Some coffee stands get steamier
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
In a short, sheer, baby-doll negligee and coordinated pink panties, Candice Law is dressed to work at a drive-through espresso stand in Tukwila, and she is working it.
Customers pull their trucks up to the window, where Law greets each with an affectionate nickname, blows kisses, and vamps about as she steams milk for a mocha. "You want whipped cream?" she asks, a sly smile playing on her pierced lip.
The next customer rolls up, and Law throws a long leg onto the window sill, like an indie-rock ballerina at the barre.
"Do you like my leg warmers?" she asks. "Aren't they hot?"
Hot is not the half of it. To stand apart from the hordes of drive-through espresso stands that clutter the Northwest's roadsides, commuter coffee stops such as Tukwila's Cowgirls Espresso are adding bodacious baristas, flirty service and ever more-revealing outfits to the menu.
At Port Orchard's Natté Latté, baristas sport hot-pink hot pants and tight white tank tops. Day-of-the-week theme outfits ranging from racy lingerie to "fetish" ensembles are the dress code at Moka Girls Espresso in Auburn and at several Cowgirls Espresso stands in the area. Bikini tops are the special at Café Lorraine on Highway 9 in Woodinville, and the women of The Sweet Spot in Shoreline pose provocatively in Playmate-style profiles on the stand's Web site.
"In this area, we all know how to make good coffee," said Barbara Record, who opened Bikini Espresso in Renton last month. The trick is to set your business apart, she said, and sex is one sure-fire way to do that.
"It's just, how far do you want to go?" she said.
At Best Friend Espresso in Kenmore, baristas go thigh-high. An elevated service window offers customers a nearly full-length view of pretty, young baristas — some of them high-school students — in short skirts, tank tops and high heels.
Best Friend owner Wayne Hembree said he requires employees to dress "classy;" in dresses, skirts and a nice top.
"What I think most of them have found is that their tips are better if they wear short skirts," he said.
Occasionally, Best Friend does theme days, such as "schoolgirl" or adding glasses for a sexy "secretary" look, manager Heather Bacon said.
Longer commutes, a change in laws regulating the stands, and the saturation of the carryout coffee market have given drive-through stands a jolt in the past few years.
When the state's smoking ban went into effect last year, many bar, casino and convenience-store owners sought to make up for expected losses by renting part of their parking lots to espresso stands, said Lori Bowden, owner of the Cowgirls Espresso stands.
The advent of "sexpresso" is harder to track. Business and baristas debate over who pioneered the edgy outfits, but they agree that by sweetening the product, with a smile and maybe a shot of hazelnut syrup, they've reached out to customers who've never set foot in a Starbucks.
Drive-throughs are a growing part of Starbucks' business, too, with more than 1,500 drive-through locations throughout the United States. But a representative of the company said it has no plans to sex up the dress code, as it wouldn't fit the company's brand.
At places such as Cowgirls, the barista is the brand.
"If I'm going to pay $4 for a cup of coffee" said one male customer, "I'm not going to get served by a guy."
That attitude has been a boon to Cowgirls. Bowden, a former vending-machine-company owner, has acquired seven drive-through stands, with a total of 26 employees, all of them women.
Though most of the stands in the area pay minimum wage, Law said she makes more in tips than she ever did as a waitress at Hooters. One recent morning, she served 400 customers between about 6 a.m. and noon.
"Your customers freakin' adore you. Everybody's excited to see you," Law said. "You spend a few minutes with them and they leave."
They come back, too.
When Ryan Reed pulled up to Best Friend Espresso for his usual, a 24-ounce iced vanilla latte, on a recent weekday afternoon, he knew what to expect.
"The owner [Wayne Hembree] always hires super-hot girls," Reed said. "That's basically his philosophy."
Hembree said actually, he looks for customer-service skills. The dress code, which he started four years ago, was inspired by an employee whose polished look boosted business, he said. Hembree also requires staff members to wear makeup and do their hair, "and these guys, I won't lie to you, they like that," he said.
But Best Friend has made some enemies. Jeff Marshall, whose wife, Wendy, owns the gift shop Chalet Cadeau, said the couple moved their business from Kenmore to Kirkland last month in frustration over neighboring Best Friend Espresso. Marshall said the business caused traffic problems and drove customers away from the gift shop.
"It's disgusting," he said of the stand. "It's an undesirable business from a community that's trying to sell itself as a family-oriented community."
Kenmore City Manager Steve Anderson said city officials looked into Marshall's complaints.
"We've heard of issues and we've had undercover investigations, police surveillance, and it resulted in nothing," he said. Likewise, King County sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart said the business isn't breaking any laws.
Bowden said law requires that employees cover their breasts and buttocks, so there will be no "thong Thursday," as some customers have requested.
Back in that cow-spotted stand in front of Silver Dollar Casino in Tukwila, Law steams milk and dreams up new themes.
"I like the idea of Saran Wrap Saturday," she mused. "Now they've got those colored Saran Wraps. Dude, they could totally make a cute outfit."
Amy Roe: 206-464-3347 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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