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Bikini baristas: a Seattle origin story

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Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP
Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP

It's no surprise that Seattle is known for its coffee. Starbucks, which had 32,646 stores worldwide in 2020, debuted in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971. Seattle is famous not only as the birthplace of the world-famous chain but also for the invention of a certain kind of delivery: steaming hot coffee, served by bikini-clad baristas.

The idea of a sexy coffee stand is the brainchild of Mary Keller Wynn, who started the first stand of this kind when she opened her business Natte Latte in Bremerton in 1999. While Wynn's baristas dressed professionally with a hint of naughty — work uniforms were a white tank top and bright pink shorts — Wynn never went as far as bikinis. As she told Anna Boiko-Weyrauch of NPR in 2017, "That was just taking it a little bit too far for my comfort level. We did a really good job with what we were already marketing."

But the old adage "sex sells" was too tempting for some creative business owners. It didn't take long for other stands to start popping up all over the PNW: currently there are 57 such businesses in 145 different locations, many within reasonable driving distance of Seattle.

One of the stands that received local, even national, attention was Dreamboyz Espresso. After a bikini barista shop closed on Capitol Hill after not receiving enough business, the owners came up with a creative solution: if bikini-clad women wouldn't do the trick, how about shirtless men? Thus Dreamboyz Espresso, which opened on September 13, 2019. It was one of a kind: the only coffee stand to be operated by shirtless men in Washington state. The stand has since closed, for undetermined reasons.

While bikini-barista coffee stands have become yet another unique cultural experience in the Seattle area that many people seem to enjoy, not everyone approves. After the City of Everett passed ordinances prohibiting restaurant-industry workers from wearing bikinis while on the job. The ordinances were extremely specific and detailed, banning "exposure or display of one's genitals, anus, bottom one-half of the anal cleft, or any portion of the areola or nipple of the female breast."

Seven bikini baristas and the owner of the coffee stand Hillbilly Hotties responded by suing the city, claiming it had violated their constitutional right to free expression and their right to privacy. The plaintiffs felt that in order to enforce the law, police officers would have to perform inappropriate examinations of suspects and that it unfairly targeted women. They also asked the court to prevent the city from enforcing the rules while the case was pending.

The ordinances were in response to a 2009 undercover police sting that resulted in a prostitution ring run through the bikini barista stand, Grab N Go. According to the City Council agenda, "The city has seen that the minimalistic nature of the clothing worn by baristas at these 'bikini' stands lends itself to criminal conduct."

At first glance, it seemed like the bikini baristas would win, after a US district judge in Seattle ruled in their favor. But things took a different turn when, in the summer of 2019, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ruled in favor of the city. Judge Morgan Christen said that "plaintiffs had not demonstrated a 'great likelihood' that their intended messages related to empowerment and confidence would be understood by those who view them."

But the baristas weren't without a plan of attack: they filed a petition to the US Supreme Court that the ordinance impeded on their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately for them, the Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal.

It is very clear that bikini baristas and their establishments have an uphill battle in front of them, and some might question whether it is one even worth fighting.

One local barista at Pink Hotties Espresso, a sexy coffee stand in Lynnwood, who has been working there for a month but has been a bikini barista for seven years, believes that this industry is worth fighting for. "Because not all of us are taking it a step further, like they are in Everett," she said. "A lot of us just want to make our money by wearing cute outfits."
The seasoned barista truly enjoys her work too. "I'm an exhibitionist; this job is really fun for me," she said.