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Starbucks employee suspended after labeling Black woman’s cup ‘Monkey’

A Maryland woman is speaking out after a Starbucks barista wrote her name as “Monkey” while taking her order.

Monique Pugh told TODAY.com that she has been a loyal Starbucks customer for 20 years. On Nov. 19, she said, she visited the location inside the Annapolis, Maryland, mall and ordered a venti Caramel Frappuccino.

“The lady at the register asked my name and I told her, and that was it,” she said, noting that she used the Starbucks app to pay and verbally told the woman working her name was “Monique.”

Pugh said it was a long wait for her drink and she observed that everyone ahead of her was called by their name.

“I can see from a distance, a barista picks up (my) drink and she looks at it weird, says ‘venti Caramel Frap’ and backed away.”

Pugh said she picked up the cup and saw the word “Monkey” on it.

“My heart just drops,” she said. “It was one of those in-the-moment things where your heart just drops and you’re just like, ‘What?’”

Despite the distressing word on her cup, Pugh said, she initially just engaged with the nearest barista, a male, to try to get him to fix her drink, which was made incorrectly. She said that he was immediately “very combative and argumentative.”

“He and I were going back and forth about whether the drink was made correctly and then I had to stop myself and realized ‘monkey’ was written on my cup,” she said, adding she was the only Black person in the store at the time.

She said she asked the employee, “Why am I the only Black person in the store and ‘monkey’ is written on my cup?”

Pugh said the male barista shrugged and told her it was a mistake.

“Just with that attitude and his response, oh it’s so triggering,” she said. “Customers were looking at me and I was just embarrassed.”

Pugh said the male barista didn’t apologize but refunded her for the drink.

A Starbucks corporate representative confirmed the incident occurred and told TODAY.com the employee who took the order had been suspended. They also said that the store where the incident happened was a franchisee, owned by a company called Impeccable Brands.

The Starbucks representative said Impeccable Brands also initiated a third party investigation and promised additional diversity and inclusion trainings for staff.

He added that the corporate team had reached out “directly to apologize for her experience” and to have a sit-down meeting. Pugh confirmed the regional director had emailed her but had not yet responded as of Wednesday, Nov. 30, to her note about available dates for a sit-down meeting.

Pugh said she left the store the day of the incident and immediately called customer service. She said the general manager of the local store first contacted her and mispronounced her first name, Monique, in a voicemail.

“This is not a small complaint, it’s not like my coffee was cold or I was missing my croissant,” she said. “And you couldn’t even leave a message without mispronouncing my name.”

She said the manager touted his staff’s diversity and cited his own Hispanic heritage when saying he understood her frustrations.

Pugh said he offered to compensate her with a free drink from Starbucks and one free sandwich.

“I declined it…because that offer felt disrespectful,” she said. “It was disrespectful that he’d say as a Hispanic male he understood and then offered me that.”

Pugh said the owner of the store then contacted her and apologized, only to then say the team had concluded the incident “wasn’t intentional.”

She said the store owner also confirmed the suspended barista, who she believes to be white and a native English speaker, had completed the company’s anti-bias training.

In an email forwarded by Starbucks’ corporate team to TODAY.com, Amit Sehgal from Impeccable Brands apologized to Pugh but made similar statements to Pugh’s recollections.

“While we have investigated the incident and believe that our employee mistakenly labeling your cup in this way, regardless, I understand the hurt and frustration this has caused you,” Sehgal wrote. “We can do better. As an immediate step, I have taken action with the employee and have addressed their behavior with them directly.”

Sehgal also said “monkey” would not be allowed to be printed on Starbucks drink tickets and that employees would be subject to additional training.

“With these steps in place, I feel confident that we will do better and offer the warm and welcoming experience that you and all other customers expect from any of our locations in the future,” Sehgal concluded in his note to Pugh. “While I know none of this will be able to take away the hurt you may have felt that day and the days following, I hope that our actions show that we take this very seriously and value what you have shared.”

The Starbucks corporate spokesperson confirmed to TODAY.com that the word “monkey” has been removed from their system company-wide as a possible name for an order. When asked, he said there are other “profanities” that are also not allowed to be used as names but wasn’t sure exactly which ones.

Pugh told TODAY.com the whole situation has been “very overwhelming.”

“And to have them apologize, but then say it was an honest mistake and a labeling error? How was that a labeling error?” she asked. “I was the only Black person in the store. And I bring it to your attention and your first thought is to argue with me?”

She said someone had emailed her boss at work to complain about her after her story appeared on other news outlets.

“(The email) said I was the reason that that Starbucks employee was fired and I should know what it’s like to be fired because of a race hoax,” she said, noting that the employee wasn’t actually fired. “However, I am the victim in this situation, that was written on my cup! To ask for the victim to be fired…I can’t even express to you what it felt like to hear my manager read that email aloud to me.”

Pugh, she said she has been “traumatized” by the incident.

“I think what made it worse was the events following after. It wasn’t helpful,” she said. “If anything, it hurt me even more.”

Going forward, Pugh said she still really wants to hear from the corporate team and encouraged others to “speak up.”

“This whole situation, you really have to speak up because companies, they’ll pledge millions to make it seem like they’re helping people and minorities but when something like this comes up they’ll try to sweep it under the rug,” she said. “It’s a hypocrisy. That’s not OK. All I have to say is that people really need to speak up, especially when they know something is wrong, when they’ve been disrespected.”