At Bikini Beans Coffee, where baristas in skimpy swimwear serve cold brews and chai lattes, the bikini represents "empowerment, freedom, functionality, and togetherness."
That’s how the local coffee chain’s marketing copy describes things, at least.
"Bikini Beans is more than just a bikini coffee shop," the website reads. "It’s a powerhouse that uplifts coffee enthusiasts, tea drinkers, and protein shake lovers alike through women empowerment and customer care."
At odds with these vague ideals of female empowerment is the actual work culture at Bikini Beans, according to multiple former employees interviewed by Phoenix New Times. They describe a harsh and controlling work environment where the staff members — many of them young women between the ages of 18 and 21 — are frequently subject to verbal abuse when they don't properly greet the store's owners, and where baristas' tips are confiscated if they are late by only a few minutes.
On July 30, two former employees filed a federal lawsuit against the owners of Bikini Beans Coffee, Benjamin and Regina Lyles. It alleges the company illegally underpaid employees and violated state and federal labor law. Various allegations in the complaint — which include claims that employees weren't paid minimum wages and were required to work unpaid after clocking out — align with accounts provided to New Times during interviews in recent weeks with former employees.
"People should not have to suffer exploitation at the hands of a ruthless and abusive employer who takes advantage of the fact that their employees rely on minimum wage, have zero bargaining power, and just don’t know any better," said Cliff Bendau, the attorney representing the former employees in their lawsuit.
New Times attempted to interview current employees at the Phoenix Bikini Beans branch, but they declined to comment. Reached by phone for comment on the allegations, Bikini Beans Coffee co-owner Benjamin Lyles broadly denied the claims.
"There’s no story there," Lyles told New Times. "These are false allegations."
He referred further questions to his spokesperson, Steve Webster, president of a California-based public relations firm. In statements provided to New Times, Webster also denied many of the allegations, or framed certain business practices as lawful and normal.
"We value all our employees and offer a generous compensation package with a minimum base wage of $10 plus tips which allows all our employees to make significantly more than the state and federal minimum wage," Webster said. "We believe this case brought by a group of former employees is without merit and we look forward to our day in court where we fully expect to be victorious.”
All Bikini Beans employees are required to sign a document that spells out the company's policies and procedures. This document includes language regarding a "training fee" that will be deducted from an employee's final paycheck if they don't meet a variety of requirements.
Baristas incur a $300 training fee and are expected to stay on with the company for six months. For managers, it’s $1,200 with the expectation of a full year. If employees leave or are fired prior to those dates — or even if they stay beyond those dates but fail to give two weeks’ notice when they resign or are considered to have abandoned their job — the company subtracts that amount from their final paycheck.
Valerie Valle, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, worked as both a barista and manager at Bikini Beans Coffee between 2016 and 2019. She told New Times that she quit after Benjamin Lyles yelled at her over the phone after demanding that she ask several baristas to retake a picture for the company's Instagram account. Valle had been thinking about leaving due to the demanding nature of the work environment, but the episode pushed her to the brink, she recalls.
"He would kind of have these episodes where he would get really angry and start yelling," Valle said of Lyles. "He was yelling at me over the phone, and I started crying, so I told him that he leads with fear and disrespect, and that that was the last day I was going to work for him.”
She didn’t receive her final paycheck, which she believes should have been around $900. "I knew that I wasn't going to get it back because I had never seen anybody receive their last paycheck."
Alexis Masliah, a 19-year-old former barista at Bikini Beans, was hired in late 2019 at the age of 18 and worked for the company until March, when she was fired after failing to show up for a shift because her cousin was in the hospital, she told New Times. (The cousin eventually died.) Even with the $300 training fee deducted, Masliah says she was still owed money from Bikini Beans on her final paycheck. But she never saw one.
Alicia Gates, a 25-year-old former manager at Bikini Beans, told New Times that she left within six months of joining the company — she said she was demoted after a dispute with Benjamin Lyles over a barista's work schedule and subsequently quit — and never saw her last paycheck either. She worked for the company between September 2018 and February 2019.
“He never told me that he was taking the last paycheck,” Gates said, “but I already knew he was going to."
In response to these allegations, Webster said that employees were aware of the conditions of employment when they signed the employee agreements.
"Every employee that joined Bikini Beans (during the time [the] former employees were there) agreed to and sign an 'SOP' — Standard Operation Policies and included in this document is a section that deals with employee training," Webster wrote. "Each employee that joins Bikini Beans understands and agrees to this knowing that this is part of the initial probationary employee period ... to ensure they will commit to the company and reduce employee turnover."
Yet Webster claimed that Bikini Beans has ended enforcement of the training fee practice. "Currently for 2020, Bikini Beans no longer is in need of the Training Fee and therefore no longer enforces it."
Webster did not respond to questions regarding Masliah's allegation that she had her final paycheck confiscated as recently as March 2020.
He pointed to an October 2019 wage claim filed by a former Bikini Beans employee with the Arizona Industrial Commission — the agency that handles in-state wage disputes — where the commission dismissed the claim because the individual had signed the SOP document.
"No employer may withhold or divert any portions of any employee's wages unless: 'The employer has prior written authorization from the employee'," the ruling states, citing Arizona statute.
However, in a different wage claim filed with the commission by another former Bikini Beans employee in August 2019, the company didn’t fare as well. On July 30, 2020, Bikini Beans was ordered by the agency to pay the former employee the underpaid wages, plus interest, and penalties, according to documents obtained by New Times through a public records request.
There are mixed opinions on whether the practice is legal. Jim Barton, an attorney specializing in employment law, said that while Bikini Beans' training fee practice may technically be legal under state law, it's highly "suspect," especially when considering the high figure for the fees. (Barton isn’t involved in the lawsuit against Bikini Beans.) He called the clause in the SOP contract “very, very susceptible to abuse,” saying he could envision a situation where an employer is “routinely terminating its managers and making them reimburse the employer.”
Bendau, the attorney representing the women who are suing Bikini Beans, argued that federal law is more clear-cut around the issue.
"Minimum wage and overtime is so important in the eyes of federal law that they transcend contractual obligations," he said. "We have alleged that Bikini Beans failed to pay minimum wage in deducting amounts from managers' and baristas' final paychecks if they didn’t adhere to certain requirements — essentially resulting in them not receiving final paychecks.”
Valle told New Times that some employees asked to take the agreement home so that their parents or a lawyer could review it before they signed it, but management required them to sign the documents on the spot. (Webster did not respond to a question regarding this allegation.)
Cheri McCracken, a local employment attorney who isn’t connected to the lawsuit, said that even if the policy is intended to reduce turnover at the company, it nevertheless also benefits the company financially if there is high turnover. "If you succeed in bullying people so they all leave 30 days short of your 180 [days]," she said, the employer always gets a financial "discount on each of them."
Valle and other employees said that turnover at Bikini Beans is high.
"It was really hard to keep baristas," Valle said. "People would leave around five months and six months because of the hostile work environment."
"They scare people into wanting to stay because of fear of not getting your training fee," she added.
Webster disputed this, writing that the "employee longevity rate is excellent."
Tips are a major source of income for staff at Bikini Beans, as they are at most coffee shops, restaurants, and bars.
At Bikini Beans, tips are pooled and divided evenly between staff at the end of each shift.
According to former employees, ownership maintained a policy of taking away baristas’ tips when they were late for work — even if they were only late by a few minutes.
Gates told New Times that, as a manager, she had to take away tips from baristas on a weekly basis and split them among the other staff on the shift.
"It happened all the time," Gates said. "I had girls show up late because their car crashed or their tire went flying, and they still got their tips taken away."
Masliah told New Times she got her tips taken away multiple times over the course of her tenure as a barista. In one instance, her tips were confiscated because she wasn't wearing sufficient make-up, Masliah said. Another time, she said it was because her hair wasn't done right.
"One time, I was late by two minutes exactly,” Masliah said. “I remember I pulled in, I went straight to work, I got a call from Ben and Regina, they said, ‘Your tips are getting taken away, you were late, we saw you arrive on camera.’"
Masliah, who was "fresh out of high school" and hadn't held down a regular job before, said that the allure of the tip-based income at Bikini Beans prompted her to apply for the gig in the first place."My friend told me that the tips there were really good," she said. "I was like, 'If the tips are good and we still get checks, I'm sure I'll be making enough money to pay my bills.’"
In response to questions about Bikini Beans’ tipping policies, Webster pointed to a clause in the SOP document that employees are required to sign that states the company "reserves the right to withhold incentives at any time of employment." The document defines incentives as "any compensation that is exchanged outside of meeting the minimum wage state requirement."
"Each employee (including Valerie and the other young women who are part of this smear campaign) knew the terms of employment and each of them signed the SOP document,” Webster wrote in an email. "To alleviate employees that showed up late (which at the time Valerie and the other young women were working at Bikini Beans and were showing up late constantly) Bikini Beans implemented the policy that the late employee would not participate in the tips/incentive pool for that day and the other employees who showed up on time would share the pool."
Webster did not respond to a question regarding Masliah's allegation that her tips were confiscated because of her appearance on two separate occasions.
But the attorneys New Times spoke to believe the tipping policy Bikini Beans implemented is likely illegal.
Bendau said that, under federal law, tips are considered the "property" of the employee who earns them. He said the fact that managers allegedly received some amount of the confiscated tips as well as the fact that the entirety of an employee's tips were being taken from them makes the practice illegal under federal law.
Barton slammed the practice.
"Tips are not incentives," he said in a statement to New Times. "They are part of the employee’s earnings and likely a basis for using a lower minimum wage for the employees. The suggestion that they are incentives is disingenuous at best."
A Toxic Work Environment
It’s not just Bikini Beans’ payroll policies that have former employees filing lawsuits and crying foul. On social media, several former employees have posted about their experiences working for the company. Many accused Benjamin Lyles of cultivating a hostile and degrading work environment.
Lyles would allegedly verbally berate employees who didn't greet him enthusiastically when he called on the phone or physically visited a store location, former staff said. Gates, the former manager, claimed that "all hell would break loose" if she didn't immediately answer his phone calls.
"If you answered a phone call and didn't ask how he was doing, he would yell at us on the phone and ask, 'Why didn't you ask how I'm doing?’" Valle said.
Webster categorically denied this, claiming that the Lyles don't "ever call the locations" and that they "don't berate any staff member for not answering their call or how they greet them."
Clad in revealing bikini uniforms, the women were often subject to sexual harassment.
Masliah said one male customer regularly asked for her phone number and asked her on dates while she was at work. He eventually left flowers on her car with a note, prompting her to report the behavior to her manager, who promised to take care of it.
But the man allegedly kept showing up.
"He was there three times a day — morning, afternoon, and dinnertime," Masliah said. "And I just felt so unsafe working at that Phoenix location, because he was always there."
In response to questions about unaddressed sexual harassment, Webster sent screen shots showing Benjamin and Regina Lyles telling employees on the staff group chat that they were dealing with specific customers who allegedly harassed staff and reiterating how staff should handle sexual harassment.
"This is actually offensive to the Lyles as they take great pride in the actions they take to provide security for their employees… i.e. the security cameras at every location," Webster wrote to New Times, adding that, on various occasions, the Lyles have "immediately addressed any incidents that made the employees feel uncomfortable."
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Both Valle and Gates expressed a belief that the Lyles preferred to hire young, impressionable employees because they were easier to manipulate. Valle said Benjamin Lyles told her as much when they were out at dinner in October 2018. "They can take advantage of these girls," Gates told New Times. "I think the way that Ben and Regina look at them is that they're young and dumb."
Asked by New Times about the allegation, Webster responded, "This question is not worth answering. It’s ridiculous."
Valle said she was 19 years old when she was first hired as a barista at Bikini Beans. She was naive then, she said.
"I really did think that it was the best job that I could get," Valle said. "It wasn't until I left Bikini Beans that I noticed that no other employer treats you like that. That's not a normal thing."