Scantily-clad baristas? Not in her neighborhood

Six years ago Lori Bowden introduced Cowgirls, the espresso stand painted like a jersey cow, staffed with baristas who serve coffee with a smile – and sometimes in a bikini.

Owner says there’s nothing wrong with Cowgirls stands; others disagree

Six years ago Lori Bowden introduced Cowgirls, the espresso stand painted like a jersey cow, staffed with baristas who serve coffee with a smile – and sometimes in a bikini.

Bowden has since opened Cowgirls stands in Kent, Tukwila, Pacific, Lakewood, Everett, Monroe and Seattle. A week and half ago, she moved into the old Perky’s on A St. S.E., Auburn, bringing those scantily-clad baristas with her.

Yet in all her years in business, Bowden has never dealt with anyone like Auburn’s Sara Byers. The 32-year-old mother of six is upset with the stand’s location, and she is not shy about saying why.

“I don’t care that they are selling coffee,” Byers said. “I don’t care if they’ve got a little g-thong poking out of their low-rise jeans. But bra tops, pasties, and your butt hanging out, that is just not how we conduct ourselves. Not in a school zone.”

Byers is particularly upset that Terminal Park Elementary School, where her 11-year-old son is a student, is only three blocks away.

“My son walks near the stand every day on his way to school. His friends ride their bikes. If those girls want to be scantily-clad and dress that way and that’s what they have to do to have their business, that’s OK. But when you are in a school zone, you are then not protecting the kids,” Byers said.

Byers suggested the city require signs suggesting parental guidance. If someone should send their child to get a coffee, she asked, are the baristas going to serve that child? And what are they going to wear when they serve it?

“My 11-year-old son knows that if he’s over there, it’s completely unacceptable,” Byers said, as she stood on an adjoining street on a recent day and watched customers come and go. “You’ve got a building there shaped like a teacup and painted like cows. How is that not inviting half of the little kids around here to go there to get their chocolate milk?”

This week Byers and other concerned parents took their complaints to the Auburn City Council and to civic leaders. Byers waved at Council members samples of skimpy clothing she said matched what the baristas wear at the stand.

“I think it’s disgusting,” said Auburn resident Jessica McDonald. “They had one window, they added two long windows so now when you drive by you can see their full body. I think it’s bad for our image.”

“I’ve never faced a backlash like this,” Bowden said.

Outfits improve sales

Bowden said one especially hot day six years ago an employee at her Seattle stand asked to wear a bikini top to stay cool. Within a week sales were up, and Bowden knew she was on to something. So Wednesdays became Bikini Wednesdays. Bowden then bought a stand near McChord Air Force Base and launched Military Mondays, when her baristas dress in sexy military outfits like camouflage shorts and tank tops. Today, there are Cowgirl Tuesdays, School Girl Thursdays and Fantasy Fridays.

“It’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is,” Bowden said. “Do you take your child to Enchanted Village, Wild Waves, to the beach? We are not doing anything different from that.”

She said that women comprise 30 percent of her customer base, so the buzz can’t be all about the attire. She said she serves great coffee.

Bowden said she understands Byers’ concern about the school zone.

“I did not know it was a school zone. I am glad that I am three miles away from a high school. But little kids don’t drive to my stand. I am on a 5-lane road. Who lets their child walk on a five-lane road? There are six other stands on that road, and there have been for years. It is coffee row. The former owner of Perky’s sought me out to take over his stand,” Bowden said.

Byers hopes to persuade the city to adopt an ordinance that says if it is illegal to sell crack in a school zone, it should be equally unacceptable to be scantily clad in a school zone.

There may be little that Byers can do but protest. City attorney Dan Heid said state law specifies that if attire is acceptable on a beach, it’s acceptable everywhere else.

Bowden said the law is very specific: her baristas must be covered from the aureoles to the bottom of the breasts, and no lower cleavage can show. She said her baristas follow that.

Not true, said Byers.

“You can’t sell crack in the community,” Byers said “but they’re selling quite a bit of crack in the community.”

Tim Carstens, principal at Terminal Park Elementary School, said Byers brought the stand to his attention when it first opened.

“As a parent, it got my attention very quickly,” Carstens said. “Unfortunately, it is outside of what the auspices of the school district can control. My understanding is they have gone through the different requirements with the city, which put me at ease. Though it’s in the walking area, it is not one of the traffic patterns for our students because of how busy A Street is. I personally don’t get my coffee there.

“As a parent and an educator of young students, I understand her concerns and will work with parents on a parent-by-parent basis. Right now, it’s not an issue our students are talking about when they come to school,” Carstens said.

Barista Kimberly Rose Schmidt is puzzled by the backlash.

“Cowgirls espresso is just a fun coffee stand,” Schmidt, who has worked for Bowden for three years, wrote in a letter to the City of Auburn. “None of the girls are being forced to do this, and we are all considered adults and able to make our own decisions. We are not working there with any bad intentions. We all love our job and have all been working for the company for a very long time.

“We are all nice girls with the passion for making coffee, and we found a fun way to sell it,” she added. “Whether we are working to save money to open our own business or to pay off school loans or to even help out our parents, we are not doing anything wrong, nor do we have any less respect for ourselves or anyone else.”