Bikini baristas comfortable in their jobs

For three weeks I tried to ignore it. Considering the topic of baristas showing lots of skin, what I had to say seemed obvious: If you don’t like it, don’t patronize the places.

The thing is, as I tried to ignore it I couldn’t stop wondering about it — or, about them, the young women out there at 5 a.m. in bikinis or lingerie, making hot drinks as their mostly male customers get a good long look.

How does that feel? How much money do they make? What do they hope to do when they’re my age?

“I like my job,” said Dana Thornton, who was working Tuesday at Cowgirls Espresso on Broadway near downtown Everett.

With permission from her boss, Joao Coelho, the 18-year-old Thornton invited me to spend some time with her inside the coffee stand. Outside, it was 48 degrees and raining. Inside, a space heater kept the place toasty as Thornton, in thigh-high jeans shorts, a black corset, a straw cowboy hat and cowboy boots, went about her business.

“I wore this to my tolo two years ago at Monroe High School,” Thornton said of the strapless top.

I laughed, but for me her comment was more telling than amusing. It tells a lot about a culture familiar to many of today’s young women. They’ve grown up wearing skimpy tops that would have been beach-only wear in my youth.

In the 1970s, my father wouldn’t allow my college-age sister to work at a Spokane riverfront restaurant because waitresses there wore short skirts and low-cut white blouses, a tame look by today’s standards.

“I’m pretty comfortable in a swimsuit,” Thornton said. She’s also confident that she can handle any trouble that comes her way. The door to the stand is locked, the business closes at 7 p.m., and she feels secure knowing the latte stand shares a parking lot with a busy gas station.

“A lot of guys push the limits, but I have no problem letting them know it,” she said. “We make it pretty clear, we’re not strippers.”

A fresh-faced blonde, Thornton said she was in college in Colorado before coming home to Monroe. She likes the outdoors and travel. She’s most at ease in jeans and a T-shirt. She also likes the money she’s making. She said it’s four times what she earned as a barista in shops where they don’t don sexy outfits.

On busy mornings, Thornton said she can make $120 to $200 in tips on top of her minimum wage earnings.

What about the future, when selling the way she looks along with coffee won’t be an option. “I’m young,” she said. “By the time I’m 45, I hope to be doing something I love.”

Raymond Kent, a 44-year-old customer at Cowgirls Espresso, said any uproar over scantily clad baristas, including a move by the Pierce County city of Bonney Lake to consider them adult entertainment, is “absolutely nonsense.”

“It’s just choice,” Kent said.

Three weeks ago, I would have heartily agreed. Now, although I believe adults wearing bikinis have every right to sell coffee — or perform as exotic dancers in places where the law allows that — I wonder about that word, choice.

What gave me pause was news last week that Honey’s, a Highway 99 strip club, was raided as part of a federal investigation into organized crime. A Herald article June 3 reported that, according to court records, dancers were paying $120 per night “rent” to work at the club, and were allegedly performing sex acts to pay off the rent.

I would never say that making somebody a mocha, showing some skin, and earning a hefty tip is the same as working in a strip club, to say nothing of selling sex for money. It isn’t. What bothers me greatly is that unseen owners, not the women out there at 5 a.m. in revealing outfits, are the ones making real money.

For some young women, Thornton among them, I think it is just a profitable job, a way to make tuition money or plan for a bright future. For others, I’m afraid I see the proverbial slippery slope.

Driving south on Evergreen Way and then to Lynnwood on Highway 99, I chatted with several bikini baristas. At Grab ‘N’ Go Espresso, south of Everett, the woman at the window said bikinis have replaced the pasties worn a few weeks ago.

At the Mocha Boat in Lynn-wood, a barista Tuesday had on a black bra, black panties, fishnet stockings and heels.

Are they free to do it? No question. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how that woman in her underwear felt at the end of a shift, and whether her future is all that bright.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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