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Starbucks Barista Stops Traffic for Hours Discussing Race

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SEATTLE – Most Starbucks baristas simply don’t have the time to discuss anything other than coffee, but in this case, it appears that management decided the campaign would at least temporarily take priority over logistics. Result? Traffic on the viaduct was at a standstill and the gridlock extended through the streets of downtown Seattle. The discussion happened near Atlantic Street, just south of the viaduct, blocking all southbound lanes for nine hours.

Amid responsibilities like taking orders, working the registers, making complicated drink orders, and preparing food from the company’s newly expanded menu, there is no time to write extra words on cups — much less entertain a debate on race relations. Entire busloads of people stuck on the viaduct decided to disembark and walk off the viaduct. Traffic flow was reversed so drivers could exit off the viaduct off the Columbia Street on-ramp. The lanes were re-opened just before midnight.

Asking a single barista to chat can completely throw off a city’s operations during busy periods, Jeb Lund writes in Rolling Stone. “He never stopped looking over his shoulder and attempting to perform a make-work task to obscure the fact that he was chatting.”

“Just pulling Mike aside for two minutes was enough to see the number of waiting customers double,” Lund writes of an effort to engage a Starbucks barista in a conversation on race relations last week. The Seattle Department of Transportation said the racial content “shifted,” making the conversations unstable.

“Like all multitasking, it left him doing more than one thing fairly badly,” said his manager, adding that his attention was “trailing off and having difficulty engaging questions.” Motorists were also on exiting Highway 99 at Denny Way, just north of the Battery Street Tunnel. At one point, city transportation officials said a cross-town trip from Elliott Bay to Interstate 5 — a distance of a little more than a mile — took one hour.

The initial customer was taken to Harborview Medical Center with non-life-threatening injuries. Adding a few seconds to a customer’s wait isn’t just an inconvenience, said the Seattle Police Department, who are investigating, “It hurts business.”

Pamela Hobart Carter loves Seattle as much for its water and mountains as for its bustle and creativity. She explores the Emerald City daily while walking her dog. Carter used to be a teacher who wrote on the side. Now she is a writer who teaches on the side.