I don’t drink coffee. Never have. I don’t know why; it’s just on the long list of things I never bothered with. When upscale coffee consumption exploded in popularity in the nineties, I kind of missed the whole thing but I understand that competition is fierce and new companies have to come up with a hook to compete with the big boys. A new drive-through coffeehouse in Fremont called Your Coffee Cups believes it has a winning formula: premium product prepared by beautiful baristas in bikinis.
Bikini baristas aren’t a new concept. Not surprisingly it was pioneered in the Seattle area at the end of the 20th century and has spread to cities around the country. Your Coffee Cups is however the first to bring it to the Bay Area. They opened about eight weeks ago in a parking lot kiosk at a strip mall (ha!) at the intersection of Warm Springs Boulevard and Mission Boulevard. This is located on what I call El Camino de San Jose, the historic road to Mission San Jose.
So what is the Your Coffee Cups experience? The kiosk has two drive-up windows and a walk-up window. As you approach it’s an unassuming little pink and white building but when you pull up to the window you’re greeted by a friendly, shapely young lady in skimpy attire: your bikini barista. “Bikini” is an oversimplification. Y.C.C. features a different theme every day:
- Military Mondays
- Heroic Tuesdays
- Steamin’ Hot Wednesdays
- Tantalizing Thursdays
- Fantasy Fridays
- Surprise Saturdays
- Sports Sundays
So while there’s certainly a place for classic two-piece swimwear, primarily you’ll see lingerie and costumes of the “sexy Halloween” variety. Your Coffee Cups gets its outfits from Yandy.com.
Continuing with the experience, the barista takes your order and prepares it herself, furiously working all the complicated knobs and buttons with all the requisite hissing and gurgling. The kiosk offers a full range of the typical mocha-chocolata-yaya coffee drinks that I don’t understand. A cute touch is that the available sizes are “B Cup,” “C Cup,” and “D Cup,” Your Coffee Cups. The menu includes tea, smoothies, cold drinks, and assorted baked goods. The quality of the beverages and food should be high since they use premium ingredients from top shelf vendors. Their coffee beans come from Oakland’s Mr. Espresso whose unique fire-roasted beans are featured in some of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants. Vienna Bakery in Fremont provides fresh pastries daily. Between you and me I think Your Coffee Cups goes to great lengths to serve excellent food to provide cover for customers who can legitimately claim to go there “just for the coffee.”
As you pay and your barista serves you your order, hopefully she has brightened your day with efficient service, some pleasant small talk, and a smile. You are encouraged to leave a gratuity. Your Coffee Cups wants you to understand that these are college students working for tips. They’ve put more effort into their appearance and frankly flashed you more skin than you’re likely to see in any other coffee shop. The value added is not reflected in the price of the java and there’s no cover charge, so drop something in the jar to make it worth their while.
Your Coffee Cups held a grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, September 16 and I stopped by to check it out. This is a tough job…you know the rest. They had closed off the drive-through lanes and decorated the kiosk with balloons so the scene was festive for visitors mingling in the small seating area normally reserved for walk-up customers. Radio personalities from MOViN 99.7 set up a booth and boomed some tunes while handing out free toothbrushes (?) and other promotional materials. One of the baristas wearing an awfully grown-up girl scout cookie costume circulated with a tray of pound cake and brownie tidbits. I tried the cake; it was tasty but a little dry which is understandable since it was late in the day. In addition to the scout there was a naughty nurse, a scantily-clad schoolgirl, and a couple of cup-a-licious cowgirls, one of whom wielded a can of whipped cream in her hip holster. The stand was open for business and it was quite a sight to see women dressed this way scurrying inside the kiosk, hard at work.
I chatted with the owners, Robert and Irene, an engaged couple who describe themselves as life partners and business partners. (They were modestly dressed, in case you were wondering.) They are Bay Area natives who researched the concept extensively in Seattle before opening the shop here. They chose the Fremont location simply because it was the first parking lot kiosk to come available and it’s working well for them though they wish it were more easily visible from busy Mission Boulevard. I asked if the job description was a tough sell and they said not at all; in this challenging economy they got plenty of applicants from their Craig’s List ad. Irene impressed upon me the quality of the food and Robert explained how they favor hiring responsible, sympathetic college students who will be motivated by tips. Your Coffee Cups has hosted local fundraisers and in fact the radio station was collecting donations for victims of the tragic San Bruno gas explosion.
So is this a good idea? That’s difficult to answer. It’s certainly a sound business proposition. There’s no shortage of demand for good coffee, drive-through convenience, and peeks at pretty women. Your Coffee Cups fills a niche among El Camino’s existing exotic entertainment venues, from Hooters to The Hiphugger. On the other hand many will not approve of its exploitative race-to-the-bottom nature. In Washington State there has been a backlash from people in the community who feel the “sexpresso” joints are too risque, especially in school zones. Traditional full-dress coffee vendors bristle at the loss of business. Coffee kiosks have been around for a long time but the addition of an elaborate theme reminds me of the ascent of the gourmet food trucks and strikes me as classic disruptive marketing in which there will be winners and losers.
My personal experience at the grand opening was mixed. The women were sure attractive so that was a plus and they were friendly enough, but as it turns out the less they wore, the more self-conscious I felt. It was ironic. They were half-dressed, but I was the one worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing. The women had elevated themselves to our society’s standards of stylized super-sexualized beauty and as a result a mere schlub like myself suddenly felt unworthy and unseemly to be there leering at them. If the nurse or schoolgirl had been wearing an over-sized tee shirt and pair of old jeans instead, I would have been much more at ease. To a large extent my complaint is unfair since I was there under atypical circumstances, an extended grand opening celebration. The standard model is to drive up, cop an eyeful and a cupful, and drive off. Gone in a couple minutes; no time for over-analysis.
You might wonder why I don’t have any pictures of the women here. There were signs posted prohibiting photography without their permission and even then, they were charging money for posed photos. More barriers. Happily the folks at MOViN 99.7 took a ton of pictures, baristas, belly buttons and all. There’s even one of me. Cheese!
Overall I think Your Coffee Cups is a fun and innovative addition to El Camino. Robert and Irene are delightful and sincere and I have no doubt they are working hard to create a win-win situation for their staff and their customers. Does sex sell coffee? Should it? Go by and judge for yourself. Check their web site first for discounts and promotions. The novelty alone of meeting the Bay Area’s barest baristas is worth the trip.