The women—and the controversy—behind the lingerie latte stands

 

Lingerie espresso stands – drive-thrus with young, bikini- or lingierie-clad baristas – have popped up all over the Northwest in recent years, promptly followed by controversy over lingerie- and bikini-clad baristas. Is this exploitation? Is it sex work? Is it moral? Is the coffee even good? Don’t they get cold when it’s snowing outside?

 

The woman at the drive-through espresso window seems sweet. Her faux-blonde hair is pulled into loose pigtails and her eyelids traced with a thick curve of black liquid liner. A white button-up tee is tied at her sternum. The red plaid of a skirt peeks up from the lower edge of the window.

 

She smiles at the man in the driver’s seat. What can she get started for us?

 

Two lattes, please, one with skim milk.

 

She turns away to get started.

 

Really? This is what all the controversy’s about? I dress sluttier than this on Halloween, and I’m a feminist. At the drive-thru window, I look up from fumbling with bills and glance into the interior of the shop.

 

A mirror leans against the back wall, revealing the rest of the plaid skirt. It isn’t much – and it’s more revealing than any of my Halloween costumes. The barista seems either comfortable with or unaware that we have suddenly reached a new level in our relationship – the one where I am seeing the majority of her rear end.

 

The coffee is okay at best – but the girls at the stand tell me the quality of the coffee is not why men, who comprise the vast majority of their clientele, come here. They come for the view.

 

“You talk to them for, like, three minutes, tops,” says the woman who brewed my drink. She says knowing that they’re looking doesn’t make her feel unsafe.

 

In exchange for offering “eye candy” to customers, the women earn easily three times the tips that regular baristas do.

 

“I’ve been a barista for about five years. I honestly just couldn’t find a job, and [being a barista is] part of the skills that I have,” says the second barista – who showed up for work with a similar liquid eyeliner configuration, but wore sweats and a tee. Her long, tan-painted fingernails taper to a point.

 

“Honestly, once I’ve seen the kind of money that you make, that’s what convinced me to stay here,” she says.

 

At the stands where she previously worked, which were not lingerie stands, she made $60 in tips during a busy morning shift. Here, she says, there’s no such thing as a slow shift – she earns an average of $150 in tips during a six-hour shift.

 

The baristas happily chat with me between customers – who eventually form a line that snakes through the parking lot and dangles onto Sprague Avenue – but when the shop owner, Leslie Robertson, arrives, she instructs the girls not to talk to me. She says they’re not interested in being part of my story.

 

Robertson is also in her twenties, a tall, tan brunette with tattoos climbing up her legs. She is known at the stand as, “Lucky Little Leslie” and is a stark contrast from the image I’d conjured of a fat, old man bossing around young girls.

 

Jeana Bryan, the stunning 28-year-old blonde woman who owns Big Shot’s Espresso, isn’t much more eager to talk to me. It’s not surprising, considering the negative press aimed at her stands – located on Division at Boone and Wellesley at Lidgerwood – in recent years.

 

Most recently, her baristas brewed coffee for reviewers from a local publication, who Bryan says were friendly when they came by. Their review blasted the quality of Hot Shots’ drinks and called the stand’s signature bright pink exterior garish. (To be fair, the reviewers said Busty’s Top espresso tasted like “dregs of a 24-hour diner’s coffee pot.”)

 

The Big Shot’s location on Lidgerwood underwent scrutiny in 2010 when its lingerie-clad employees stood on the street corner waving in customers. In a separate incident, neighbors complained that the interior of the shop – scantily-clad women and all – were visible from their apartment windows.

 

As the controversy brewed, so did the baristas. Espresso with a view has proven to be a profitable business model, and so far, a legal one – at least in Spokane.

 

Owners and employees at two such espresso stands in western Washington have been charged with prostitution in recent years. In both cases, the baristas exposed themselves to customers for large tips and sometimes allowed customers to touch them.

 

No such charges have arisen in Spokane.

 

When baristas at Big Shot’s Espresso called police in 2010 to curb harassment from a local woman, the officers reportedly addressed the harassment and left, finding no violations on the part of the business.

 

Online ads for local lingerie stands ask women to send a photo along with their resume.

 

“Please send a full body pic in something close to what you will be wearing,” reads one. Applicants are told they are being hired as models and should “fit the profile.”

 

Another ad boasts female ownership and says it seeks “enthusiastic, energetic and outgoing talent.” Other traits sought include “dependable,” “bubbly” and, of course, “willing to wear bikinis.”

 

When Amy first came across an ad for the job in 2009, she saw it as an opportunity to pay off the substantial school debt she’d incurred attending a private Christian university.

 

She called her mother for advice.

 

“Do you have a problem wearing a bikini?” her mother asked. Amy said she didn’t – that she felt comfortable with the idea.

 

“Well, do it then,” said her mother.

 

Despite having the support of her family and close friends, customers didn’t expect the girl at the bikini espresso stand to have much going for her.

 

“It’s really fun to watch peoples’ faces when they’re like, ‘What else do you do?’ and you know they want me to say I work at a strip club,” she says. “And I say, ‘Oh, I go to school,’ and they’re like, ‘Wait – what?’”

 

She learned to brew coffee at Busty’s Top Espresso on the job with no actual training, but that didn’t stop her from paying off a substantial amount of her student debt – enough to allow her to go back to school.

 

“I was working there and at [a local restaurant] and going to school and I got a 3.9,” she says. She left her job at the stand last summer to make more time for school and her restaurant gig.

 

Amy says hiring for appearance is commonplace throughout the food service industry, not just at the stands that specifically hire “models.”

 

“When I got hired at the [restaurant where I now work], it was the same thing. I thought I got hired for my [ability], and people were saying, ‘Yeah, he’s looking for cute girls,’” she says. “I think a lot of businesses do that. Some of them are just more obvious about it than others.”

 

I tell her that some cities are requiring lingerie and bikini espresso stands to operate under Adult Entertainment licenses.

 

“There’s always those ones that ruin it for everyone else,” she says. “I definitely think those ones that are doing [pornographic activity] should get an adult license, but those of us that are keeping it simple, wearing Halloween outfits…”

 

I bring up the prostitution charges on the West Side. Does stuff like that happen here?

 

“I worked with so many different girls, toward the end we had a lot more strippers that were a little more risqué, and that sort of annoyed me because they would do a lot more,” she says.

 

Because her co-workers were willing to push the envelope, her customers began to expect her to do the same, she says. “I would be like, ‘No, I don’t do that. Come back when she’s there.’”

 

Erika Prins is a Spokane-based writer. She has been exploring the Northwest with a pen, a camera, and a pair of running shoes since moving here in 2004. Read more of her work at erikaprins.com.

 

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