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Bikini Brewhaha

Coffee stand sparks debate over sex, religion and conflicting facets of feminism


It was hard to tell who the drivers were honking at — the young women in bikinis or the ones holding protest signs and a baby.

Both groups were standing on the corner of 19th Avenue and Elm Street Thursday, July 25, waving at cars and trying to get a message across with their handwritten signs.

“Not Welcome” and “Family Friendly Business?” read two of them.

“Bikini Coffee” and “Bikini Baristas Now Open,” read two others.

The community coffee clash was sparked by the soft opening of Forest Grove’s newest business, Dream Girl Espresso, in the Plaid Pantry parking lot.

DG LLC sells hot and cold drinks with a smile and a side of sexy. In March, it opened its first coffee kiosk in Hillsboro, in a bar parking lot off the main highway, without a peep from the community.

But its second location — on one of Forest Grove’s two main streets, near a residential neighborhood — has drawn more attention than co-owner Leah Sizemore anticipated.

That may be because the baristas’ garb is already changing — from the two-piece bikinis they wore last Thursday, to the stick-on nipple coverings and see-through lace underwear 19-year-old Tori Walker greeted customers with Tuesday. Opponents say the issue is about far more — or, in clothing terms, less—than bikinis.

That complexity shows up in the flood of online comments about the stand, ranging from Bible verses to opposite takes on feminism: Does the stand exploit women’s sexuality or celebrate their autonomy? To some it’s just an attention-grabbing gimmick, while others contend a bikini is no different on a barista than a beach-goer. Whether they came to the stand by car, foot or Facebook, Forest Grove residents have had bikinis on the mind since last Thursday.

More than a bikini body

Sizemore, 24, is tan and fit with long dark hair and a bikini-friendly body.

Five years ago, she applied for work at a number of typical espresso stands. Her lack of experience left her down-and-out until a bikini barista company in the Seattle area gave her an opportunity that changed her life.

At first her father disapproved, she said, but after about a year he began to see positive outcomes of her job. She was gaining confidence and becoming an entrepreneur.

Sizemore prides herself on giving others the chance that once helped her.

“A lot of these girls, this is their first job,” she said.

She acknowledges that her marketing tool relies on discriminatory hiring considerations in areas such as age and gender, which federal law allows when certain characteristics are relevant to a company’s purpose.

But Sizemore, who employs eight women between the two stands, said people skills and reliability — even more than a “bikini body” — are a must for her baristas.

As co-owner of Dream Girl, Sizemore has risen beyond the barista level.

“It’s my success story. Even though we’re serving coffee in bikinis, it’s a serious job,” she said.

Between waking at 3 a.m. to prepare for her morning shift at the Hillsboro stand and falling asleep answering emails at night, Sizemore said, she’s “worked way too hard to jeopardize my business with any kind of lewd acts.”

Unfortunately, the bikini barista industry has drawn media attention in recent months for just that. A Washington stand, for example, is being investigated by police for selling strip teases from the drive-up window.

“There’s people that have done it in a bad way,” said co-owner Jeff Hupner. “We’re trying to do it in the right light.”

“I don’t sell sex. I sell coffee and a smile,” Sizemore said. “I’m a business owner, not a barista hooker.”

Filling a void

Customer-wise, Forest Grove’s Dream Girl is doing relatively well.

In its first day of operation, the stand sold more drinks than the Hillsboro location did in a week, and more than previous tenant CanAm Coffee (which gave way to The Daily Press in April 2012) did in months, said Hupner, the only male on Dream Girl’s payroll.

Hupner said Dream Girl Espresso fills a void for middle-aged men seeking a little attention from an attractive girl. He guessed 80 percent of their customers are male, and said all of them come for superior coffee.

Soccer moms with a van full of kids are more likely to go to Dutch Bros., he said.

Darrell Gamroth of Forest Grove said he patronizes Dream Girl for the friendly service and high-quality drinks — at lower prices than Starbucks. Gamroth, 44, said he would have no problem bringing his 12-year-old son to the stand.

Gamroth has also stopped at the Hillsboro location, which holds car washes. Both stands offer “Fantasy Fridays” with baristas wearing themed outfits, such as animal-print bikinis for last Friday’s “Rumble in the Jungle” theme.

Forest Grove Chamber of Commerce Director Howard Sullivan hadn’t heard about the new business until Friday afternoon.

“It’s an interesting marketing plan,” Sullivan said. “This business model is new to the area so it’s getting a lot of attention right now.”

He said it could be a “slippery slope either way” if Dream Girl applies to become a Chamber member. Rejecting it could raise concerns about discrimination, he said, while “on the other side, people would say, ‘If you allow that, what’s the next thing you’ll allow?’”

Objectification of women?

Sherry Reuter, 33, has more personal concerns about the business. Reuter lives near the new stand and fears it might downgrade the character of her neighborhood.

She and neighbor Ixchel Lechuga staged the Thursday protest as Lechuga’s 10-month-old son looked on from his nanny’s lap.

On Facebook, Reuter has posted numerous even-toned comments elaborating on her concerns, which include Dream Girl’s objectification of women, potential clientele and unsavory location.

“Our protest was a way to get the word out that the bikini/lingerie stand was up and running,” Reuter said. People noticed. Between Dream Girl employees and Reuter’s protest, cars honked, teenagers hollered and pedestrians stared.

As with Forest Grove’s other small protests, a police car parked across the street to ensure sidewalks remained passable and interaction peaceful. Police Capt. Mike Herb said he wasn’t surprised by the protest in small-town, family-friendly Forest Grove, but added the stand is far from crossing any legal lines.

Indecent exposure laws apply only if employees attempt to sexually gratify themselves or others, Herb said, and “from what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think they’re even close.”

Lechuga feels it’s a different story online. “A quick look at their Facebook page shows this business is more closely related to the sex industry than a themed coffee stand,” she wrote to the News-Times. The Dream Girls page shows photo after photo of young women in provocative poses, some wearing clothing that looks more like lingerie than beach wear.

Dream Girls “is just plain disgusting,” she said. “I don’t want my child to walk down the street and see that.”

Gamroth contends that women often ride the bus or go shopping in little more than bikinis. He said his son sees more skin at the water park.

But Forest Grove resident Eric Canon said the business exploits and commercializes feminine sexuality. He respects each woman’s decision to work wherever she chooses, but “so much of our society revolves around how women look,” he said. “They’re objects, they’re no longer human beings.”

Some people had more religious concerns.

A Forest Grove teacher and mother of three girls said the stand crosses moral lines and takes power away from parents to control what their children witness.

The woman, who would not give her name, said women who work at such establishments lack self-respect.

“They cheapen themselves. They cheapen our town,” she said. “Those parts of your body are sacred — to (be a) mother and share with someone you make a vow with.”

Sizemore has given up trying to change people’s minds about her business, but feels protesters might have their priorities mixed up.

“As a country, there are huge issues that need attention,” she said, citing education funding and school bullying. “What if people spent their time protesting those instead?”

Vulnerable to problems

Those issues matter to Reuter, an elementary and preschool teacher, but the tranquility of her neighborhood is also important. She’s mainly concerned about Dream Girl’s location, near the residential area where she lives.

“The Plaid Pantry parking lot already seems to be vulnerable to problems and a bikini barista stand is likely to not make positive contributions to our neighborhood,” Reuter said.

Lechuga was more blunt, saying she lives close enough to the Plaid Pantry “to wish that someone would bulldoze it. There are drunks, drug addicts and aimless transients hanging around outside of it all day. And now we can add to that the kinds of people who want to see a sex show with their coffee.”

Herb said the Plaid Pantry site does not actually receive any more police attention than any other place in town.

But that could change. Sizemore’s instructions to her baristas seem to indicate that Dream Girl carries higher risk than the average coffee stand.

Employees are trained to call police if a customer requests services not listed on the menu. Each stand is stocked with Mace and rigged with eight cameras that feed live footage to Sizemore.

The women who open the stand drive past it to check for creepers before leaving their cars. They carry Mace on their key chains and keep doors and windows locked.

“My biggest concern is the safety of my girls,” Sizemore said.

Covering up, however, is not part of the safety plan.

If the baristas wore shorts and T-shirts, Sizemore said, the stands would get “zero attention.”

Those detractors who are hoping the chill of winter will make Dream Girl leave — or at least put on a sweatshirt — will be disappointed.

Sizemore said the stands are so well-heated by the espresso machinery that rain and cold weather don’t make a difference. Inside the kiosk it will be hot enough for bikinis year-round.