Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
Starbucks is about coffee. It's about half-eaten croissants. It sits at that odd intersection of where to grab a cup o' joe - and where to meet up with Joe.
But there's a third street that crosses this same intersection: Starbucks is widely-viewed as a company with a social conscience and a progressive mindset. Its employees got decent benefits before most. Its environmental record is better than most. And its record of charitable giving is stellar.
So when guns, of all things, kidnapped the conversation earlier this summer - after gun advocacy groups used the Starbucks store in still-healing Newtown, Conn., as a podium for packing heat - Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz suddenly found himself in the middle of a no-win shootout.
His announcement Wednesday that guns are now a no-no at Starbucks stores is long overdue. The Starbucks siren must be feeling just a tad more comfortable today. More importantly, so will most Starbucks customers. Although Schultz, in an interview with USA TODAY, declined to state exactly how many Starbucks customers have asked him in recent months to get guns out of Starbucks cafes, he did note, "It got my attention."
Schultz didn't out-and-out "ban" guns from Starbucks 12,000-plus U.S. stores. That, after all, would require some sort of enforcement. And he's unwilling to put Starbucks store managers or employees in the uncomfortable position of asking someone packing heat in their hip pocket to take their Venti latte elsewhere.
No, there won't be any NO GUNS signs next to the NO SMOKING signs in Starbucks. In fact, if a customer waltzes in with a gun, in states where guns are permitted, they will still be served with a smile - no questions asked, says Schultz.
But this isn't really just about guns. it's about Starbucks as a soapbox. When Starbucks talks, people listen. Some folks love it. Some folks love to hate it. The 42-year-old company and its 60-year-old CEO are widely-linked with supporting socially progressive causes. Starbucks is just another coffee shop like Apple is just another technology company. Its actions - or inactions - matter.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Schultz owns up to that. "Starbucks has become a part of the culture of the country," he says. "There's an emotional attachment to Starbucks, so we're treated differently."
Indeed. And now, it's responding differently.
For years, Starbucks tried to avoid the whole gun issue by essentially saying that it has no opinion and that it's up to lawmakers to settle the issue. While Schultz still insists that Starbucks isn't taking sides now by asking customers to keep their guns at home, the action is sure to be interpreted by the gun lobby as line in the sand.
As Schultz must know, that sand is about to feel very, very shaky. His coffee empire now finds itself in the bulls eye of the gun debate. And that won't likely be settled over a cappuccino.