We know sex sells and we are accustomed to seeing bikini-clad women employed to hawk cars, burgers and beer on television. And that’s just the Super Bowl ads.
But in Everett and throughout Snohomish County and the rest of the region, we’ve also seen it used to sell coffee, often 3 feet or less away from car windows at ubiquitous “bikini barista” stands, that uniquely Northwest brew of coffee and titillation.
If it had been left at that — nothing more than baristas in bikinis handing out 16-ounce mochas — those of us who enjoy coffee served with light cream and more modesty might have been content to look away and allow the stands as a practice of free markets and free expression.
For more than a decade now, that’s not what’s been happening.
Too often the stands have been fronts for exchanging tips for a quick flash and other sexual performances on up to acts of prostitution, much of it tracked in the pages of The Herald.
Among the notable prosecutions was that of the Snohomish owner of a string of stands along Highway 99 in Snohomish and King counties, a former strip club performer who made more than $2 million in profits in three years as baristas accepted $14 tips for $6 cups of coffee in exchange for baring breasts and more.
Carmela Panico, then 52, pleaded guilty in 2014 to second-degree promotion of prostitution and money laundering. The investigation of Panico’s stands also led to the conviction of a then-Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant, Darrell O’Neill, who was sentenced last year to a year in jail for tipping off Panico to undercover police investigations.
Those convictions aside, however, it has been difficult for law enforcement to keep up with lewd behavior and worse at the stands using existing regulations that regulate adult businesses, which can better shield their activities from public view than can the coffee stands that sit in parking lots and along sidewalks.
Enforcement turns into a whack-a-mole game for police. Police can cite individual baristas, but the stands’ owners, who are “shocked — shocked” that lewd behavior was going on in their establishments, fire the baristas who are caught, then hire others who continue the activity.
The city of Everett has drafted an ordinance for the city council’s consideration that would shift the responsibility to the owners of coffee stands by establishing a dress code. The dress code would require baristas, male and female, to wear more modest attire, nothing more revealing than tank tops, shorts and skirts and forbidding the bikinis, lingerie and even pasties and g-strings worn by some.
But rather than cite the barista for violating the dress code, the ordinance would assess a $250 fine against the stand’s owner for the first violation and require the owner to get a probationary license to operate a “quick service facility” for a five-year period. Two or more violations would result in a $500 fine, another five years tacked onto the probationary license and possible revocation of the license.
Nothing in the ordinance prevents baristas for being cited for instances of indecent exposure, lewd conduct or prostitution they might be responsible for.
The city also is attempting to get ahead of the bikini-barista model being used at other businesses, such as food trucks and fast-food restaurants with drive-up windows. The ordinance and supporting material notes similar problems other U.S. cities have had with bikini hot dog stands and food trucks.
The shift in responsibility to owners should allow Everett to better control illegal acts at the stands and allow the city to protect the health, safety, economic interests and aesthetics for neighbors and the community at large.
The coffee can stay at the stands, but bikinis belong on the beach and lingerie in the bedroom.