether campaign's strategy of having baristas bear the responsibility of initiating and holding complex and potentially heated conversations about race with customers was a bad one, highlighting corporate higher-ups' distance from and cluelessness about everyday race relations. Just one day after the company announced the RaceTogether campaign, Corey DuBrowa, Starbucks’s senior vice president of communications, deleted his Twitter account after people began asking him direct questions about the campaign. Through RaceTogether, Starbucks aimed to "re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society," while overlooking the fact that, within their own executive structure, only three of their 19 executives are people of color.

"I work a lot with issues of diversity and race," said Lui, who works for a Christian organization called Intervarsity Fellowship to build communities of faith at community colleges in the Bay Area. "The thing that I really want to see is Starbucks engaging in the real issues of diversity, not just a marketing campaign. That's the difficult part—not just changing your image, but the way you practice and think."

"Reconcilation and getting to real diversity is a messy process," said Lui. "If you really want to pursue it, you have to embrace the mess, and that’s something that people get really scared of."

The long conversation, suggests Lui, could begin "over a nice cup of coffee."