By David Chircop Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD — An espresso stand featuring semi-nude baristas that opened next to a preschool and across the street from an elementary school is raising hackles.
Last week, the owner of several so-called “sexpresso” stands opened a new Grab ‘N’ Go Espresso location in a strip mall on 52nd Avenue W. in Lynnwood. Some are calling it an offense to the community, even though the stand previously had its workers dress in bikinis.
“If we had our druthers, we would say no,” Lynnwood City Councilman Jim Smith told members of the Beverly Elementary School Parent Teachers Association this week. “But we are constrained by the law.”
The business and its nearly bare-breasted employees immediately drew a brouhaha from parents whose children attend the nearby schools.
It also has attracted intense scrutiny from Lynnwood city officials. They forced it to close one day last week because it was operating without a business license. The stand also was ordered to remove sandwich board signs on the sidewalk that violated the city’s sign ordinance.
Bill Wheeler, 52, owner of the Grab ‘N’ Go Espresso chain, said he’s willing to make concessions, such as toning down employee attire during school hours.
Still, he said he isn’t interested in abandoning the sexy marketing gimmick that has allowed him to add locations in the same rotten economy that is forcing Starbucks to shutter stores and lay off thousands of employees.
“Like it or not, we have the same rights as everybody else,” said Wheeler, who wears cowboy boots, an open-collared shirt and gold neck chain. “They may not like what they see, but bottom line — we have a business.”
An employee at Wheeler’s new stand also said police pulled over at least three customers last week after a uniformed police officer warned her about the unsavory men who frequent those stands.
Wheeler said the city’s actions are approaching harassment.
Lynnwood Mayor Don Gough said the city’s Police Chief Steve Jensen spoke with a manager at the stand. The city has taken similar action with two other racy roadside coffee stands that have stirred public ire, Gough said.
“These are very touchy issues, not just because people get upset about them, but also because there are certain things the government can and cannot do,” said the mayor, who is also an attorney. “We have engaged, not harassed, the other two stands. And, yes, we have an obligation to go out and engage them and discuss what’s going on.”
During the first few days in business, young women who serve coffee in the bright yellow espresso shack worked wearing pasties and thongs — which is legal.
The employees now wear lingerie during school hours and cover up when they leave the stand.
Jackie Wotipka, owner of Multiple Intelligence Preschool, said she’s concerned the coffee stand will have a negative impact on her business. In the past two weeks, an unusual number of prospective parents have canceled orientation meetings, she said.
Parents have complained.
“Once they saw the reader boards and what they were wearing, they were very upset and asked what we could do about it,” Wotipka said.
With years left on her lease and money and time invested in building improvements, Wotipka said she is in no position to relocate her school.
Her landlord, Young Koh, who also leases space for the coffee stand, said he cannot interfere with Wheeler’s business.
The school and its playground have a clear view of the stand. It also is visible from a playground at Beverly Elementary School.
Robert Loeder, whose 4-year-old daughter attends Wotipka’s school, said communities should be able to force overtly provocative businesses to be subject to regulations similar to those for adult entertainment businesses. Even adding latticework to obscure the stands from children would be an improvement, he said.
“Because it’s new, there’s a convenient loophole that they’ve slid into,” Loeder said.
The Pierce County city of Bonney Lake in June threatened to regulate suggestive stands as adult entertainment business, under an existing ordinance.
Bonney Lake’s contract city attorney James Dionne said at the time that the city could impose some operating restrictions on the businesses without violating First Amendment free expression rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Bonney Lake stand never challenged the interpretation and instead agreed to water down its full-bodied approach. Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson said on Friday that the city hasn’t had any more problems.
It’s not certain Bonney Lake’s interpretation would stand up to a court challenge, legal experts say. The same goes for any type of legislation targeting espresso stands.
Pam James, an attorney with Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, said she fields questions on the topic from city attorneys and prosecutors almost every week. It comes down to regulation of clothing and issues of morality, things the government can’t easily legislate.
“I don’t think it can be done in a way that would withstand legal challenge,” she said.
Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or email@example.com.