NASHVILLE (WSMV) - Starbucks made headlines this summer after two black men were arrested in Philadelphia for sitting inside without ordering anything. A similar situation at a Nashville Starbucks could have ended the same way, but instead took an unexpected and heartwarming turn.
Kent Wallace calls himself a regular at the popular coffee chain, often grading papers there before going to work as a professor at Fisk University. He says one morning he parked and noticed something he had never seen before - a man in the parking lot screaming at a Starbucks employee.
The man, Wallace says, came into the Starbucks and continued cursing at the woman while customers watched. The woman he was yelling at turned out to be the general manager.
“I had reports that he was asking of money, and so when I went out there, I asked him, 'Hey sir, are you asking our customers for money?' At that point, he became very upset with me," said Leonessa Ward, the general manager of the Starbucks on 22nd Avenue North.
“As an African-American male, you have empathy that sometimes we go through things like we’re falsely accused of things, so you have a sense of empathy, but at the same time, you can’t justify that,” said Wallace.
Wallace decided to step in and asked the man what was wrong.
“He was saying he locked his keys in his car and didn’t have money for a locksmith,” said Wallace. "He was like why does someone think I was out here begging for money like a vagrant?”
Instead of calling police, Ward called upper management to ask how to handle the situation.
"She could have immediately called the police, and based on how he yelled, she'd be well within her rights, but that wasn't her first action, and I noticed that, " said Wallace.
What happened next brought the man to tears.
"She came out and said to him, look I've gotten permission from corporate, we'll pay to open your car. We just want you to know, if you think we're attacking you, we're not. She distinctly said, I'll never forget these words - that's not who we are," said Wallace. "He just looked down and wiped his eyes and say, 'Ma'am, if you would allow me the opportunity to compose myself, I'd like to come inside and apologize to the lady that I yelled at.'"
Ward believes it was meant to work out that way.
“He may not have handled himself in a manner that he would be proud of generally, but I understood that, and we’ve all had those bad days, so my goal was just to help him.”
Wallace called it one of the most powerful experiences in his life.
“You are only going to move misconceptions away it you get together and get to know one another and interact with one another,” said Wallace.
Ward invited the man in, bought him breakfast and the two chatted for about 30 minutes. They hugged goodbye and she told him he's welcome back anytime.