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Bikini baristas were bad for business. So a Seattle coffee kiosk switched to ‘hunky’ shirtless men.

Dreamboyz Espresso, a new male alternative to “bikini barista” shops, which feature scantily clad baristas, opened in Seattle on Sept. 13. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
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Two years ago, as he watched drive-through coffee shacks staffed by scantily clad “bikini baristas” pop up all over the Pacific Northwest, Ja’shaun Williams came up an idea for a business. It would be called “Bro-kini Espresso,” and shirtless men would be the ones donning revealing swimwear and slinging piping-hot drinks.

As it turned out, someone beat him to it. But when Williams saw the help-wanted ad from a new Seattle coffee stand that needed men to steam milk and pour espresso shots while dressed in nothing more than tiny shorts and a bow tie, he decided to apply anyway. On Friday, he became one of the first two topless male baristas at Dreamboyz Espresso, whose tagline, “Hot Guys Serving Hot Coffee,” aptly sums up its business strategy.

“It’s going to make history,” Williams told KING 5.

Twenty-five miles north, in Everett, Wash., city officials have waged war on bikini baristas, leading to a bitter legal battle so acrimonious that one stand put up a sign accusing the city of being “more worried about bikinis than drugs and our homeless crisis.” In Seattle, though, shirtless male baristas with washboard abs and bulging biceps are getting a friendly reception.

Male and female customers alike told KIRO 7 that the baristas were “hunky,” “just adorable,” and “very good-looking young men,” and that it was nice to see men stripping down for a change.

“I definitely like the idea of having equality with it now,” Brandon Peters, one of the stand’s Dreamboyz, told the station. “So now there’s male stands and female stands, you know?"

Ladybug Espresso, a bikini barista chain with dozens of locations in Oregon and Washington state, previously occupied the cramped stand in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. But business was slow. The market for hot coffee served by nearly naked women apparently wasn’t what it had seemed.

“We tried to do the bikini thing but unfortunately it just didn’t work,” a representative for the chain told neighborhood blog Capitol Hill Seattle, “even though there wasn’t any competition in a direct radius.”

That could have had something to do with the fact that Capitol Hill has long been considered Seattle’s “gayborhood.” Though rising rents, fast-paced gentrification, and the city’s tech boom have led to an exodus of LGBTQ residents in recent years, the neighborhood still has the largest concentration of gay bars in the city, according to KCTS.

Customers kept telling the chain’s owners that they should just have topless men with six-pack abs serve the coffee instead, KIRO 7 reported. Eventually, business got so bad that they decided to give it a go, drawing up a new logo of a brawny man flexing in a steaming cup of coffee, and, starting on Friday, packing the tiny grab-and-go kiosk with strapping young men. Soon, customers were lining up. When reporters stopped by just days after the soft opening, they discovered that one couple in line had driven 90 miles from Bellingham, Wash.

One Capitol Hill resident, Jacob Haeger, told KIRO 7 that the concept of bikini baristas felt “like something from a bygone era” and that he didn’t think it had any place in today’s society. But seeing a coffee stand staffed with bare-chested men, he said, was “a lot of fun.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it and I was like yeah, hell yeah, this is Capitol Hill,” he said. “Bring it on.”

Though Seattle may be best known as the birthplace of Starbucks, the city is also responsible for introducing the concept of bikini and lingerie-clad baristas to the general public. According to Thrillist, the phenomenon took root in the 1990s and eventually spread to other parts of the country. But it remains predominantly concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, where luridly colored coffee shacks with names like “Java Jigglers” and “Sweet Cheeks Espresso” are can reliably be found near busy intersections and in strip mall parking lots.

“The appeal of bikini coffee in the Pacific Northwest is perhaps obvious to anyone who has lived through the region’s relentlessly gray, SAD-inducing winters,” Thrillist noted. “Also to anyone who has spent some quality time on the area’s blustery beaches, where bikinis are about as common as sunshine. Which is to say: not very.”

But the drive-through huts have been controversial. In 2009, police in Everett, Wash, charged a number of bikini baristas with prostitution and indecent exposure after an extensive sting operation, which later led the city council to declare that there had been a “proliferation of crimes of a sexual nature” at the stands. As The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt reported, the city subsequently passed ordinances banning employees at “quick service” restaurants from exposing their midriffs, breasts and the top three inches of their thighs.

In 2017, a group of bikini baristas and the owner of a chain called “Hillbilly Hotties” sued, claiming the city was violating their constitutional rights to express themselves through their clothing, and had unfairly targeted women. By forcing them to wear tank tops and shorts, they argued, city officials were preventing them from making a living.

Bikini baristas fight for their right to serve coffee half-naked — and really hot

Two years later, both sides refuse to back down. In August, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a previous ruling that had blocked the city from enforcing the ban, which meant the case was sent back to U.S. District Court, the Seattle Times reported. The paper calculated the city has spent nearly $300,000 on litigating the attire of bikini baristas so far.

Williams had a different response to seeing the trend take off. “I felt like, why can women do it but men can’t?” he told KIRO 7.