The Northern California town of American Canyon, population about 20,000, is trying to shut down a coffee shop by asking the kind of oddly philosophical question you might contemplate while nursing a cup of joe: Is a cafe still just a cafe if the baristas are wearing close to nothing?
The American Canyon City Council last week upheld the city manager's decision to revoke a license for Bottoms Up Espresso, a drive-through coffee shop that officials have argued is, in fact, a "bikini cafe" and "adult cabaret."
That did not sit well with Inderjit Sangha, a franchisee of Bottoms Up Espresso, who said the city's decision was based on personal taste rather than the law.
"If they did it according to the law, you'd have to get rid of all the swimming pools" in American Canyon, Sangha said in an interview. He said he was weighing his options, which include suing the city, which is in southern Napa County.
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Nate Wilson, who founded the Bottoms Up Espresso chain in 2011, said there are eight franchises in California, with plans to open stores in Modesto, Calif., and Arizona. The American Canyon shop's license was revoked before it even opened.
The baristas at Bottoms Up Espresso are scantily clad. What they do wear is stipulated in a dress code, which American Canyon officials published on Jan. 25 along with their decision revoking the shop's business license.
Monday is "School Girl Day," when a red plaid skirt and a "tied-up red or black top" are required, along with black or red panties and bra, according to the city documents. Tuesday and Saturday are "Bikini Day," when employees must wear a red or black bikini; any "cover-ups, wraps or shorts" are prohibited.
On Wednesday – "Cowgirl Day" – employees must wear a "tied-up shirt (well-fitted)" and cut-off denim shorts no longer than 5 inches from waistband to hem. "Midriff must be exposed," the dress code says, and "optional accessories include cowgirl hat, belt buckle, bandanna and boots."
Thursday is "Lingerie Day," and on Friday – "Fantasy Day" – baristas are encouraged to create their own outfits. The code offers a few ideas: Superwoman, a nurse, a maid and a police officer dangling a pair of handcuffs.
"Have fun with it," the code says. "Anything can be made sexy!"
Nudity is banned, along with thongs, pasties, opaque or see-through clothing, high heels and "excessive side or under boob," which means skin showing to the side or under a bra. T-shirts, sweaters and all "loose-fitting clothing" are also forbidden.
Sangha, the franchisee, said the workplace attire is intended to create a "fun and exciting" environment. He disputed the city's comparison of his shop to a cabaret, pointing out that, as a drive-through kiosk, employees and customers hardly interact.
"All you're doing is pulling up, getting your coffee and driving off," he said. "When it comes down to it, we're a coffee shop. We only sell coffee and pastries."
His menu – which was posted on a city website – includes drinks called "Blonde Bombshell," "Sweet Cheeks" and "The Big O."
At a March 5 council meeting, a city attorney said Sangha and his business partner gave no indication their baristas would be so meagerly clad when they applied for a license. Because of their "revealing costumes," the baristas amounted to "adult performers" and the coffee shop to an "adult entertainment business," the attorney said.
In a brief of his own, Sangha's attorney said barring a business because of its employees' attire violates constitutional right to freedom of expression and reflected "the sensibilities of the city manager and community development director and limited section of the general public."
In revoking Sangha's license, the city said it received a flood of complaints after the license was initially approved in December. About a dozen emails from residents are attached to the city manager's decision. One wrote that she was ashamed "knowing I can buy coffee and pretty much a peep show in our town."
Some said the dress code is degrading and sets a terrible example for young women.
"Is putting young women in bikinis in a glass box on the highway the way to show your girls and young women what American Canyon thinks they are worth?" one wrote.
Another resident said he was concerned of the "hazard to serve hot things in barely any clothes."