Recession-proof business ideas #1: The topless coffee shop

When times get tough, it seems the tough get a little creative. The Grand View Coffee Shop opened in the small town of Vassalboro, Maine last week and is gathering international attention for its very unique USP: All the wait staff (male and female) are topless.

Media reports indicate that the owner, Donald Crabtree, received over 150 applications for the 10 new positions – many with no coffee shop experience but plenty of the other pre-requisite, um, friendliness. Crabtree says that workers were not selected on an ideal or ‘10’ body shape but rather to cover the range of bodies from thin to full-figured.

In what we would consider an abysmal employment practice, but seems to be quite common in the US and the adult industries, staff are not paid a wage and make money only through tips. Tipping has apparently been high, and by the end of the week, it was reported that the 58-seat shop was full as soon as it opened at 6am, with queues out the door.

For those redesigning or starting new businesses in these unique times, there are a couple of lessons to be learned from the topless coffee shop:

  • Think laterally about what people really need.  What do people continue to need through hard times? Drugs of choice can include alcohol, sex, caffeine, love, food, toilet paper, etc. How can these needs be combined in a unique, profitable and positive way?
  • Be persistent. Crabtree experienced a lot of opposition from the local community but as there was nothing illegal about what he was doing, the council could not stop him. (I wonder if health regulations would stop this kind of business in Australia?) Of course, the community may run him out of town but with the influx of visitors they will get from all the publicity, it is doubtful that other business-owners in the town, who would benefit from the flow-on, would get onboard.
  • Never underestimate the power of local media.  This story first appeared in the local paper but was picked up by AAP and was across the world in days. Yes, even the Letterman show has called. And who knows what other publicity could have happened because Crabtree turned his mobile phone off after two days. The darn thing just kept ringing with “out of state numbers” and he was losing his voice from all the interviews.

So, for the sake of the workers of the Grand View, let’s hope the patronage and high remuneration continue. And while Crabtree’s venture is clever, I hope future job creation involves a fair wage and won’t require giving the shirt off your back – literally.