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Sexy cafes are Little Saigon's twist on Hooters
The coffee is served by scantily clad women -- a marketing strategy that's paid off, cafe owners say.
When you talk about hot stuff at certain Vietnamese American cafes in Little Saigon, you're not just talking about the coffee.
This is where Hooters meets Starbucks.
This is where lingerie-clad, spandex-sporting, high heels-wearing baristas make your coffee, whip up your smoothies and refill your green tea.
These waitresses seem to have an unwritten dress code worked into their job description. Bra tops, bustiers, corsets, itsy-bitsy spandex tube tops and bottoms, micro mini skirts and clear stilettos are the norm. At night, the clothes get a little fancier. There's more satin and lace involved.
The most popular of these cafes — Café Lu on Harbor Boulevard and Café Di Vang 2 on Euclid Street — are packed day and night although they exclusively serve coffee, tea and smoothies. None of them offers alcohol, food or even light snacks.
Vietnamese people love their coffee. But the concept of sexy waitresses serving coffee definitely did not originate in Vietnam, says Natalie Nguyen, who started out as a waitress at Café Lu and bought the place six years ago.
"Vietnam is a conservative place," she said. "They do have coffee houses and women in traditional ao dais serving coffee — but nothing like this. You can't dress this sexy in Vietnam."
A thin cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke perpetually hangs over the heads of the mostly male clientele. Loud music — mostly Vietnamese or American pop — plays on the stereo. The heads and eyes turn frequently between the large flat screen TVs on the wall playing the day's sports and the tight, flat midriffs of the girls who walk by with their trays.
This kind of café culture is unique to Orange County's Little Saigon, a number of café owners and visitors say. A quick Google search reveals they are springing up in other Little Saigons in a hurry — in San Jose, Seattle and Houston.
You can't stop people from copying a good idea, says Nguyen.
"This is a big trend," she said. "Several years ago, not many people knew about it. But now, we get people from as far as Los Angeles and all over Southern California."
The girls not only soften the vibe, but more importantly, they bring customers back, says D. Nguyen (no relation to Natalie Nguyen), owner of Café Di Vang 2 on Euclid in Garden Grove.
"We're just like Starbucks," he said. "But if we were just a coffee place and had nothing more to offer, what's the reason for people to come back to us?"
The Vietnamese cafes have created a niche for themselves and are doing well in a time when other coffee houses are struggling, said Orange County restaurant consultant Randall Hiatt, president of Fessel International in Costa Mesa.
"The restaurant business is relatively entrepreneurial, creative and trend-setting," he said. "These cafes have definitely set a trend in Orange County and they're doing vibrant business."
Natalie Nguyen showed some of that creativity when she released a calendar with "the girls of Café Lu." Each month features a waitress. Nguyen herself is on the calendar's back cover.
This is, after all, a business where looks matter.
D. Nguyen says he picks his employees carefully.
"If you're working at a Hooters or a strip club, you have to look a certain way, right?" he asks with a smile. "But that's not all. You have smile and be nice to customers as well."
Natalie Nguyen agrees with her competitor. People get tired of seeing pretty girls if they don't get good service, she says.
Annie Pham, a waitress at Café Lu, says she likes to shop for her work clothes at Fredericks of Hollywood.
"I like their bustiers and corsets," she says, wearing a black bustier with a plunging neck line on a recent afternoon.
But it's a job like any other job, says Pham, 23. Still, many girls who work in these cafes hide it from their parents because Vietnamese culture is typically conservative, Pham says.
Vanna, a waitress at Di Vang 2, says she has never had a problem with this café trend.
"Every culture has their thing," she said. "Koreans have their soju bars, Middle Eastern people have their belly dancers and we Vietnamese Americans have our cafes. We sell coffee, we don't sell ourselves."
She says being hit on is "normal." The waitresses always get a lot of compliments and they handle them well, says Vanna, who did not want her last name mentioned.
Most of the visitors to these cafés are loyal customers. Nguyen Than, 37, is there almost every day at lunch time. He says it's a relaxing place to escape to.
"As far as the girls, I don't really care. I know a lot of them. I don't hit on them," he says. "I just feel comfortable here."
Sonny Tran, 35, says the girls do motivate him to come in. He says he enjoys the back-and-forth chit-chat, the teasing and the casual atmosphere.
Theresa Nguyen was one of the few women in the crowd. She was there with her fiancé.
"It's a nice environment and not a big deal," she said.
Nguyen says she admires the girls. They're just working, she says.
"They're good-looking. They're beautiful. These girls are well-qualified for the job that they do."