EVERETT — It’s a fad that’s picking up steam in Snohomish County’s hyper-competitive coffee market.
Espresso drive-through stands with bikini- and lingerie-sporting baristas are popping up from Monroe to Edmonds.
In the past year, at least six of these java joints employing provocatively dressed young women have opened in the county.
A few owners of these roadside stands say business is so brisk, they’re hiring more employees and have plans to open new locations.
“I brought a touch of Vegas back to Washington,” said Bill Wheeler, who opened Grab ‘N’ Go Espresso on Highway 99 just south of Everett last year.
Wheeler says he aims to soon operate a dozen stands in Washington and Nevada, including one with male baristas in tight Speedos and bowties.
Sometimes wearing little more than pasties and bikini bottoms, the scantily clad baristas at Wheeler’s stands have scores of well-tipping customers.
While customers are expressing support with their pocketbooks, some people are complaining that these new businesses are pushing boundaries too far.
They’ve told law enforcement officers and elected officials that they think the stands should be more tightly regulated.
“I’m not against people making money,” said Kimberly Gainza, 37, of Everett. “What I’m against is how they’re going about doing it. It’s not right — on a road where everybody can see.”
Gainza got a jolt a few weeks ago while stuck in traffic on Highway 99. She spotted a barista with bright blue stickers strategically placed on her chest standing at a stand’s drive-up window.
As long as genitals and nipples are covered, police say the stands do not violate indecent exposure laws. Health officials and state Labor and Industries officials say there are no clothing requirements for baristas.
Gainza said she wants to change that and is hoping she can persuade policymakers to clamp down.
Wheeler, who said he employs his own 17-year-old daughter at a stand, doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. He said people wear more revealing outfits on beaches in the county.
Some competing businesses say “sexpresso” stands are changing the marketplace.
“In my opinion, it’s the end of our business,” said Tina Taylor, who has owned Giddy Up ‘N’ Go Espresso south of Everett for eight years.
Since more racy stands opened north and south of her business, she’s seen traffic dip. At times she’ll go an hour without a customer, she said. Meanwhile, her competitors almost always seem to have cars lined up.
Ruth Oliver, who has owned R &R Espresso in Bothell for 17 years, said she is disturbed by the trend, especially the more risque businesses.
“I’m not turning my place into a strip club because business is down,” she said. “I’d rather close down.”
Some stands are trying to cash in on the backlash. They are displaying family-friendly signs and other messages including “We Make it Hot with our Tops On,” “R-rated Coffee; PG-rated Girls” and “Known 4 Coffee Not Cleavage!”
And there’s plenty of trash talking across the coffee divide. Sara Barnfather, 22, a barista with Stars and Stripes Espresso in Everett, said she’s “proud to be classy, not trashy.”
“If you like nipples and third-degree burns, go for it,” she said. “But it’s not my cup of tea.”
Stars and Stripes owner Dale Fischer said he doesn’t plan on changing his business model.
“Do we really need scantily clad women to sell coffee?” he said. “Good grief. I tell my girls, I’m just not for it. You get a different kind of customer altogether that go into those places.”
Still, the competition is cutthroat and there is immense pressure to stand out. In Snohomish County alone, there are 150 businesses that have espresso as part of their name, according to the Snohomish Health District. Add in Starbucks and McDonald’s recent venture into the gourmet coffee market, then factor in the price of milk and coffee being on the rise and it’s a tough business.
John Ferguson, who owns an espresso stand in Edmonds, said the combination of corporate outlets and bikini stands along the Highway 99 corridor forced him three months to adopt a “sexy espresso” theme or go out of business.
“We saw our male clientele dwindle to next to nothing,” he said. “It’s an ‘If-you-can’t-beat-‘em,-join-‘em kind of thing.’”
Jessica Bustare, 21, Everett, sat on a bench and waited for a job interview outside the Grab ‘N’ Go on a chilly afternoon early this week. An athletic-looking 19-year-old barista with blonde hair wearing a bikini and flip-flops took a bag of trash out of the shack and tossed it into a garbage bin.
“I don’t really consider this too sexual,” Bustare said. “I think it’s fun and cute.”
Leslie Preskitt, 21, a trim, upbeat barista at Cowgirls Espresso near downtown Everett, wore a pink-and-white striped bikini as she worked a silver espresso machine Wednesday afternoon.
She’s been working at the stand for three months and said she gets twice as much in tips in a day than she did in a full week when she worked at a coffee chain store.
Baristas at similar stands say they consistently fetch more than $100 a day in tips.
Preskitt, an Edmonds Community College student studying to be a paralegal, said she has had a few men say inappropriate things to her. But that can happen anywhere, she said, and she’s learned to deflect those comments.
Cowgirls, a Seattle-based chain with three locations in Snohomish County, has a theme for every day of the week, including military Mondays, bikini Wednesdays and fantasy Fridays.
Company Chief Executive Scott Arbuckle said franchisees who operate 14 Cowgirls locations in Washington are told to follow specific decency rules aimed at protecting the brand name. He said he admires the success of Hooters, an Atlanta-based restaurant chain, that has thrived in spite of vocal critics.
“We’re going to treat our employees with respect,” Arbuckle said. “We’re never going to push the button and go over the edge.”
Carrie Smith, owner of the Mocha Boat in Lynnwood, said she switched themes six months ago after a competing stand hired young women to stand on the corner with pasties and tight shorts.
Business tripled after her employees started wearing more revealing outfits, she said.
“We had to close the stand or roll with it,” Smith said. “I sold my soul for a dollar.”
Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.