A bikini barista is a person who prepares and serves coffee drinks while dressed in scanty attire such as a bikini or lingerie. In the United States, this marketing trend (sometimes referred to as sexpresso or bareista) originated in the Seattle, Washington area in the early 2000s. Similar phenomena have appeared in countries such as Chile and Japan since at least the 1980s.
Development of concept
Espresso drive-through stands and coffee outlets are numerous in the greater Seattle area, so much so that coffee stands that have fully clothed employees often advertise themselves as "family friendly". The exact inventor of the "bikini barista" concept is debated. The "Natte Latte" chain's first location was opened in November 1999 by Mary Keller, and its employees began sporting pink leather hotpants in 2001. Next, in 2003, "Cowgirls Espresso" opened its first location in Tukwila, Washington. A few months after opening, as summer heat invaded the small 70-square-foot (6.5 m2) shop, owner Lori Bowden adopted employee suggestions that they start a "Bikini Wednesday" promotion. Sales took off, and other scantily-clad theme days soon followed. The concept of "bikini baristas" spread quickly, featuring attractive young women dressed in attire such as bikinis, lingerie, stockings, and heels. The first round of international press attention to the trend occurred in early 2007. Competitors that have not followed suit have complained about the trend, and have also seen a drop in business.
The retail establishments which employ bikini baristas often adopt titillating names, including "Peek A-Brew", "Grab n' Go", "Cowgirls Espresso", "Smokin' Hot Espresso", "Knotty Bodies Espresso", "Java Jigglers", "Espresso Gone Crazy", "Espresso Gone Wild", "Java Girls", "Sweet Spot", "Fantasy Espresso", and "Natte Latte".
Controversies and litigation
In Snohomish County
Undercover police officers in Snohomish County, Washington, witnessed some baristas performing additional services for extra money, including letting customers touch them, photograph them or watch them lick whipped cream off each other. These statements have been retracted by the Everett WA police department, as the police officer 'undercover' was a known customer and offered money to the barista. The Everett, WA police department was accused of entrapment. In September 2009, five baristas at a Grab 'n Go in Everett, Washington were charged with prostitution after police surveillance caught them stripping and performing sexual acts for cash. Other complaints were in regard to the stand's proximity to preschools and daycare centers.
Everett (the county seat of and the largest city in Snohomish County), in December 2017 was temporarily enjoined against enforcing a dress code ordinance against bikini baristas by U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman who found it unconstitutionally vague, violated their freedom of expression and unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment since it targeted only women. In 2018 March the city filed an appeal with 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and requested the injunction be lifted.
In Belfair, Washington
In another incident, "Espresso Gone Wild" in Belfair, Washington was temporarily shut down by Mason County in August 2008. It drew the ire of Belfair residents. Mason County officials responded to complaints on the July 30, 2008 meeting by ruling the espresso stand is "erotic entertainment" and off limits in the Belfair area. The owners of "Espresso Gone Wild" in Belfair were being told that their baristas are violating an erotic entertainment ordinance. They were also told that their baristas need to cover up and clean up their act or the stand will be shut down permanently. Mason County Commissioner Tim Sheldon says the owners of "Espresso Gone Wild" are welcome to open a coffee shop and compete with all the other coffee shops in town. Sheldon also says the owners won't be able to sell sex and coffee on the side. "Espresso Gone Wild" in Belfair, Washington was prohibited from allowing employees to wear pasties and their baristas now wear bikinis. Residents in another community have surveilled a local stand and called for boycotts of companies whose employees patronize the establishments.
In Yakima, Washington
In Yakima, Washington, a bikini bar owner was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and fined $1,000 because, at the coffee shop, the barista "wore shorts determined to be both too skimpy and too sheer. A city ordinance bans bikini baristas from wearing G-strings and see-through clothing." The barista was charged but acquitted by the jury in the indecent exposure case.
Growth outside Seattle area
Some entrepreneurs have opened bikini barista stores with success outside the Seattle area, including in Raleigh, North Carolina, Aurora, Colorado, Portland, Oregon, Youngstown, Ohio, Tampa, Florida, Pasadena, Maryland, Chatsworth, Georgia, Las Vegas, Texas, and Missouri. Baristas has been dubbed the Hooters of coffee due to its size and popularity in the market. Hooters is place in which scantily clad women serve food and drinks to patrons. Bikini Beans is another such place in the US.
A Los Angeles area store called "Bikini Espresso" only lasted four months in the Los Angeles area in 2009, and closed with complaints of over-regulation.
One chain in particular called "Bottoms Up Espresso", who have expanded into multiple Northern California markets including locations in Modesto, California; Tracy, California; Clovis, California; Bakersfield, California; and Vernalis, California; has quickly become a favorite among social media users with their baristas featured regularly on the website The Chive and other popular websites. With the brands growing popularity they have expanded into a mobile food truck style service and expanded into its own line of merchandise including yearly calendars featuring their current line up of bikini baristas.
Two bikini barista businesses are opened in northwest Fresno, California, Java Girls Espresso and Pink Pantherz Espresso, since the summer of 2014. However, on Facebook, Java Girls Espresso's owner Terry Ford announced that it closed its door on January 1, 2015 due to financial difficulty.
Outside the United States
- Laura Maggi, a woman in her mid 30s, became a national celebrity in Italy in 2012 as a result of starting a habit of coming to work in revealing attire at the coffee bar called Le Cafe that she owns and operates in the small Italian town of Bagnolo Mella. She continues to generate local controversy serving "sexpresso" as she wears a variety of revealing outfits when serving customers. She also has female assistants who do the same, and sells glamour calendars of herself in addition to the coffee. Maggi has been the subject of photo-illustrated articles in popular tabloids, such as the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom and Oggi in Italy.
- A phenomenon similar to bikini baristas is very popular in Chile, known as "café con piernas" (literally, coffee with legs) and existed long before their Seattle counterpart.
- In Taiwan, young women who sell betel nuts and cigarettes from brightly lit glass enclosures while wearing revealing clothing are called Betel nut beauties. They debuted in the 1960s.
- In Japan, "no-pan kissa" (no-panty coffee shop) blossomed in the 80s, where the waitresses have short skirts and no panties. Typical of Japanese sex-fads, they didn't last more than a few years before they morphed into other (but similar) businesses.
- In Surfers Paradise, Queensland, gold lamé bikini-clad meter maids stroll up and down the beach feeding coins into parking meters so that beach-goers won't get parking tickets. Though feeding meters is illegal in Surfers Paradise, local law enforcement is encouraged to look the other way, as the Meter Maids not only keep tourists happy, but they have also become a tourist attraction themselves.
In a column published in Sociological Images, the sociologist Lisa Wade has used the bikini barista as a launching point for a discussion of the boundaries of sex work. The question has also been the subject of an essay published in The Atlantic.
- Café con piernas in Chile, preceded the Pacific Northwest phenomenon
- Mizu shōbai
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- Anna BOIKO-WEYRAUCH (July 27, 2017), Are bikini baristas a Pacific Northwest phenomenon?, Seattle: KUOW-FM