Across the Pacific Northwest — a region famous for its coffee — dozens of drive-through espresso stands have popped up with names such as “Twin Perks,” “Peek A-Brew,” and “Java Jigglers.”
Customers are drawn by what the Seattle Times described as “coffee with a view.” When they pull up to the drive-through window, their coffee is served by a “bikini barista” in scanty attire.
The bikini baristas have caused a stir in some of these cities, with residents and local officials complaining that the employees’ revealing outfits are inappropriate. Last month, the city of Everett, Wash., about 25 miles north of Seattle, passed ordinances banning bikinis at the town’s drive-through shops, requiring that employees wear at least shorts and a tank top at work.
One of the ordinances prohibits employees at “quick service” restaurants from exposing their midriffs, breasts and the top three inches of their legs. The other defines a new crime of facilitating lewd conduct.
Now, seven of the town’s “bikini baristas” and an owner of one of the coffee shop chains are suing Everett, saying that the ordinances violate their constitutional right to express themselves freely through their clothing. The women and their lawyers argue that the new laws are vague and ambiguous, and unfairly discriminate against women.
“The City knows only women work as bikini baristas, and intentionally targeted women through the Ordinances,” Derek Newman, an attorney for the baristas, said in a statement.
The baristas allege in their lawsuit that by wearing bikinis, they are expressing “outgoing, friendly and independent” messages that make their customers more comfortable than at other coffee shops. Their scant clothing spurs fluid conversations that “never would happen at Starbucks,” one barista said in a statement in the lawsuit.
“The Baristas express messages of freedom, empowerment, openness, acceptance, approachability, vulnerability, and individuality,” the lawsuit states. “Wearing a bikini at work allows the Baristas to open conversations with customers about body image and self-confidence that would not be possible in other attire.”
A spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the city had no comment on the lawsuit.
When passing the bikini-ban ordinance, the city City Council wrote that it had found evidence “relating to the adverse impacts of the conduct of bikini barista stands … dressing in a manner that is closely and customarily associated with adult entertainment or adult situations.”
The coffee stands, the council wrote, provide “the opportunity for scantily clad baristas to easily engage in sexual conduct with customers.”
The baristas’ lawsuit alleges that to properly enforce the ordinance, police will have to determine whether a woman is exposing “more than one-half of the part of the female breast located below the top of the areola.” This would require baristas to “undergo a humiliating and intrusive examination so the officer can calculate whether her clothing choice exposes more than the law allows.”
If an owner violates the new ordinance three times, the stand can be shut down. A woman displaying more than 25 percent of her breast area or “the lower half of her anal cleft is a criminal — facing up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit argues that the ordinance is difficult to understand, with its phrases such as “anal cleft.”
“It is unlikely that most citizens would be able to determine the location of their anal cleft, as it is not a term used in everyday speech and has varying definitions on the internet,” the suit claims.
“It’s not about the bikinis,” Schuyler Lifschultz, who has been organizing efforts to fight the bikini ban, told The Washington Post. “It’s not okay for these small city councils to infringe on our civil liberties.”
“This sets back the woman’s suffrage movement 50 years,” he added.
One of the barista plaintiffs, Liberty Ziska, 25, works at two “Hillbilly Hotties” stands in Everett. She has worked as a bikini barista for nearly a decade, and has stuck with the job because it allows her to take on short shifts in the evenings.
“I didn’t want to be on welfare,” Ziska told The Post. The job allows her to take care of her three children — ages 5 and younger — during the day, and work at night when her husband is home. It also brings in more tips than the average barista gig.
Ever since the bikini ban went into effect last week, Ziska has received far fewer tips, she said.
“At the end of the day, it’s an attack against women and an attack against our rights,” Ziska said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
Jovanna Edge, also a plaintiff, owns and operates a chain of bikini barista stands, including two in Everett. She said that about 80 percent of her employees are single moms, and that many of them are students.
“A lot of these girls, this is how they make their livelihood,” Edge said. “They’re good, upstanding members of society and they’re being treated like criminals.”
The day before the law took effect, Edge said, police officers came to her businesses and dropped off a diagram outlining the dress code. The following day, officers were driving by one of her stands every hour, all day long, she said.
“There’s definitely been a change in business,” Edge said of the days since. “It’s a lot more quiet than usual.” Some customers have told employees that they plan to start going to a different bikini-barista stand less than five miles away, in an unincorporated part of the county.
She said the bikini attire is key to the business brand, and sets the stands apart from other coffee shops. Although the shops attract many male customers, Edge said at least 30 percent of the clients are women.
This is not the first time Everett’s bikini baristas have confronted controversy. In 2009, a number of female employees of local coffee stands faced indecent exposure and prostitution charges. In a lengthy sting operation, undercover police officers said female baristas stripped naked, fondled one another and exposed themselves for extra cash. On one occasion, a barista licked whipped cream off a fellow employee for $20, the Seattle Times reported, citing a police report.
Edge contends that there “haven’t been any problems in years” and that her business runs “a really, really tight ship to ensure things like that don’t happen.”
She has given the city access to security cameras in all coffee stand locations to “prove to them that we are not doing anything wrong.”
Some of the town’s bikini-barista stands have defied the ordinance in protest. But Edge says she can’t take that risk.
On the day the new laws took effect, Edge gave her employees “sexy” police officer costumes to wear instead of bikinis.
“They do follow the dress code,” she said.
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