Are bikini baristas a Pacific Northwest phenomenon?
Jake Koukel from Puyallup asked KUOW’s Local Wonder team to investigate.
The sexy espresso prototype in the Seattle area started in 1999, with businesswoman Mary Keller Wynn. Her former company Natte Latte was the first to serve up a little more than a cup of coffee.
“I didn’t know anything about coffee,” Wynn said. “I wanted to invest some of the extra money I was making at my other business.”
Wynn ran an import/export business. Back then, Starbucks had just started piloting drive-thrus. “Somebody said coffee’s really big right now, I’m like, really?”
Wynn opened a kiosk in her office building. She came up with the name one day with friends.
“We were just sitting around, just a group of us, then I went latte, latte, natte, latte, Natte Latte!” she said. “We went to an artist from there. Before we even had the stand, we had the logo.”
The logo was a smiling lady in a coffee cup. Lots of foam, no cleavage. “The brand image was clean, sexy, but fun,” Wynn said.
(Note that the early Starbucks logo, which featured a drawing of a siren with bared breasts and an interesting split in her tail. Sirens, recall, lure seafaring men to them.)
Wynn’s baristas wore white tank tops and bright pink shorts. The coffee stands were near Bremerton, a seafaring town.
The idea spread. The mid-aughts brought bikini baristas and lingerie baristas. Cowgirls Espresso in south King County claims to be the originator of the bikini barista.
Natte Latte never went as far as bikinis, Wynn says.
“That was just taking it a little bit too far for my comfort level,” she said. “We did a really good job with what we were already marketing.”
Bikini barista stands continued to proliferate, and with them, controversy. In Everett, some of the baristas served up sex shows. Police raided one stand and arrested three workers.
At two other stands in town, investigators discovered a prostitution ring, according to KOMO. The owner was making baristas work for tips and the girls were exposing themselves for money. Meanwhile, a sheriff’s deputy was conspiring with the owner to keep it hush-hush.
They pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution and money laundering.
Now, years later, the city of Everett wants to crack down further with a dress code for baristas — shorts and tank tops — and new licensing requirements for owners.
“The city is not going after women in bikinis; that’s not the goal,” said Aaron Snell with Everett Police. “There are secondary issues in the community, and that’s what we’re trying to target.”
Issues like customers being lewd, or drug dealing and prostitution in the neighborhoods around the coffee stands. “The ripple effect from these stands tends to be greater in the areas around them,” Snell said.
At Showcase Coffee in Everett, a barista in black lace lingerie said the proposed ordinance is ridiculous. She didn’t give her name because she was concerned she'd be harassed.
“None of the girls that work here do shows, none of them are prostituting,” she said. “None of them do any of that, and I know girls who work at other bikini stands and they don’t allow that stuff either. That stuff was at the stands that are now shut down.”
Everett will decide on the dress code this summer.
But back to the original question and whether the Pacific Northwest invented skimpy baristas.
The answer is no. Chile, the South American country, had that tradition before we did. They called it café con piernas – coffee with legs. But the roadside espresso stands – that’s our local twist.