Bikini coffee stands tricky to restrict

  • Tue Sep 22nd, 2009 2:32pm
  • News

By Debra Smith Herald Writer

EVERETT — The lunch rush is through and it’s time for a shift change at the Grab ‘N’ Go Espresso bikini hut.

A young woman steps out of the coffee stand south of Silver Lake and strides across the parking lot. She’s dressed only in panties and a negligee so sheer it might as well be absent.

That’s tame compared with what people working nearby say they see on a regular basis.

Baristas pull their tops off, jiggle their breasts, gyrate their rears and even walk nearly nude across the parking lot to another business where they pick up supplies, said Rhonda Bremond, whose business is about 50 feet away in a nearby strip mall.

On Thursday, Bremond snapped a photo of one barista who appeared to be bare-bottomed, lugging a half-gallon of milk across the parking lot.

For nearly a year, Bremond and her employees at National Achiever Services, which sells high school class rings and letterman’s jackets, have been asking the Snohomish County sheriff for help. Both the coffee stand and the strip mall are just off the Bothell-Everett Highway, north of Mill Creek, in an unincorporated area of the county.

Bremond said they’ve been told the baristas aren’t breaking any laws and that deputies are looking into the matter but probably can’t help.

The owner of Grab ‘N’ Go Espresso didn’t return several messages left at his office Friday.

In the past 18 months, coffee stands staffed by bikini-wearing baristas have popped up across Snohomish County. At least a dozen operate in and around Everett. Officials in cities and the county find themselves in a difficult position when people complain about something that is difficult to restrict, monitor and regulate.

The Everett City Council is expected to decide on Sept. 30 whether to change the city’s lewd conduct ordinance to include espresso stands. The changes could make it more difficult for bikini-hut baristas to bare too much. The stands would still be allowed, but the rules would be clarified so that the areas inside the stands would be declared public spaces. It is illegal to go topless in public spaces.

The proposed changes are part of a routine review of city codes that would bring the city’s long-standing lewd conduct ordinance up to date, city spokeswoman Kate Reardon said. The changes would not prevent baristas from wearing bikinis, she said.

In fact, under the proposed update it would still be legal for a woman to wear pasties or even a sheer undergarment in public as long as her nipples and areolas are covered.

Just the possibility of toughening rules for bikini stands filled the seats at Wednesday’s Everett’s City Council meeting. In the last six months, the city has received about 50 calls from people furious about bikini huts, Reardon said.

Many cities and counties around the state are grappling with the proliferation of risque coffee huts, said Pat Mason, a legal consultant with the Municipal Research and Services Center. He receives many calls asking for advice on bikini barista huts.

“We aren’t entirely clear in our office what the legal remedy is, if there is one,” Mason said.

Last year Auburn city officials tried to use labor laws to make bikini baristas cover up. In Pierce County, the city of Lakewood tried to apply indecent exposure laws. Neither city was successful.

In Lynnwood, city leaders found a different way to deal with another Grab ‘N’ Go Espresso stand that had set up shop next to an elementary school and a preschool, City Councilman Jim Smith said.

The police department negotiated with the owner to have the baristas wear more clothes during hours when children likely are present. If another similar business opens, that’s the approach the city will try to take, Smith said.

The Murphy’s Corner-area Grab ‘N’ Go won’t fall under Everett’s new rules, but the county also has bikini stands in its sights. Snohomish County licenses and regulates adult entertainment, but bikini huts don’t fall under that category in county code.

The Snohomish County Council has been working on finding a solution for several months, Councilman Dave Gossett said.

“It’s a difficult thing to regulate,” he said. Make the law too loose, and it won’t do any good. Make it too strict, and the law won’t be constitutional, he said.

The sheriff’s office confirmed they’ve received complaints from people about the Murphy’s Corner-area Grab ‘N’ Go bikini hut as well as many others like it in the south end of the county, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Rebecca Hover.

“We realize people aren’t happy about what’s going on at some of these stands and neither are we,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to address it within the confines of the county ordinance.”

In some cases, Hover said, they’ve been able to refer some incidents involving other bikini huts to the prosecutor’s office. In one case, a deputy saw an act of indecent exposure.

Municipalities face a number of challenges when it comes to regulating businesses such as bikini huts, said Rick Robertson, an assistant chief deputy prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County.

Cities and counties may regulate and define “adult entertainment” differently, Robertson said. A bikini barista stand may or may not fall under a particular definition. To complicate matters, some may contend that the business has an expressive component that is protected under the First Amendment. Cities and counties also face potential lawsuits.

“Many municipalities have endured legal challenges over regulations that govern the adult entertainment industry,” he said. “Even when they have prevailed, many have found it to be quite costly.”

It’s not girls serving coffee in bikinis that’s the problem, Bremond said. It’s that she and her employees are concerned about the public, sexually explicit behavior they see daily from their office windows.

One employee on the way to her car overheard a customer at the Grab ‘N’ Go ask a barista for “the special,” she said. The barista pulled off her top and let another woman spray whipped cream on her breasts and then licked it off.

Another employee became fearful of walking from her car into the office after she spotted a man masturbating in his car.

That behavior drives away families from other businesses in the nearby strip mall, which include a bicycle shop, a hamburger restaurant, an investment firm, a children’s tutoring service, and Bremond’s business, which caters to high school students.

The owner of nearby Herfy’s Burgers, Kong Sun Hwang, said customers have told her they like her food but don’t want to bring their children because of the baristas’ provocative behavior.

“Whole families — they don’t stop by here,” she said.

The Bremonds said this is about business, not morality. “There is more going on than bikinis in these huts that needs to be addressed publicly,” said Louis Bremond, Rhonda’s husband and business partner.

He’s frustrated by a lack of response from law enforcement. Officers would sometimes drive by, not see anything immediately and leave, he said. The baristas would appear to delight in the lack of action by behaving even more outrageously.

“I put up with this a year thinking we were going to get help from the law,” Bremond said. “The longer we waited for something to happen, the raunchier they got.”

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197,