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Leadership

Howard Schultz’s politicking is good for restaurants—even if he doesn’t have a chance

Should Howard Schultz run for president? RB Executive Editor Jonathan Maze and Editor-at-Large Peter Romeo offer opposing points of view. For the alternate take, see The Bottom Line.

reality check

Howard Schultz has been called all kinds of things since turning his eyes and ambitions to that rare job promising more of an ego boost than running Starbucks: Elitist. Boob. Idealist. Proven leader. Unproven novice. Dark horse. 

But the tag that’s top of mind for many in Schultz’s prior line of work, much as they sometimes regret it, is restaurateur. Except for Herman Cain, whose 2012 bid for the presidency fizzled into scandal, no candidate in modern times has tried to use a kitchen or dining room as a springboard into the Oval Office. 

This campaign cycle, we have both Schultz and John Hickenlooper, the barkeep-turned-Colorado governor, tossing their aprons into the ring.  

That’ll tickle history nerds and any “Jeopardy” candidate left with the category “Fun Campaign Facts.” But what’s it mean to an industry that complains it doesn’t have a place at the political table unless it’s the roast in the middle?  Every poll we’ve seen suggests Schultz would have trouble getting elected captain of a Starbucks unit’s softball team. But has his non-candidacy—an exploration that certainly looks and sounds like the real thing—been a positive development for the industry?

I say yes, in part because it antagonizes my colleague Jonathan Maze, and in larger part because it’s a poke in the eye of everyone who dismisses the industry as the refuge of clods who couldn’t work a spatula until Day Three of training. Schultz will lose the election if he officially runs. But the image of a restaurateur he presents to the public is one the industry has struggled in vain to convey since fire was an innovation. 

He is no clod. Schultz’s non-campaign has been anything but a model of political craftsmanship, yet his smarts, success and leadership are givens, right there with his ambition. He’s the model of a restaurateur who’s seldom celebrated, or even noticed. And he’s put that version squarely in the spotlight. 

Among the criticisms leveled at the self-made billionaire is he’s too wealthy to understand the problems of the average American. That focus on Schultz’s financial success should be celebrated by the industry. He’s a walking contradiction of the mindset that restaurants are a dead end for young people unless they can manage some side hustle. This is no grease-stained lug who hopes someday to afford his own Honda Civic. 

Schultz’s success is also a vivid reminder that the rags-to-riches route is well-trod in the restaurant business. Schultz’s father was a diaper-service deliveryman who had to move his family into public housing. Fred Schultz’s son became not only the CEO and executive chairman of a Fortune 500 icon, but is now being taken seriously as a candidate for the nation’s highest office.

The intense scrutiny that comes with a run for the presidency might also temper accusations that restaurateurs are the most exploitative of employers. From the start of Schultz’s involvement with Starbucks, the coffee chain has strived to give its employees more than just a minimum-wage paycheck. 

Its benefits include tuition assistance, an offer to purchase stock at a discount, paid time off and emergency financial assistance. It’s a more progressive place to work than the businesses of most industries. Schultz’s exploration of a presidential run should raise awareness of that distinction and burnish the industry’s image as an employer in the process.

If the industry was smart, it’d celebrate Schultz’s non-candidacy, even if it doesn’t agree with his politics or believe the onetime housewares salesman will end up in the Oval Office. It can only benefit from regarding him as a favorite son.

 

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