A circular Starbucks logo is against a wall
In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo, a Starbucks coffee company logo and information signs are seen at Palatine Metra train station in Palatine, Ill. Credit: Nam Y. Huh / AP

SEATTLE — Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz said Thursday the company might close its bathrooms to people who are not customers, reversing a 2018 policy.

Schultz cited safety as the reason for the reversal of the open-bathrooms policy, which came into being after an incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks that drew racial bias accusations.

“We have to harden our stores and provide safety for our people,” Schultz said Thursday during The New York Times’ Dealbook D.C. forum. The event invites leaders in business, media and politics to debate national policy issues.

The policy allowing anyone to use Starbucks bathrooms came about in response to outrage sparked by a video of an April 2018 incident in which two Black men arrived at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia, early for a business meeting with a colleague, and one of them was denied access to the bathroom. An employee called the police, claiming the men were refusing to order anything or leave the store.

The incident went viral online, and there were protests and calls for boycotting Starbucks over racist behavior.

Also on Thursday, Schultz said he does not see labor unions having a role in what he called a “transformation” of the company.

Schultz, who led the Seattle-based company from a boutique roaster into a coffee behemoth, returned as interim CEO in April amid widespread efforts by employees, including in Seattle, to unionize Starbucks stores. Weeks into his return, he said unions are a vocal minority seeking to divide the company and its workers.

In May, Starbucks announced it would spend $200 million on stores and workers, including higher hourly pay for employees who are not in a union. Schultz has said in the past Starbucks didn’t need unions as it was a pioneer in worker benefits and compensation.

He said he went back to the company because Starbucks has a “responsibility and obligation” to reinvent workers’ responsibility to the company. But unions have no place in transformation, he said. About 275 of Starbucks’ 9,000 stores have filed union petitions.

“We don’t believe that a third party should lead our people,” Schultz said.

Schultz also said the unionization is part of a larger generational divide.

“What’s happening in America is bigger than Starbucks,” Schultz said at the forum. “Starbucks unfortunately happens to be the proxy.”

Starbucks and the labor unions have filed a flurry of complaints against each other. Unions have filed 56 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair practices, while Starbucks has filed against the unions for what it calls harassment and bullying of workers. On Friday, Canada’s United Steelworkers union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Starbucks with the B.C. Labour Relations Board for not extending wage increases to unionized staff at a drive-thru store.

Starbucks said on Monday Schultz will leave his position as interim CEO in early 2023, after the end of the first quarter. The new CEO is expected to be announced in the fall.