Thursday, June 4, 2009

How to Weather the Economic Storm: With Cleavage, Of Course!

Scantily clad baristas give economic jolt to coffee shops

By Robert Hanashiro, William Welch, USA TODAY & Jim Cornehls, BizarreStuff

Dustin Jorgensen, 21, is a regular at Garden Grove, Calif.'s Cafe di Vang II where Southeast Asian women serve coffee, tea, and fruit smoothies, all with a large topping of cleavage.

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — Even as Starbucks shutters stores, some coffee shops in Southern California's Little Saigon are booming with a formula that seems to defy recession.

They are serving up strong Vietnamese brew, delivered to tables by young women in bikinis, spandex, fishnet sarongs or lingerie, displaying bountiful skin and cleavage.

Lots and lots of cleavage.

"I think it's kind of like Starbucks meets Hooters," says Tina Nguyen, 19, a waitress at Café Lu, who was exposing a bare midriff between tight Lakers jersey and black micro-mini tube skirt.

Like all the six to eight servers on duty at any time, she was teetering on 6-inch platform, stiletto-heeled shoes of clear plastic. She paused to chat and laugh with customers as she delivered $5 servings of thick, sweet iced coffee and refilled bottomless glasses of weak iced tea.

Customers are overwhelmingly male and largely Vietnamese Americans, although men of all ethnicities find their way into Café Lu or one of its many nearby competitors. Ten large TVs line the walls, tuned to sports and cable news. Customers such as James La play Chinese checkers and talk with friends at 40 or more tables.

"It's kind of like a bikini bar, almost," says La, 36, a recent medical school graduate. "It's unique. I don't think other cultures have this."

Indeed, while risqué coffee shops have been tried elsewhere, and bars that display ample amounts of the female form are commonplace, the mixture of eye candy and coffee seems to have taken hold like nowhere else here in the nation's largest Vietnamese community.

Still, for the whole ball of wax you can go to Maine, at the opposite end of the continent, for your morning coffee brought to you by waitresses who are totally nude, from the waist up. (See above) There are not many Vietnamese in Maine but there are plenty of old time Anglos in the area to keep the Grand View coffee shop hopping (see earlier story on this blog).

That is until a couple of evenings ago when some less tolerant local citizen decided to torch the Grand View in the middle of the night. The owner was upset: the waitresses, who lost their jobs, were upset; the customers, who lost their morning jolt of fresh tit, were extremely upset and only the local prudes sang Hallelujah and praised the Lord for encouraging his flock to break the law and risk lives and other properties to put an end to that Den of Iniquity, which had increased the town's revenues from the sales tax sufficiently to overcome the current budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, back in California, Natalie Nguyen, 36, owner of Café Lu, says the concept of waitresses with few clothes has been popular for more than two decades in an area that became a magnet for Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

In recent times, she says, more competitors have opened. She estimates there are 50 to 60 such places in this area of Orange County outside Los Angeles. Like her competitors, Nguyen's café doesn't serve alcohol or food.

Nguyen (pronounced WIN) is a common name in the Vietnamese community. Five of six waitresses at Café Lu one day shared the surname but were not related.

Love of coffee is something Vietnamese immigrants brought with them, the owner says, as is entrepreneurial zeal. Nguyen arrived in the U.S. at 16 and at 17 was a coffee waitress. By 18, she opened her own shop.

Some may find the concept offensive, servers acknowledge. Some women haven't told their parents exactly what their job is.

"I was scared at first to tell them," says Natalie Tran, 21, who has been a server for three years. "Most Vietnamese parents are kind of strict."

Police have not detected any funny business. Police departments in three cities with jurisdiction over parts of Little Saigon — Westminster, Santa Ana and Garden Grove— say the coffee shops aren't a big source of concern or complaints, though gang fights and gambling arrests were seen years ago.

"Overall, ours (coffee shops) are very low on our radar as far as a concern," Westminster Police Sgt. Dan Schoonmaker says.

Daniel Nguyen, pastor at Calvary Chapel Living Water of Little Saigon church, says he doesn't like the shops but says the community is OK with them because they make money.

"I feel sorry for them, that they feel they have to do what they do." he says. "I think it's very inappropriate."

Hoa-Nhien Vu, who publishes a Little Saigon blog,, (a word play on Bolsa Avenue, the main street in the community) says an almost Victorian prudishness in the older generation of Vietnamese Americans is coupled with a tolerant, boys-will-be-boys attitude toward businesses.

"I've met people who wouldn't go to those shops, but I don't think I've met anyone who is so offended they want the places closed down," Vu says.

At Café Di Vang II, manager Dan Nguyen (also not related) says the shops offer an enjoyable experience at a cheap price. Even laced with milk and sugar, the coffee is so strong no one can drink more than two, he says, and a $5 or $10 bill, plus tip, is a bargain for an hour or two of ogling.

In a patio corner, Beverly Hills producer John Wilson and Darko Ostojic, a Croatian-born actor and producer, were holding a business meeting about a film they are producing about vampires in 3-D.

"Not only do they look great, they are so nice," Wilson says of the servers.

At Starbucks a few blocks up Euclid Street, the scene is different. Manager Ann Hsu says her store is on a list of shops the corporate office may close. But she doesn't see the cafés as competition.

"It's a different clientele," says Hsu, 29. "You don't go there for the coffee. You definitely go there for something else."

While Starbucks' baristas get a few bills and change in a jar on the counter, customers at Café Lu may tip $5 or more, says customer Sonny Tran, 35, who brings a laptop computer and works afternoons from the café.

"They're really generous," Tina Nguyen says of customers.

Waitresses say they rarely get an inappropriate touch or proposition and laugh off customers who assume too much.

"All we serve is coffee," Nguyen says. "It's not a brothel. Guys here know their limits."

Those limits are a lot less restrictive in Maine.

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