Drive-thru coffee stand owners in Spokane, Washington, are employing a scantily-clad business tactic that has boosted sales -- and complaints.
This is the city of the so-called “bikini barista,” where topless baristas wearing pasties serve coffee from drive-true coffee stands that have names like “Bare Beans,” “Big Shots” and “Devil’s Brew.”
“We are selling coffee,” said Kiersten Silva, 22. “Just coffee with a pretty smile, maybe, and some boobie action sometimes.”
“You have to be outgoing to do this kind of thing, you can’t be shy,” said Devil’s Brew barista Sarah Patterson, 20.
Despite appearances, some baristas said ogling isn’t much of a problem.
“Every once in a while you’ll get a creepy one that say some weird stuff to you, but it doesn’t really happen that much,” said Caila Cronin, 22.
The odd phenomenon of teaming coffee with sex appeal has been growing across the West and seems to have started in Seattle, where one of the original business owners told us in 2007 that the idea was catching on quick.
If you’re wondering who would have the chutzpa to put women up to this kind of thing, what some see as degrading, you’re probably not imaging that person is Sarah Birnel, a mother of three who admits she could never be a bikini barista herself.
“A guy would never survive owning this business,” Sarah Birnel said. “You’ve got to say things and talk to these girls in ways that aren’t typical. A guy talking to them in that way is opening a door for a lawsuit, in my opinion.”
Birnel owns three stands in Spokane and says the business model is as simple as you would imagine – sex sells, and sex can sell coffee.
Like it or not, it’s a shrewd business move because these drive-thru coffee stands can be very profitable. Last year, men between ages 18 and 54 spent nearly $7 billion buying coffee from drive-thru coffee stands. That’s up more than 8 percent from 2012, according to STUDYLOGIC, a Cedarhurst, N.Y.-based market research company.
Birnel said having the bikini baristas makes a “huge difference” to the bottom line.
“It makes way more money, definitely,” she said. “I would say close to 100 percent more.”
But as the seductive stands have spread, controversy quickly followed, including in Spokane.
“One time a lady came and said my family should be ashamed to have me as a daughter because I’m dressed like this,” said Silva.
To say that not everyone is thrilled with the idea of half-naked 20-somethings selling coffee is an understatement. Mothers Kimberly Curry and Hillary Van Akin are part of a growing army of people trying to change Spokane’s indecent exposure laws to force the bikini baristas to cover up.
Curry said it started with a simple drive through town with her family, “and my daughter just said, ‘Mommy, look, there’s a lady without a shirt on,’ and I was like, ‘what?’ so we all turned out heads and at that point, my 3, 5 and 7-year-old were exposed to something that I would have never wanted them to see.”
The moms went to city hall to fight for a crackdown on the bikini baristas, and are going door-to-door to gather the 10,000 signatures needed to put the issue on a city-wide ballot in November.
The baristas find the whole cover-up campaign ridiculous.
“Kids come through often,” Silva said. “There is one little boy, he calls it ‘boobie coffee.’ He goes with his mom every morning and gets hot chocolate and she is completely normal and seems respectable and she doesn’t seem to mind that her son comes.”
But if the issue does reach a vote, Spokane’s coffee stand owners said they aren’t worried because they don’t think it stands a chance.
“You have to pass laws that apply to everybody,” Birnel said. “If they are going to tell these girls to cover up more, they are going to tell everybody to cover up more, and then it is just not going to sit well…[with] people at the beach, you, me, people walking down the road.”
And while the standoff between the bikini baristas and unhappy moms heated up, a new contender tried to jump into the fray -- former male stripper Chris Mullins just opened Spokane’s first half-naked male coffee stand.
“Everybody has been raising a stink about the bikini stands, and I was like, well, you know, I was a stripper at one point, this would be fun,” he said.
Mullins is scouting for locations to open a second stand, but so far, his business, which sells coffee and hot dogs, hasn’t quite taken off the way the ladies’ have. And, he said, no one has complained about his stand.
But Kimberly Curry and Hillary Van Akin insist that Mullins’ stand is not a double standard because shirtless men are publicly acceptable. They’re fine with the baristas wearing bikinis too, they said, just not the more provocative topless-with-pasties look.
“I feel like this is our community,” Van Akin said. “We want to set some sort of a standard for decency, and I think allowing anything like this is just the tipping point. It’s just going to keep escalating until it’s all over and it’s acceptable.”