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Want legs with your coffee?

In Santiago, unusual coffee establishments that showcase scantily clad women are cropping up.

The first traditional “coffee with legs” — Cafe Haiti — opened decades ago in the business district downtown. It had no tables, chairs, or ladies’ bathroom — there were just coffee counters on raised platforms, and waitresses in tight shirts and miniskirts.

Its clients were — and still are — for the most part white-collar employees, executives and men running errands. Cafe Haiti's doors are wide open, and no music plays. Today, it's just as it was decades ago, except that it, and its clients, have gotten older.

The modern version of "coffee with legs" came with the inception of democracy in Chile in 1990, when new cafes emerged with darkened windows and waitresses in bikinis. The first of this crop of establishments was the Red Baron. That cafe's scantily clad servers, dimmed lighting and loud sexy music were a hit. Soon, the cafe began experimenting with the "happy minute": At any time of day, the doors would be locked from the inside and young waitresses would perform a striptease. Waitresses continued to serve coffee, but they did so topless.

Word got around fast. Men started piling up at the entrance, trying to get in or at least peek through the windows. The media picked up on the story, and the Red Baron’s owners started promoting their “coffee with legs” as a tourist attraction.

Many of these cafes don’t sell sex — just coffee and excitement. But the Red Baron awakened a huge market for erotic cafes and subtle commercial sex. Many other such establishments opened, offering “happy minutes” and other erotic displays.

But this decade, what really increased the number of these erotic coffee shops was the shuttering of cabarets and nightclubs downtown. The closures were the handiwork of Joaquin Lavin, the former mayor of Santiago and an open member of Opus Dei — he shut down clubs and cabarets that were offering sexual services by their dancers right in the establishments.

In Chile’s market economy, supply rapidly adapted to meet demand. Erotic cafes popped up in clusters all over the capital. The competition was on.

“It’s a sort of escape valve, a cultural outlet,” Lagos explains. “Some men feel old, ugly, uninteresting or shy, and these cafes give them a chance to be with young attractive women. In this gray and conservative society, these cafes are an explicit summoning to an encounter between the sexes, where both sides know exactly what to expect from the other.”

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