Washington's Weird Bikini Barista Culture

This past December I was sitting in a Manhattan restaurant with the rest of the Jezebel ladies for our annual staff dinner. I made an offhand comment about an acquaintance who'd once worked as a bikini barista. I might as well have said she'd once worked as a frog. "What's a 'bikini barista'?" said everyone, staring blankly. I was equally dumbfounded. WHAT ISN'T A BIKINI BARISTA, YOU GUYS.

How is it possible that this entire table of savvy, plugged-in women weren't aware that sometimes young women stand in small, poorly insulated roadside huts with names like "Peek-a-Brew" and "Java Juggs" and foam milk with a scalding jet of steam while wearing only pasties and a thong? How can they stand to drink coffee without any idea of what their barista's vulva looks like? How can they live without the joy of eating a scone that was recently stored near the razor-burned pubis of a sullen 19-year-old?!? What kind of a life is that?

Well, it's a normal life, apparently, in every part of the country except for my weird perverted corner in the Pacific Northwest. I seriously had no idea that bikini barista stands weren't a nationwide phenomenon. Because why the fuck would it be a Washington thing, of all places? We literally won CLOUDIEST CITY IN THE U.S. (The prize is depression!) The only place where it makes less sense to wear a bikini than inside a shack filled with boiling milk is inside a damp, rainy cloud forest. Way to go, Washington.

But it's true. It's ours. I looked it up. It has its own Wikipedia page and everything.

Espresso drive-through stands and coffee outlets are numerous in the greater Seattle area, and the exact inventor of the "bikini barista" concept is debated.[1] 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.[6][7] 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.[2][8][9] The concept of "bikini baristas" spread quickly, featuring attractive young women dressed in attire such as bikinis, lingerie, stockings, and heels.[8][10][11] The first round of international press attention to the trend occurred in early 2007.[1][8][12] Competitors that have not followed suit have complained about the trend, and have also seen a drop in business.[13]

The retail establishments which employ bikini baristas often adopt titillating names, including "Peek A-Brew", "Grab n' Go", "Cowgirls Espresso", "Smokin' Hot Espresso",[14] "Knotty Bodies Espresso",[15] "Java Jigglers",[16] "Espresso Gone Wild", "Java Girls",[10] "Sweet Spot", "Fantasy Espresso", and "Natte Latte".[17]

I guess maybe other regions just don't have as intense a coffee culture as we do, which means they don't have as intense a coffee stand culture as we do. If you're still working on the basics, there's not a ton of room to get creative. Apparently there's one bikini barista chain in northern California that's doing quite well, and tons of them in Japan, which doesn't really count. But, for the most part, ladies making lattes with their buttholes almost showing remains staunchly a Washington thing.

Anyway, having a relative monopoly on bikini baristas makes Washington State the source of a unique export: bikini barista prostitution and/or boob-flashing scandals! Huzzah! I'll never forget the day, back when I was working for a Seattle newspaper, that the Everett Police Department released their "evidence" from a months-long bikini barista sting (cool use of taxpayer money!) and approximately one billion photos of women licking whipped cream out of each other's crotches arrived in my Inbox (NSFW). Ahhh, journalism.

The latest news, via our own KIRO 7 (UP TOP STEVE RAIBLE WOOOOOOOO!!!): A group of moms in Spokane, WA is trying to get regulations slapped on errant barista boobs.

Spokane residents led by a group of moms are trying to get 2,000 signatures to get a ballot initiative that would make it a misdemeanor for the baristas of Washington's "sexy" coffee stands to expose half a breast, any part of a nipple or any part of their genitals. Baristas at drive-through coffee stand establishments that go by names such as XXXtreme Espresso, Bare Beans and Devil's Brew wear outfits consisting of as little as body paint and G-strings.

"People say things like, 'It's no different than what you'd see at the beach,' but it absolutely is," said one of the moms. "You don't see girls with pasties or body paint or G-strings at the beach."

The Spokane City Council said they must collect at least 2,000 signatures before the council would consider putting their initiative on the ballot in November. The women behind the ballot initiative push said they aren't trying to shut down the shops but only to get the girls to cover up a little more.

"We feel like we're being pretty reasonable," one mom said. "We're not asking them to wear turtlenecks or anything like that. We'd just like them to wear bras or bikinis."

Beyond my personal confusion at WHY THE FUCK customers would want to mix genitals with their food service (seriously, men—GET A GRIP), I don't have any moral objection to women making coffee in their underwear (or sex work in general, for that matter, and some of these scandals certainly qualify as such). As long as they're compensated fairly and they're not coerced and their consent can be safeguarded somehow and there's at least a space heater in there or something. Obviously I wish we lived in a world where the objectification of women wasn't so ubiquitous and profitable, but I don't think taking away women's livelihoods in the short-term is a good solution on that front.

So keep on bikini-ing, I guess, bikini baristas! And I'll keep on driving the extra 10 minutes down Aurora to get to a Starbucks or something because all the hometown pride in the world isn't going to get me to drink crotch-coffee.

Image by Jim Cooke and Sam Woolley.