A sure sign of a changing neighborhood is the arrival of a Starbucks.
The Seattle-based coffee giant, a bellwether of gentrification in cities, has cultivated a reputation for selling $4 lattes to the bourgeoisie, a luxury not worth the money to the proletariat class.
To be more socially responsible, Starbucks said Thursday it is expanding its effort to put more coffee shops -- and create more jobs -- in poor neighborhoods.
Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who studies economic development, said he has visited Starbucks’ community stores in Chicago and Baltimore, and they seemed to be providing a service -- and, more importantly, jobs -- that those lower-income neighborhoods wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I can’t think either of a retailer, especially one that has more of a discretionary, higher-end purchase, being willing to push into neighborhoods and markets that have less purchasing power,” Theodos said. “Starbucks usually appears when a neighborhood has the purchasing power to support it.”
He also applauded Starbucks’ plan to add community rooms in the stores, since low-income neighborhoods often don’t have many places to gather.
But he thinks the impact will be limited. One Starbucks store won’t cause a neighborhood to gentrify, he said.
Starbucks plans to open or remodel 85 stores in rural and urban communities across the U.S. by 2025.
Each store will hire local staff, including construction crews and artists, and will have community event spaces. The company also will work with local United Way chapters to develop programs at each shop, such as youth job training classes and mentoring.
The effort will bring the number of “community stores” Starbucks has opened since it announced the program in 2015 to 100.
Starbucks said most of the 85 shops will be new, while some will be existing stores that have been remodeled. The company will consider various factors, including youth unemployment rates and low household income, in deciding where to build them, and will give priority to economically distressed areas.
“All of these programs are with the intent of being purposeful and profitable,” said John Kelly, Starbucks executive vice president of public affairs and social impact.
Starbucks opened its first community store in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2016, two years after the riots that broke out over the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer.
It has added 13 more locations since then, including stores in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans and Jonesboro, Georgia. Another one will open this spring in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Starbucks estimates that the shops have created more than 300 jobs.
Kelly said the stores reflect Starbucks’ core belief in responsible capitalism. The coffee shops are profitable, he said, and have the same menu as regular Starbucks stores.
Prices vary, but not by much.
A grande coconut milk latte in Ferguson costs $4.95, according to Starbucks’ app. Six miles away, a Starbucks in University City charges $5.25 for the same drink. In Jonesboro, a grande coffee is $2.25. It’s $2.45 at a Starbucks in downtown Atlanta.
“This is not charity. These are successful stores,” Kelly said, acknowledging neighbors’ skepticism. “We’re defying a lot of the stereotypes, and we’re proud to do so.”
A man who was walking by the Starbucks in Jonesboro and gave his name to The Associated Press as Leroy Z said he is glad Starbucks is giving locals another choice for coffee beyond the fast-food restaurants in town. But he was skeptical about how much Starbucks cares about the community and how much the store will bolster the local economy.
“They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think they could make money,” he said. “They’re here because this is a main drag to Atlanta.”
Englewood resident Princess Thomas, 60, sometimes frequents the Starbucks in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.
Thomas said she appreciates Starbucks employing local residents, but hopes its support for the community goes beyond “lip service.”
“A lot of people in this area have had their benefits cut. They can’t afford to feed their families. So when you say you’re doing something for the community, what can you do for those people, instead of just seeing them as customers?” she said.
Thomas Shinick, a business professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, said he would rather see manufacturing companies or trade schools setting up shop in distressed areas so young people could learn skills beyond the service industry.
“We don’t need more coffee servers,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.