Baristas offering drive-thru customers an eyeful of flesh with their coffee have drawn the ire of many residents; this week, they face possible crackdowns in Spokane and Spokane Valley.
Yet the woman who owns three of the risqué coffee stands insists there’s nothing illegal going on: No one is forced to buy the coffee. None of the baristas are forced to work there.
“I feel bad people are offended by it, but at the same time, this is my life,” said owner Sarah Birnel, a tall, thin woman with big brown eyes. “I’m not trying to get in any trouble. If I do … obviously I’m done.”
That’s because Birnel, 31, has a felony record after multiple convictions for identity theft, burglary, methamphetamine possession, forgery, assault, first- and second-degree theft, and possession of stolen property. One of her investors also has a criminal record for his role in a gang killing.
She served two prison sentences but decided during her second incarceration she had to make some changes.
She got out, borrowed money from family and launched her first coffee stand at 24 years old. Eight months ago, she adopted the scantily clad barista business model after seeing it work elsewhere.
Birnel acknowledges that she knew her criminal past would come up at some point, but she hopes it doesn’t derail her newfound success.
Officials in Spokane and Spokane Valley say the level of nudity at Birnel’s businesses is at issue, not her background.
She plans to be in attendance Monday when a new ordinance addressing the bikini barista businesses goes before the Spokane City Council.
She’s also willing to compromise, like asking a barista working at a street-facing window to cover up a bit more, she said.
But as for the “topless” days that have stirred so much controversy, Birnel said that from a business standpoint, it would be “stupid” to stop.
“It’s twice as busy.”
Birnel’s last conviction in 2005
At 12, Birnel began doing meth in the aftermath of a family tragedy: Her mother, Mary Elizabeth “Cookie” Birnel, was stabbed to death by her father in a grisly, high-profile Spokane Valley case.
Rick Birnel used a butcher knife to stab his wife more than 30 times, claiming it was self-defense as his wife went on a meth-fueled rage. A jury convicted him of second-degree murder and he spent five years in prison. The couple had five daughters.
Sarah Birnel fell in with a rough crowd, she said. Before she left eighth grade, she made the honor roll with a 4.0 GPA. She never graduated from high school and spent many years in a self-induced haze, committing crimes to support her drug habit.
In her early 20s, Birnel married Teddy Hall, brother of notorious and prolific petty criminal Eddie Ray Hall. He had his own criminal troubles that landed him in prison, too. Their union was brief, Birnel said, and they divorced in 2007.
Birnel’s last convictions were in 2005, stemming from a case in which at least 10 people were victimized. A judge sentenced her to 50 months.
It was during her second prison stay that she decided she needed to change.
“It was a very different time in my life,” she said. “The second time I was there, I thought: How can I change this? I decided I had to do things that were uncomfortable for me. What I was doing was comfortable.”
Shortly after regaining her freedom at age 24, Birnel borrowed money from her father to buy her first coffee stand – a loan she paid back a year later using money from a trust fund related to her mother. She’s owned other coffee stands such as Blissful Blends on East Mission Avenue and Jammin’ Java in Coeur d’Alene.
Eight months ago, Birnel had the opportunity to buy three espresso stands, each for less than $30,000: two in Spokane and one in Spokane Valley. She’d seen the bikini barista concept bring success for Big Shots in north Spokane and other such venues around the country.
“I wanted to do something that worked,” she said. “I think my past is part of what fueled me to want to get ahead, and get ahead quickly.”
Birnel almost missed the business opportunity, however, and, desperate to find additional funding, she asked a regular coffee stand customer to invest. Freddie Jamil Miller, 33, brought his money and checkered past to the business.
Miller faced first-degree murder charges along with Titus T. Davis in the September 2007 drive-by shooting death of Adama Walton.
The investigation and case unraveled because of gang loyalties and fears of retaliation among witnesses, police said. Prosecutors eventually secured a manslaughter conviction against Davis; Miller pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance and served about six months in jail.
In 2004 Miller was the target of an attempted murder when he was shot in the head and back at a Spokane Valley lounge, according to news reports. A Seattle man was arrested in connection with the shooting.
Birnel said she didn’t know about Miller’s criminal history until after he invested in her business.
“I was really serious about finding someone, so I asked everybody,” Birnel said. “If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way to do it.”
She rarely talks to Miller, she said. He doesn’t help run the business and was unavailable for an interview. A third partner, Nicole Kukel, has no criminal history.
Birnel to testify Monday
Spokane Valley and Spokane city officials never looked into the background of the coffee stand owners or even knew their names, but several officials said a criminal history doesn’t matter in any case.
“Staff is not looking into the ownership,” said Mike Jackson, Spokane Valley’s city manager. Ownership isn’t the issue, it’s “to what level can a person expose themselves in public.”
In the city of Spokane, obtaining a business license is not a regulatory process, it’s a registration, said city spokesman Brian Coddington. No background checks are done.
The ire over baristas, often clad in lingerie and sometimes wearing nothing more than pasties and G-strings, first surfaced in July.
Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan said a constituent visited XXXtreme Espresso on Northwest Boulevard and was met by nearly nude employees. The customer believed what she observed was indecent and inappropriate for a business frequented by the general public.
Fagan and Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin sponsored a revision to a city ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to be too scantily dressed.
The new section to be voted on Monday would outlaw pasties and G-strings unless a business is in a zone appropriate for adult entertainment. It’s distinct from a felony indecent exposure charge.
Fagan acknowledges that policing the new ordinance would be a low priority. “I’m not saying we are going to throw more (police) uniforms at it, but we need to have community dialogues like this,” he said.
Fagan said he met with Birnel and said “she was very pleasant to deal with.” He also said he’s not targeting the coffee stands, although they were the spark that started the discussion. He’s simply trying to “clarify what’s appropriate for all businesses where this might be an issue.”
Birnel said she plans to testify at Monday’s Spokane City Council hearing on the ordinance. She also plans to bring a petition in support of her business that she said has nearly 100 signatures.
Valley school buses rerouted
Birnel’s XXXtreme Espresso in Spokane Valley has become the target of protesters. More than 200 people jammed the Spokane Valley City Council meeting on Tuesday to complain about the baristas’ near-nudity.
Shelly Clark has helped organize protests, and said while she sympathizes with Birnel’s past, it does not change her view that the coffee stands should go.
“I truly hope that Sarah is finding a better life for herself,” Clark said in an email this week. “In her efforts to do so she can’t encroach on our rights as parents to protect our own children.”
Jackson, the city manager, and Mayor Tom Towey admitted seeing the sign that prompted the protests: “Topless Tuesdays and Thursdays.” But neither official stopped to investigate what might be happening just a few steps from City Hall.
Towey wasn’t surprised about the public outcry, however. “Most of the council got a few emails. I knew there were probably going to be some citizens who wanted to talk to us.”
Sandy Ross was one of the first to protest the coffee stand.
She said that when she first saw the sign advertising “Topless Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she thought it referred to serving coffee without a lid. Then she saw one of the baristas standing outside the coffee stand wearing pasties and a thong. Ross pulled over and called police, only to be disappointed when authorities told her there was nothing they could do.
Ross equated the business to a strip joint. “I don’t see why someone can expose themselves to my daughter without there being heck to pay,” she said.
Central Valley School Board member Debra Long said the district rerouted school buses to avoid that section of East Sprague Avenue so children don’t catch a glimpse of the baristas.
“We are not Spokane,” she said. “We are Spokane Valley. This is unacceptable.”
In three hours of public testimony at the Spokane Valley City Council meeting Tuesday, some people made reference to upcoming elections.
Justin Jones said, “I ask you to speak before the next election results speak for you,” adding that he thinks XXXtreme Espresso reflects poorly on the city because it’s located next to City Hall.
The coffee stand is one of two items on the Spokane Valley City Council’s agenda for a Thursday study session.
City officials need to determine how much a person can expose their body in public, Jackson said. “It’s really a public nudity issue.”
$80 in tips per shift
Birnel said she thinks the issue is overblown. In her view, most people “either don’t care or support us. Then there’s the small vocal group who just think they are the majority.”
The protesters are seeing the coffee stands as “overly sexual,” Birnel said. “I don’t even hire girls who have been strippers.”
Birnel said her past helps her when hiring employees – she’s not naïve to drug use or to women who might take things too far with customers.
Ten women work at the three stands, she said. Most are from the Spokane area, and some are from Seattle, she said. The baristas interviewed for this story said they like their jobs. Besides their hourly pay, they go home with at least $80 in tips each five-hour shift.
The baristas boast about their regular customers: men, women, couples, construction workers and several law enforcement officers.
“The owners are like a mom and dad to us,” said Brittani Burns, referring to Birnel and her husband, Michael Davis. “We come here on our days off just to hang out.”
Shelby Johnson has been on her own since she was 17, she said. “I’ve worked in a regular coffee stand, but this is more fun,” she said. “It seems like you get to know the customers better.
“People are judging me. This allows me to live on my own and go to school. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”