What Having A “Bikini Barista” Says About Your Talent Strategy

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Aug 31, 2010

Some people are waking up to more than a couple of coffees these days. Yes, the phenomenon of barely covered bikini baristas has migrated from the Pacific Northwest down to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Coffee is a crowded market and shop owners are looking at ways to differentiate themselves from the pack. Some of them have chosen unique locations. Or they choose convenient drive-thru locations. Others bring in gently roasted, fair trade beans. Still others offer comfy seats, free wi-fi, and don’t gripe when you hang out most of the day. I like those latter ones. And I tip well.

The bikini barista business model for coffeehouses is a fairly new one, though. Is this business and talent strategy a flash in the pan, or does it have long term merits?

A long term strategy

Certainly there are plenty of places that sell a certain sex appeal with their products. Beer has been a staple in this category but everything from sports teams, movies, and consumer products have had success in this category.

Why would coffee be any different? And the Hooters restaurant chain has proven that you can run a fairly successful business model based on selling sex appeal (and so-so buffalo wings). More on them later, though.

While the comments from the baristas in the stories seem overwhelmingly positive, I doubt they would have been quoted negatively in a story about their employer. I also don’t know how excited I would be about working in a coffee stand on the side of the road during Alaska’s long winters.

A flash in the pan

You’ll notice though that most of the stories about bikini-clad baristas are about new coffee stands. The toughest part about starting a business is surviving that first year, so anything that may jump start sales without spending much money is a great thing. The natural salesmanship of sex appeal, plus the novelty that drives both drive-by curiosity and news stories, can be appealing to a new business owner.

It’s likely as well that you won’t find established brands embracing this new trend, nor would you find many established career baristas (we have them here in the Northwest) jumping ship. And as the novelty wears off, customers are going to be attracted to much more traditional things — like the quality of product and service. You can only drink bad coffee for so long.

So who are you going to hire for these stands? You’ve got some limitations (like gender and age) but then you’ve got a whole class of people who would otherwise be interested if it weren’t for the bikini part of the job. And let’s not joke: that objection is a lot bigger than the objections for other types of coffee shops. You have an extremely narrow margin of talent that your competitors simply don’t have.

A legal risk?

Long term, I think you will see many of these types of coffee shops switch gears and start offering a more traditional experience with the hope of attracting better talent and more customers. Some will succeed, others will fail, and perhaps more bikini baristas will repopulate the coffee landscape.Another angle on this story is a potential legal risk from employees.

For example, a lawsuit brought against Hooters for weight discrimination is being allowed to go to trial. Yet another case against Hooters, of  a man not getting hired for a position because of alleged discrimination against males, was settled out of court.

That risk, as well as a flash in the plan appeal, leaves this business and talent strategy lacking a bit of…substance.