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Coffee, with sugar, in Seattle

The latte market here is crowded, but `sexpresso' sellers stand out with scantily clad baristas.

February 04, 2007|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SHORELINE, WASH. — On a quick break from his job as a trash hauler, Rob Chapman was in the mood for some coffee. So he pulled his truck into the Sweet Spot Cafe, a drive-through espresso stand on busy Aurora Avenue here in the Seattle suburbs.

"Do you want a Wet Dream or the Sexual Mix today, honey?" asked barista Edie Smith, dressed in a tight-fitting yellow blouse that did a less than fully effective job of covering her cleavage. She leaned down in the window, perhaps all the closer to hear his order. He chose the first option: a coffee with white chocolate, milk and caramel sauce.

It is possible, of course, that Chapman and the dozens of other drive-by customers at the parking lot stand one recent morning stopped by only for the coffee.

But, as Chapman dryly observed, "I do enjoy coming here more than Starbucks."

In a way, it is perhaps stunning that it took so long for entrepreneurs here to figure out that coffee, the fabled Seattle obsession, mixes very well with sex, the fabled human obsession.

But apparently it does, to judge from the growing number of steamy espresso stands that have popped up around the region in the last year or so.

At the Sweet Spot here in Shoreline, the Natte Latte in Port Orchard and the Bikini Espresso in Renton, not to mention the multi-stand Cowgirls Espresso, the term "hot coffee" has clearly taken on a whole new meaning.

Some of the "sexpresso" stands, as they are called, have proved so popular that neighbors, including adjacent businesses, have started to complain. Not that it's done much good.

"Really, there is no ordinance against scantily clad baristas," said John Urquhart, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department in King County, which includes Seattle and most suburbs.

As long as breasts and buttocks are more or less covered, it's legal to serve coffee in a baby-doll negligee and chaps, as a barista was doing at a Cowgirls Espresso stand the other day.

"It's sort of like a Hooters for coffee," Urquhart explained. "It's not against the law. And the truth is, a lot of them are doing a land-office business."

The Sweet Spot's owner, Sarah Araujo, claims to have started the trend two years ago, after brainstorming ways to set her business apart. (A shortage of coffee places is not a problem in Seattle, so the competition is ferocious.)

Soon, the Sweet Spot was doing "theme days": Tube Top Tuesdays, Wet T-Shirt Wednesdays and Fantasy Fridays.

Drinks were given new names: The Sexual Mix, for instance, is a caramel macchiato with vanilla and milk.

The inevitable job titles cropped up as well -- many of the women who sell the coffee describe themselves as "bodacious baristas" or "bikini baristas."

Although the stands seem to attract plenty of female customers, there don't appear to be very many male "buff baristas."

"We don't have any male baristas, no," said Smith, 38.

"There is a husband who works here, but he basically does our slave work" -- removing the grounds from the coffee machines, washing the dishes, taking out the trash, that sort of thing.

At Cowgirls Espresso, all 26 employees are women.

Most of the baristas say that they are paid at or just above minimum wage -- but that they can also make as much as $200 in tips during a seven-hour shift.

At Tully's, a decidedly more mainstream chain of coffee shops in Seattle, barista Alex Torres, 17, said he was lucky if he got a $10 share on his shift from the plastic tips box.

Still, Torres said, he was glad not to work at a sexpresso stand.

"It just doesn't seem right, selling coffee in a bikini," said Torres, a sophomore at Seattle's Ballard High School. "It seems degrading to the women."

And while the money is good for the racy-themed baristas, plenty of other people agree with Torres that it is exploitative and demeaning.

When the Seattle Times recently ran a feature article with photographs on the "sexpresso" stands, several readers wrote in to complain. "Is this a NEWSpaper, or a porn magazine?" one Seattle woman wrote.

Other readers accused the paper of using sex to boost sales, just as the coffee stands were doing.

In any event, the article was "far and away the most-read story on our Web site for days," wrote Michael R. Fancher, the paper's editor at large, in a subsequent column. "You can decide whether that suggests salacious interest, natural curiosity or both."

sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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