Woman claims racial profiling at a Pennsylvania Starbucks

LOWER SWATARA TOWNSHIP, PA (WPMT) — A 64-year-old retired Harrisburg attorney is claiming she was the victim of a racial profiling incident at a Starbucks along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Sheila Dow Ford stopped at the Highspire Service Plaza on Oct. 19, 2019 to grab some coffee. Waiting in line at the Starbucks inside, Ford said she witnessed a white woman harassing two black baristas. When Ford tried to step in, she claimed the woman began cursing at her. Eventually a manager came out, but according to Ford, he immediately singled her out as the troublemaker.

“He said, `You are out control. You need to leave,'” Ford said.

Ford said she tried to explain what was going on, but the manager wouldn’t listen and kicked her out.

“This is what he said: ‘Get away from me,'” Ford said.

Ford admitted no one used specifically racist language, but she believes the incident was racially motivated and then mishandled by white management. She said she filed an incident report with the Pennsylvania State Police on Oct. 22.

The Starbucks at the Highspire Service Plaza is not operated by Starbucks, but rather a separate company, HMSHost, a Maryland-based global restaurant company.

However, this wouldn`t be the first time Starbucks has dealt with racism issues. Following a 2018 incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks, they held company-wide sensitivity training.

A representative from Starbucks said they did offer their sensitivity training manuals to HMSHost, but doesn`t know if the company used them. The representative added, “As soon as we got word of the claims from Ms. Ford, we reached out to HMSHost and we contacted Ms. Ford directly. Anyone who walks into one of our stores should feel welcome and have a positive experience.”

Ford said Starbucks should be responsible for all its stores, even those operated by contractors.

“I thought what everyone else in America and around the world thinks,” she said. “I`m in Starbucks.”

The incident was caught on a security camera. Ford asked HMSHost for the footage, but said they would not release it.

“So when HMSHost now says, `Well we looked at the evidence and this did not occur,` let me tell you what they are doing. They`re lying,” she said.

Ford said her experience was part of a broader shift in American culture, toward worsening race relations.

“This is not simply about me,” she said. “It is about the times in which we find ourselves, it is about the era in which we are living, it is about basic civility.”

The management at the Highspire Service Plaza Starbucks referred inquiries to HMSHost.

HMSHost today released the surveillance video as well as the findings of their internal investigation.

They also wrote a statement:

“HMSHost takes all customer complaints seriously. We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment and have a policy in place to ensure everyone is treated fairly regardless of a person’s race, color, creed, age, religion, gender (including gender identity), sex, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, veteran status, ancestry, marital status, genetic characteristic ties, or any other protected class. Upon receipt of the customer’s complaint in this matter, we conducted a thorough investigation. That investigation included multiple discussions and interviews with the customer and witnesses, as well as a review of video surveillance. Through that process, we were not able to substantiate the customer’s allegations. Additionally, the evidence, including witness interviews, confirmed that she was not ejected from Starbucks as she claims. We regret that Ms. Dow-Ford had a negative experience with another customer in our store.”

Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark Compton released a statement:

“The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission appreciates Ms. Dow Ford bringing this matter to our attention and HMSHost’s prompt, transparent response. The Commission is committed to providing customers with a premier travel experience. Inclusion is vital to accomplishing that goal. The Commission has, and will continue to, emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion in our business operations and provide employees with awareness trainings. The Commission also holds contractors to the same standards. We want everyone to feel welcome when traveling our roadway.”

Ford said she waited to go public with the incident while she was attempting to contact HMSHost directly, and then while waiting for a Right to Know request she filed with the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the video surveillance. The Turnpike rejected her request, she said, because they didn’t have access to the video.

Ford isn’t currently seeking any legal action. She said she wants a meeting with representatives from Starbucks, HMSHost and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

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