MERCED — The Merced coffee shop at the center of a controversy over its scantily clad baristas isn't that "shocking," Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said after he paid a visit to the shop Thursday.
"From what I can see, they were dressed no differently than what you'd see on a beach or a pool," said Thurston of the two employees at Double Shot Espresso. "I didn't see anything that would be objectionable. She was covered where she was supposed to be."
The drive-through coffee shop on East Childs Avenue features women serving coffee in bikinis, lingerie and other "sexy attire." Some Merced school officials and parents have complained about its location across from Golden Valley High School.
No customers are allowed inside the drive-through shop, but there is a walk-up window.
Thurston said he received three complaints about the business since it opened a little more than a week ago, but it doesn't appear to be violating any city ordinances.
"Legally, they're not being unlawful or breaking any city codes or state laws," he said.
Kim Espinosa, Merced City planning manager, said the coffee shop isn't violating any zoning regulations because the area was rezoned for commercial use in 2004.
The building was vacant for about eight months, Espinosa said, but previously was occupied by a hot dog vendor and another coffee shop.
Since Double Shot Espresso isn't considered an "adult entertainment business" under the city's ordinance, which generally defines such businesses as involving nudity, officials can't treat the shop any differently than they would other drive-through businesses.
"It doesn't meet the definition of adult entertainment, so it didn't matter what the concept was," Espinosa said. "As long as they're meeting all the building and health code requirements, there really isn't anything the city can do. We have to treat it like it's a Starbucks, or any other drive-through coffee business."
Espinosa said city officials weren't aware of the shop's bikini theme when they signed off on its business license, but it wouldn't have made a difference. There was no zoning change, so it didn't require approval from the City Council or planning commission, she added.
The city can regulate the shop's signs the size, manner and placement but not its content. The logo, which appears to emulate a woman's chest, might be offensive to some but meets city requirements, Espinosa said.
Members of the Merced City Council weighed in Thursday after receiving a handful of calls from the community.
Councilman Josh Pedrozo said he's heard "negative feedback," starting Wednesday evening. As a high school teacher, he questioned the shop's location near Golden Valley High School.
"I think it was a poor decision by the owner to put it there," Pedrozo said. "I understand what he's doing as a businessman, but what kind of message does that send out to teenage girls and boys?"
Councilman Tony Dossetti said the shop's owner seemed to satisfy the city's requirements and has followed the rules.
"I personally don't like the idea, but by the same token, this business owner came in, he followed all the rules and was within the law, and the city issued him a business license," Dossetti said.
Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling and Councilmen Mike Murphy and Noah Lor said they haven't visited the business and don't know enough about it to comment.
Councilman Bill Blake said the publicity gained by the media attention might be exactly what the coffee shop is looking for.
"It just seems like a P.R. stunt to gain business," said Blake, who added that he hasn't received any complaints. "The more people complain about it, the more their business grows."
Blake said the staff are dressed in "beach wear" and that it doesn't appear obscene. "If they were near a lake or a pool, I don't think anyone would give it a second thought," Blake said. "If people don't like it, they don't need to buy coffee there. I would not be surprised that when it cools off, they'll be wearing turtlenecks."
Thurston said he encourages an entrepreneurial spirit in Merced. Although it isn't anything-goes, the mayor said, he hopes Mercedians are open-minded about businesses that are legal and following the rules.
"It's hard enough to get jobs in the first place," Thurston said. "I'd certainly hate to see jobs leaving Merced."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.