TUKWILA, Washington – Coffee-stand owner John Cambroto could not compete against the beautiful bikini-clad women selling espresso up the road.
"We had a much better atmosphere, good coffee. Unfortunately, they ran around half-naked and we didn't," said Cambroto, who finally threw in the towel last spring and sold his business to his rival, the operator of six Cowgirls Espresso stands in the Seattle suburbs.
The naughty baristas of Cowgirls Espresso represent a new trend in and around Seattle — perhaps the most caffeinated city in America — and illustrate how cutthroat the competition can be in the hometown of the massive Starbucks chain, which has multiple coffee shops competing on the same block.
Among the other coffee stands that are showing some skin: Moka Girls in Auburn, The Sweet Spot Cafe in Shoreline, Bikini Espresso in Renton and Natte Latte in Port Orchard.
One recent afternoon, there was a long line of cars at the tiny, black-and-white, cow-painted Cowgirls stand in front of a Tukwila casino.
Candice Law, leaning provocatively out the drive-through window in a black bra that didn't quite cover her shiny purple pasties, and Toni Morgan, wearing a skimpy halter top, see-through red lace panties and chaps, seemed to know every customer.
Most of the customers declined to give their names or be interviewed — "Nobody wants to admit to their wives that they're here," Law said. One who did, a 25-year-old diesel mechanic named Mike West, said he comes every day for the coffee.
"I could care less what they wear," he said.
Lori Bowden, the owner of Cowgirls Espresso, opened her first stand, by the entrance to the Silver Dollar Casino, four years ago. Law and other employees suggested doing "Bikini Wednesdays." Bowden approved, and her stand immediately doubled the amount of money it was taking in — from $200 to $400 — on Wednesdays.
"Fantasy Fridays," "School Girl Thursdays," "Cowgirl Tuesdays" and "Military Mondays" soon followed. The stand now rakes in about $800 a day, Bowden said. The girls make minimum wage, plus $80 to $150 a day in tips.
Steve McDaniel, chief operating officer at the casino, saw the line of vehicles and knew there was money to be made. He opened Moka Girls last summer. Like Cowgirls, it features theme days and racy lingerie.
"Most guys like to see pretty girls when they get their mochas," said Sarah Araujo, who opened The Sweet Spot two years ago. "We just figured we'd be honest about it."
As long as the employees' breasts and buttocks are covered, they are not breaking the law. And the owners of the stands say they get few complaints.
Bowden said the baristas at one Cowgirls stand stopped signing the paper coffee cups "XOXO" — symbolizing hugs and kisses — after the wife of one customer complained, but that has been about it.