March 12, 2010

At coffee shop, service with a smile, but not a shirt

SCOTT MONROE

— By

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by David Leaming NEW CAFE: Don Crabtree, owner of the Grandview Topless Coffee Shop, sits at a table with his wait staff at the Vassalboro restaurant on Tuesday. Employees from left are Elvis Thompson, Kris Kelley, Susie Wiley, back, and Ginny Labree.

Morning Sentinel

VASSALBORO — A small sign hangs in front of the log cabin-style building, listing the hours of business: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The windows are covered with promotional posters for New England Coffee. Up the entrance ramp to the front door, there are other signs -- more important signs.

''Over 18 only,'' one reads. At the door is one with instructions: ''No cameras, no touching, cash only.''

This is the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop, where a man in a white dress shirt kept watch at the front door Tuesday, keeping things in line.

Inside, two men were sipping coffee at their booth, one of 15 tables in the restaurant.

Three topless women, one shirtless man and the owner, Donald Crabtree, who wore a dress shirt and tie, were inside as well.

Brothers Dick and Rene Brochu of Augusta, ages 60 and 59, said they decided to stop by the Grand View after hearing about it from friends. Both men are retired.

''I really hope it works,'' Dick Brochu said. ''It's different. I kind of like it. If you don't like it, I say, 'Don't come in, stay away.' ''

Implying that criticism of the coffee shop has been overblown, Rene Brochu said, ''The evil is in your head.''

To the chagrin of some residents, the coffee shop on Belfast Avenue opened its doors Monday.

More than 50 opponents turned out for Planning Board hearings in January. Despite the complaints, town officials said there was nothing they could do to stop Crabtree from opening the business.

The coffee shop is in a former motel and has been the site of many businesses in the past several years. It is on a sparse stretch of Route 3 just over the Augusta line.

Eight customers -- all men -- stopped by the coffee shop between 10 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Staff members estimated that they had between 50 and 60 customers on Monday, despite a snowstorm; of those customers, about eight were women, they said.

Aside from the Brochu brothers, the other customers in the shop Tuesday morning declined to give their names or comment.

Waitress Susie Wiley, 23, of Farmingdale said she went for the job because it's ''something different,'' and said she has worked in coffee shops since she was a teenager.

Asked whether the shop is degrading to women, Wiley said, ''No, I love it. I find it very empowering, not degrading.''

For now, the menu at the shop is slim: just cups of New England Coffee ($3 each) and doughnuts made at Chase Farm Bakery in Whitefield ($2 each). Crabtree said he might offer more food if business picks up.

Elvis Thompson, 32, of Brunswick was the lone male waiter at the coffee shop Tuesday morning, though he said there are two other men on staff.

Thompson, wearing black boots and black shorts, said he was laid off from another job two weeks ago and then saw an advertisement for the coffee shop.

On Monday, Thompson said he waited on two women, one of whom told him she had been opposed to the business but now thinks it's great.

Waitress Kris Kelley, 43, of Windham said her previous restaurant experience was managing a pizzeria in Hawaii.

Kelley said criticism of the shop is ''ridiculous.''

''It's just a body part,'' she said. ''There are more serious issues to worry about in this country than something like this.''

Contacted Tuesday, Paula Furbush, a resident who was critical of the coffee shop when it was proposed to the Planning Board, said she did not realize that the business had opened.

''I definitely think it's not a good idea. I've lived in town my whole life, and we've never had anything like this,'' she said.

Lisa Breton, a resident for 23 years, said she was surprised that the coffee shop opened.

''I don't believe it's going to pan out, not in a small community like this,'' Breton said. ''People move to these small towns because they don't want to deal with bars and adult video stores and a topless coffee shop. It's important for towns to have an ordinance written so things like this can't happen.''

Crabtree said he does not pay his staff a regular wage; all of their earnings come from customers' tips.

On Tuesday morning, Kelley said she brought coffee to a man who gulped down about half of the cup in a couple of minutes, handed Kelley a $100 bill and left without saying a word.

Waitress Ginni Labree, 34, of Palermo wore fluorescent pink nail polish on Tuesday. She has a tattoo of a rose on her arm. Labree said she has experience as a store manager and used to work in dance clubs.

Although ''most people have been respectful,'' Labree said she did encounter inappropriate behavior Monday when an intoxicated couple came in.

The man tried to touch her, but she backed away. Labree said, ''I told them, 'Hey, we can't touch.'''

Labree said she doesn't mind hugging customers or shaking hands, though.

''I haven't had anybody leave without a smile yet,'' she said.

Crabtree said he interviewed 150 people for the positions and narrowed the field to 10.

He said he selected people who were the friendliest and were comfortable being topless.

''We want to keep the girls respectable, not trashy,'' said Crabtree, who lives in the motel attached to the shop. ''The biggest thing is keeping people happy.''

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