‘The hangout place for everyone’: Gainesville Starbucks store navigates high school student presence
More than two dozen cups of ice water line the counter as the baristas prepare for the 2:45 p.m. rush each school day at the Starbucks on Northwest 13th Street in Gainesville.
A three-minute walk away, the dismissal bell rings at Gainesville High School, and many students pile onto the sidewalk and head toward the store. Within the hour, the baristas will hand water to more than half of the 50-70 students arriving. The students love hanging out at the store, and the store recognizes that many of them can’t afford to pay for the food and drinks options.
Gillian Collins, 15, a sophomore, sits at the store enjoying her water until about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, chatting with friends, but also getting her school assignments done before her parents pick her up. She’s been doing so since freshman year.
“This was the very first place I came after the first day of school,” Collins said. “It’s kind of like the hangout place for everyone.”
Starbucks as a global business brands itself as being a third place away from home and work. The 13th Street location is the busiest among the eight in the area, according to the store manager. There, college students study, teachers grade assignments, parents sit with their small children and residents read.
But the high school students complicate things. For the most part, they socialize there with friends, wait for a ride from their parents or pull out their laptops and do homework. Others visit for a quick break before returning to campus for team practice after school.
Some students, however, can alter that dynamic. A few have been caught stealing other customers’ orders, smoking by the dumpster or yelling vulgar language outside, according to multiple people who have worked or been customers there.
“It’s always been chaotic from what I can remember,” said Azarel Lopez, 27, who worked there for three years until last month.
In September, a group of students began fighting in front of the bathroom. A barista who tried to stop it was punched in the ribs, co-workers said. They helped break up the fight, and someone called the Gainesville Police Department’s non-emergency line, Lopez said.
A current Starbucks employee, who requested to remain anonymous to protect her job, said since the fight broke out a manager is almost always on shift during the high school rush. At least one person on shift also monitors the bathrooms while high schoolers are around, she said. Passcode locks were also added to the bathrooms recently to ensure only one user at a time.
Employees have also cracked down on students who leave chips, peanut shells and candy wrappers, and started watching to ensure mobile orders aren’t stolen from the counter. Before high school dismissal, employees move all mobile orders behind the counter.
“They’re really disruptive,” said the current barista, the only one who agreed to speak to WUFT News. “It’s not in a mean way. High schoolers are high schoolers.”
The store has a bad reputation among others who might otherwise agree to work there, Lopez said. One employee at a different location once told her they couldn’t be paid a million dollars to work there because of the high schoolers, she said.
Yet the baristas still shout “Welcome in!” when the students flock in, grab their water and find a seat. It’s been that way for about five years, or when the store relocated from across the street, according to its manager of eight years, Audrey Donelan, 37.
Individual Starbucks stores strive to navigate their needs while aligning corporate rules and values, said Brian Ray, an instructional professor who teaches a class called “Leading Organizations” at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business.
In recent years, Starbucks has faced national scrutiny for how it handles customer aggression toward employees. Baristas have told of the rising disrespect they face from customers, especiallyduring the pandemic, saying they sometimes feel unsafe. Starbucks has also faced employee backlash for how it has usedcrowd-sourced rankings to evaluate them. This adds pressure to appease customers or risk being assigned fewer hours to work, they said.
For the 13th Street location, deciding how to handle a crowd of high schoolers is not an easy task when fears of bad press are added to the equation, Ray said.
“I do think part of the challenge that any large organization has is consistency of enforcing the rules,” he said.
Liyanah Laek, 15, a sophomore at Gainesville High, goes to the Starbucks on Thursdays and Fridays for one to two hours. She began going last year because her sister, a junior, was doing so. The baristas started offering the water cups soon after, but instead of taking any of those, on warm weather days Laek requests they fill a cup just with ice for her to snack on.
“Today, they had it ready,” she said, with an ice cube in hand, during a recent visit.
The decision to offer students cups of water was a team decision, because most of them come to the store just asking for water, Donelan said. There is not a water fountain at Starbucks for students to fill up their water bottles, and most students prefer the water to purchasing coffee.
“If we’re prepared for it, it’s easier to get them in and out, so that we’re not crowding up the entrances and the exits,” the manager said.
But over time, students started buying food and drink after regularly approaching the counter for their complimentary water, Donelan said. The Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino is popular among the students, she added.
Still, there’s the concern about those few who fight, steal and smoke and otherwise create an unsafe environment. Last month, Donelan met with Frederic Ashford, Gainesville High’s assistant principal of administration, to discuss how to work together to build a safe space for the students after school. The school loses jurisdiction once they leave campus, but Ashford said administrators can help shape how the students interact with a neighboring store.
There’s also concern that some of them sometimes opt to spend the day at Starbucks instead of going to class, Ashford said.
“We’re offering as much support as we legally can,” he said. “We can’t punish them for anything, unless it’s the middle of the day, and we can prove that they’re skipping.”
When students cause disturbances at the Starbucks, the store sometimes calls the school, and a faculty or staff member is sent over to deescalate the situation, Ashford said.
The school cannot discipline students for their behavior at the store. However, Ashford said, he gets names of specific students prone to cause problems and contacts their parents.
“We want everybody to be safe,” he said. “Students’ welfare – I see that as my number one priority.”
The Starbucks is about a five-minute drive from UF’s campus, which makes it a popular spot for college students, too. Vlada Pitner, 20, an advertising junior from Tampa, goes to the store two to three times per week to study. She prefers there over the quiet of a library, but the high schoolers can bring too much noise, she said.
While sitting at a table outside the store recently, 10-15 students surrounded her space, causing her to collect her things and move to another table. She said the yelling, swearing and running around can sometimes be overstimulating – to the point that she leaves the store.
“They definitely do take away from the studying,” she said. “It’s a big distraction.”
Long-time customers say they are accustomed to the students.
“Everybody pretty much knows about the fact that the school lets out at about 2:45,” said Gil Brodach, who’s in his 60s and goes there three to four times per week to read and go over stats for the Gainesville High sports teams he’s been assisting as a volunteer since 1982.
When the store relocated, said Brodach, who works part time at a local dentist’s office, most students who came sat quietly, put on headphones and did homework. But over time, fewer came to do work, and it became a spot to socialize and run around.
“They’re high school kids who’ve been cooped up for six hours,” he said.
If people don’t want to deal with the students, Brodach said, they should avoid being there between 2:45 and 3:30 p.m.
Gainesville resident Frank Regan, 76, also goes to the Starbucks to read. For him, the store’s proximity to his house outweighs the disruption the high schoolers might cause.
“Sometimes they’re boisterous – but not difficult,” he said.
Coffee Culture, a coffee shop about a five minute walk north of Gainesville High, sees about 10-20 students at its store each school day. But a few students have been told to stay away after inappropriate words were etched into the wooden tables, according to employees there.
Gustava Bruna, 14, a freshman at Gainesville High, spent the first few weeks of the school year going to Coffee Culture instead of Starbucks to wait for his parents. However, Gustava went to the Starbucks for the first time recently after hearing about it from classmates.
“I see a lot more students here, and realize that it’s much bigger than I thought,” he said of the experience.
Zaydriana Hemingway, 16, a junior at Gainesville High, goes to the Starbucks after school before she returns to campus for her cheer practice at 3:30 p.m. Hemingway plans on using the store as her after-school spot until she graduates.
The students might be loud, she said, but they don’t deserve a bad reputation. Despite the recent brawl, she said most days at Starbucks are uneventful for those who avoid trouble.
“That’s not what you think about when you come over here,” she said. “It’s not the fighting spot.”