The Starbucks on First and Los Angeles streets. (NBC Los Angeles)

RAFU STAFF REPORT

The Seattle-based Starbucks Corporation has announced plans to close two of its three locations in Little Tokyo, citing safety concerns.

The closures are among six in Southern California and 16 across the U.S.

Starbucks stores at First and Los Angeles streets inside the DoubleTree Hotel and at Second and San Pedro streets in the Wakaba Apartments building will be closing as of July 31, according to a letter sent to employees on July 11 from company Vice Presidents Debbie Stroud and Denise Nelson. 

The Starbucks at 138 S. Central Ave. (near Second Street), which in 2001 became Little Tokyo’s first Starbucks, will remain open. Last May, employees voted to unionize at that location, becoming the first to do so in California. A Starbucks spokesperson said unionization did not factor into the decision to continue to operate there.

“We have yet to fully understand the impacts of these planned closures. What, if anything, could have been done to improve safety for their employees and customers and possibly prevent the closures?” said David Ikegami, president of the Little Tokyo Business Association (LTBA).

“We need our government agencies, Starbucks Corporation, and Little Tokyo merchants to come together to address safety concerns proactively toward finding solutions.”

The corporation cited crime in the neighborhood as a factor in the decision to close the Little Tokyo locations.

For the Second and San Pedro location, the incidents were often serious enough to require law enforcement intervention. In one instance, an employee was accidentally stabbed by a used hypodermic needle while emptying the trash. On a different day, an unhoused person was found in the restroom, suffering from a heroin overdose. 

Observers report that, since the Starbucks restrooms are the only public toilet facilities available to non-customers, the line for the bathroom is often longer than the line for coffee.

A Starbucks spokesperson told Rafu Shimpo, “The company has been having conversations with our partners (staff) for several months, including L.A., especially since Howard Schultz returned as CEO. Those partners expressed that they were challenged in their ability to effectively provide that welcoming experience that folks have come to expect from Starbucks, both from partners and for customers.”

Steps, according to the spokesperson, include everything from limiting store hours to increasing staffing, to changing store layouts to improve line-of-sight visibility. Hours of training, including safety training, de-escalation, and mental health first-aid will be increased for new partners as well as existing partners.

“We reiterated (on Monday) to local leaders and store managers at the Second and San Pedro Street location, that (they) have the discretion to reduce use of the restrooms to customers only,” the spokesperson added.

“In L.A., we also have the outreach worker program that’s conducted in partnership with PATH, a local nonprofit that partners with public institutions, businesses, grassroots group to address health challenges, particularly those affecting the unhoused.”

All three locations in Little Tokyo have been receiving services from PATH.

Other locations in Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica will be shuttered along with stores in Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Employees at the affected stores will be able to transfer to other locations.

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