WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Emma Balter reports, “Coffee & Hot Tease” is a new beginning for Shannon Nealon and Emily Baker who both recently left careers in the U.S. military. Their Pin-up inspired mobile coffee shop takes a new twist on selling and marketing java.
If Houstonians are talking about a food truck outside West Alabama Ice House, it’s surely Tacos Tierra Caliente, a neighborhood favorite in Montrose for Mexican street food. But in the last week, passers-by may have noticed another mobile business on that corner: Coffee & Hot Tease, a pin-up coffee shop.
On a Tuesday morning, owners Shannon Nealon and Emily Baker are standing outside their truck wearing retro black swimsuits with a red floral pattern. In a short span they wave back at a few customers, already regulars, who are driving by the busy corner of West Alabama and McDuffie.
One man at the stop sign rolls down his window: “What are you selling girls?”
“Coffee!” they yell in unison. He’ll be back, he says. The marketing works, Nealon explains with a knowing smile. She’s noticed that when they stand outside the truck with their outfits, they get a lot more customers, whether it’s neighbors walking their dogs or driving by, their curiosity piqued by bikini-clad newcomers to the block.
Coffee & Hot Tease is a new beginning for the two women, who both recently left careers in the U.S. military. Nealon was in artillery in the Marine Corps, serving overseas in Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, Italy and Spain. Baker was an Army medic in the U.S., working with Afghan refugees and filling gaps at hospitals across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, while still in the military, Nealon founded the Happy Bean Project, a nonprofit coffee shop in Lake Jackson focused on the unhoused community. Customers support the initiative with a coffee purchase, and are encouraged to donate food and clothing, which she brings to encampments in downtown Houston every two weeks.
The cause is personal for Nealon. Her brother struggles with poor mental health and addiction, and is currently living on the streets in Los Angeles. “I just have a big heart for helping the unhoused and people with mental health issues,” she said. “And I also suffer from mental health issues.”
After going through a separation from her partner, Nealon decided she needed to start a side business to make some money for herself without taking any profit from Happy Bean. In early 2020, she was featured in a Military.com article after becoming one of two women to become a Marine artillery section chief and gained a large following on Instagram. One of her new followers was Baker’s husband, who encouraged her to reach out to Nealon when she announced she was moving to Texas after leaving the military.
The former Marine needed help starting her new business, and Baker, a Houston native, was no stranger to coffee. Her aunt and uncle own a coffee shop in California, and she opened one in Dallas with her family in 2017. Before that, Baker also worked at Starbucks and Prohibition, Houston’s now-closed burlesque theater.
“I love how coffee can make people happy,” said Nealon, whose first-ever job was also as a barista. “It brings people together.”
Before her service, Nealon lived in Washington state, where so-called “bikini baristas” originated and are still widespread. She used the coffee and tease concept as her inspiration, but thought Texas may not be quite ready for that, so she opted to go with a throwback pin-up brand instead, a more conservative look with high-waisted bottoms and old-fashioned lingerie.
“As a woman, it’s good to embrace our sexuality,” Nealon said. “We like to enjoy being ourselves and having a good time and feeling sexy while we’re doing it.”
Baker remembers her time working at Prohibition, and how much fun the performers had during their shows. “We’re both silly and bubbly,” she said. “We’re just trying to create an atmosphere where people can come and show whatever side of themselves and have fun.”
The veterans’ own show at Coffee & Hot Tease gets expensive. They own about 20 to 30 outfits each, and try to match as much as possible. Right now, they buy most of their work clothes from Amazon, but Nealon wants to find a Houston store to source them from, as she likes to support local businesses. Pin-up swimsuits aren’t all that easy to find, as the fashion is quite outdated.
Coffee & Hot Tease uses beans from Dillanos Coffee Roasters in Summer, Wash., where Nealon learned how to brew coffee. She opted to take a piece of her roots with her instead of sourcing from a local roastery. The truck serves traditional coffee and tea options as well as blended coffee drinks with flavors like pecan and horchata. They also sell pastries from Westheimer coffee shop Blacksmith. Baker, who often has coffee dates there with her husband, connected with the team and pastry chef Christina Au.
The Markantonis family, owners of West Alabama Ice House, are allowing the two entrepreneurs to operate on their property for free for the first month of their tenancy in order for the business to get settled and build a customer base. The truck is parked on the small corner plot just below the bar’s iconic marquee sign, Monday through Saturday. The duo also wants to take on catering clients for corporate events, weddings and more.
In just over a week, they’ve already attracted repeat and first-time customers from the neighborhood. Many see the “female veteran owned” marker on the truck and want to hear about their experiences, especially older veterans who have also served. Overall, the community has been very welcoming and supportive, they say.
“Houston is so fun, I love that we can do this and people are like: ‘Yeah, that’s cool,'” Baker said.
Coffee & Hot Tease is planning its grand opening celebration on Saturday, Sept. 24. They’re hoping to hire between five to 10 pin-up models for the occasion, and they’re learning how to do victory curls on Emily’s long hair. They will also wheel in an old-school motorcycle with a buggy for people to take pictures with.
While Houston’s warm weather will last a little while longer, what’ll happen to their skimpy outfits when winter comes? “We were in the military,” Baker laughed. They’ll make it work.
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