A cup of coffee in exchange for a table and internet bandwidth for several hours may be a good deal for customers, but it’s apparently a bad deal for Starbucks. This seems clear from the company’s plans to increase revenue per drink—particularly in the slower, evening hours—by adding alcoholic beverages to its menu.
In last week’s Washington Post, Greg Williams, who wrote and produced the documentary The Anonymous People, argued that Starbucks’ decision will force out a key consumer base: individuals in recovery. He views this business move as short-sighted since it means that 23 million Americans may take their business elsewhere.
Williams has a valid perspective to share, and he is not the first to criticize these upcoming changes. However, rather than increasing public support for the recovery community, this outrage may end up having the opposite effect. It may further stigmatize recovery and the disease of addiction. As my colleague Jack Feinberg, Clinical Director of Phoenix House Texas put it, to claim that sober individuals cannot tolerate an environment where other patrons are having a beer or a glass of wine is to suggest that people in recovery are “alien beings.” In other words, it only perpetuates the myth that they are an isolated group, cut off from mainstream society.
In reality, people in recovery from substance abuse are not outsiders. They are our family members, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Often, we may not even know someone is in recovery—he or she may be the person sitting next to us at a movie or leading a meeting at our company. It would be impossible for these individuals to avoid the presence of alcohol entirely. From eating in restaurants to walking by liquor stores, they must face the daily challenges of maintaining sobriety. However, I strongly believe that they can develop and be successful in their own recovery programs regardless of Starbucks’ menu. “The American Diabetes Association isn’t up in arms every time Starbucks releases a new high-calorie coffee drink,” Jack says. Why do we treat addiction, another chronic health problem, differently?
Starbucks’ offering wine and beer in the evening will not deprive people in recovery of their coffee nor will it remove the standalone coffee shop; those who are comfortable spending time at a shop that sells alcohol will experience little change, others will undoubtedly find a new haunt. Starbucks will simply lose their business when those consumers choose to visit a different establishment. In fact, this business decision could help local coffee shops discover their own niche and gain loyal, regular customers seeking an alcohol-free environment.
People in long-term recovery do lean on family, friends and health professionals for support throughout their journeys, but they do not rely on the world around them to remove alcohol and other substances from view. Learning to live substance-free is not “out of sight, out of mind” in principle—to believe that would be to oversimplify this disease. Instead, it takes great personal strength and constant vigilance to overcome addiction, and subsequently, its stigma. Let us recognize that accomplishment rather than feed a stereotype. People in recovery from substance abuse have achieved so much due to their own efforts and they will continue to succeed regardless of the actions of a coffee giant.
By Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO