Rep. Steve King (R-IA) had an important warning to share on Tuesday: A Starbucks manager in North Carolina was firing employees for saying “Merry Christmas,” a sure sign to him of future persecution against Christians.
There was just one problem. The supposed Starbucks manager, who tweeted from the account @MuellerDad69, was not a Starbucks manager at all but a co-host of the lefty humor podcast “Eat The Rich.” The trolly tweet should have been an obvious joke. But King was the latest conservative personality to fall for a hoax about Starbucks and its supposed politics.
During the holiday season, and especially in a year when Starbucks’ founder attempted to launch a presidential campaign, the coffee company has become a magnet for contentious political issues. Starbucks is more than a purveyor of hot bean water—it’s the family table where America goes to argue.
Take the past few weeks in Starbucks headlines. In late November, an Oklahoma Starbucks manager was fired after a police officer claimed he’d received a hot chocolate with “pig” printed on the label. The manager claimed the employee who printed the label was actually a longtime friend of the officer and that the cop told her the prank was “no big deal.” That context was omitted during a Fox News segment in which an anchor speculated that “maybe there’s an anti-law enforcement credo” at play in Starbucks. Last week, a California county sheriff claimed Starbucks baristas ignored a pair of police officers, prompting the sheriff to tweet that “the anti police culture repeatedly displayed by Starbucks employees must end.” This week, it was King’s participation in the “Merry Christmas” hoax.
Part of the problem is Starbucks’ role as a public meeting place in a country that invests little in so-called “third places”: areas of community engagement outside the home or workplace. Although spaces like parks and public squares conventionally fit this role, Starbucks is a popular substitute, where you can probably sit around for a few hours without buying anything. (It’s also why Starbucks functions as a de facto public restroom in cities like New York that won’t invest in usable public toilets.)
That idea is baked into Starbucks’ business model, said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University.
“Starbucks has always positioned itself as sort of a community spot,” Calkins told The Daily Beast. “We’ve long talked about the idea of a third place: there’s your home, there’s your work, and then there’s Starbucks.”
But when a national coffee franchise takes on the duties of a civic space, it can become a site for our national angst. “The inadvertent consequence is that people bring up a lot of the issues that are affecting the community,” Calkins said. “You see a lot of these issues come to light.”
One such issue prompted Starbucks to put its “third place policy” into writing last year. Although the coffee shops have long implied that anyone is welcome, a Philadelphia location was accused of racial profiling for calling the police on a pair of black men who were waiting in the shop ahead of a business meeting—an incident that sparked a national conversation on racism.
Successful brands necessarily face greater scrutiny, said Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University. But a successful coffee brand can come under fire in a way that successful car companies seldom do.
“Coffee is something we engage in every day,” Galloway said. “What Chevrolet thinks—car purchases happen every 5 to 7 years—is not as much a part of our everyday lives. We have a much more intimate relationship with coffee; the fact that we’re in the store every day, and even the fact that coffee itself is somewhat linked to conversation and dialogue.”
There’s also the question of whether Starbucks is seen as a liberal institution. Its founder, Howard Schultz, briefly teased a run against President Donald Trump this year. His promise to help America “come together” mirrored Starbucks’ loftiest aspirations as a public meeting place. But the mockery for Schultz’s presidential bid also looked a lot like the contempt for some of Starbucks’ liberal-leaning campaigns, like an ill-advised 2017 plan to have baristas write “race together” on coffee cups when they wanted to discuss race issues with customers.
Though Schultz billed himself as a “centrist independent,” some of his anti-Trump aspirations might have colored Starbucks policies, Galloway suggested.
“The founder of Dunkin [Donuts] has and is not positioning him or herself for a run for president,” he said. “I believe that Mr. Schultz—and this is his prerogative—wanted to be an active voice in the world of political discourse.”
Fancy coffees can already code as liberal. The term “latte liberal” has been used to cast segments of the left as finicky yuppies. When President Barack Obama acknowledged a Marine while holding a coffee cup, the right called it the “latte salute” even though the contents of his cup were unknown. The stereotype has given rise to a baffling industry of explicitly conservative coffee brands like Black Rifle Coffee Company. When Starbucks was accused of being anti-police earlier this year, Black Rifle pledged to donate bags of coffee to police officers.
Though much of its fare wouldn’t be out of place at other fast-food joints, Starbucks deliberately maintains an upscale image.
“Starbucks has always been something of an aspirational place,” Calkins said. “I think people feel that about Starbucks, but as a result, they have expectations for the company. People bring all their opinions and points of view to Starbucks when they show up every day.”
The result is a ubiquitous coffee chain that functions as a public space across the country, despite a perceived liberal image that clashes with many of its customers’ conservative politics. It’s a situation ripe for Fox News-style grievance narratives about the embattled Republican, forced to endure liberal tyranny everywhere he turns.
That’s why some of the biggest Starbucks controversies have stemmed from the company’s own customers. In 2015, a conservative activist filmed a rant about Starbucks’ lack of explicit Christian imagery on its holiday cups, inspiring a wave of anti-Starbucks backlash on the religious right. Tellingly of America’s apolitical Starbucks addiction, some conservatives said they told baristas to write “Merry Christmas” on their cups, but did not boycott the company.
The holiday furor never fully died down, and now the end of every year is marked by news stories about whether Starbucks’ holiday cups have done enough to appease the Christian right. (In 2017, the cups featured two cartoon hands holding each other, prompting conservative outlets like the Blaze to wonder whether the hands looked a little too masculine and whether Starbucks was promoting “a gay agenda.”)
Inevitably, those fears migrated into hoaxes and parodies. @MuellerDad69’s trolling tweet (“I’m the manager of a Starbucks in Charlotte NC. I have informed my employees that they will be fired on the spot if I hear them say ‘Merry Christmas’ to any customers. I’m doing it because I personally dislike conservative Christians.”) was shared as a screenshot by a conservative Facebook user with the caption, “this guy hates our President and is now attacking Christians whose next … please share.” King shared that post with the caption “wow.”
On Twitter, Starbucks—which did not respond to a request for comment for this story—clarified that it did not employ @MuellerDad69 and that his account had been suspended for impersonating a barista.
Even when Starbucks hoaxes turn out to be fake, they’ve still found their way onto Fox News. In 2018, a 4chan hoax that encouraged trolls to demand free coffee for black customers was featured on Laura Ingraham’s primetime show as an example of “liberal guilt” and “liberals using black people.”
Ingraham called the prank “so funny.”