Hooters: Over the top, underdressed, and over here
It's the feminist nightmare: an American restaurant chain whose unique selling point is the vital statistics of the waitresses. Now Hooters is coming to a city near you
Published 12/04/2008 | 12:23
Robert H Brooks was in little doubt over the secret behind the success of his global chain of Hooters restaurants: "Beautiful women, cold beer and food that will never go out of fashion." It was a business strategy that was to pay handsome dividends for the introverted Christian family man who built a $1bn-a-year empire of 435 eateries across 23 countries and 46 US states.
When they laid the 69-year-old driving force behind the "Breastarant" to rest just two years ago at the Trinity Episcopal Church close to his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, more than 1,000 mourners paid their respects. Those who couldn't cram into the white chapel building watched the ceremony on television from the air-conditioned comfort of an overspill room while a shuttle service ferried friends, family and admirers from the local car park.
Among those joining the congregation was the local mayor and a former senator who listened amid the gentle sound of sobs as the late entrepreneur's eldest son, Coby, bid his father an emotional farewell. "Godspeed, Sir, I love you," he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Such lachrymose tributes must have proved hard to swallow for Brooks' detractors of whom there are many thousands worldwide. Nearly everywhere that the Hooters brand has reared its head there have been rumblings of discontent from opponents furious over the role of the company's famously nubile waiting staff.
These protests are now echoing in the corridors of power in Britain where Hooters is engaged in an aggressive roll-out, planning to add a further 41 sites to its single outlet which has been serving chicken wings and beer in Nottingham for the best part of the last decade.
Five are to open their doors this year, in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Bristol. Further outlets from Aberdeen to Plymouth will be up and running by 2012, says the company charged with masterminding the UK expansion, Wings Over England Ltd.
The argument is raging most vociferously in Scotland where Cathy Jamieson, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has led the opposition, criticising the scantily clad waitresses upon which Brooks built his fortune as a "degrading spectacle". She said: "Scotland does not want these so-called restaurants coming to our cities. Violence against women is a big problem in Scotland and these types of establishments do nothing to promote equality of women in the workplace."
At Southend-on-Sea, Essex, a postgraduate student, Sophia Deboick, has orchestrated a well-publicised campaign to persuade the local council to reject plans for a restaurant in the seaside town. "The uniforms the girls are made to wear are extremely brief and they have bikini competitions where waitresses parade around in string bikinis," she said. "It is similar to a strip club, and it is exploitative."
The radical feminist vegetarian academic Carol J Adams has combined both her pet themes to savage the chain in her controversial book The Sexual Politics of Meat. Describing what it is that appeals to men about tucking in to a plate of grilled poultry parts served up by attractive young waitress, she concluded: "It is a way that men can bond publicly around misogyny whether they know it or not. It makes the degradation of women appear playful and harmless: 'just' a joke ... Thus everyone can enjoy the degradation of women without being honest."
Not everybody sees it that way. Scotland has had a smattering of "Hands Off Our Hooters" headlines, and in Southend and Sheffield online petitions have sprung up with more than 160 signatures demanding that Hooters gets the go-ahead.
One anonymous contributor wrote: "If they want to have fun, let them. No hairy, screaming, humourless harridan should be allowed to dictate how people have fun. It's a restaurant, with hooters, that's all. It's not like Sodom and Gomorrah is being re-enacted!"
So is Hooters really that bad? For those seeking culinary excellence, Brooks' perennially fashionable menu of buffalo wings, chilli dogs and shrimp platter is unlikely to win its kitchen assemblers a Michelin star any time soon.
And even at the Beijing branch which opened last September, the fourth in China, no one really believes the word "Hooters" really relates to the company's owl logo, which compulsorily adorns the chests of the 17,000 staff around the globe.
Hooters has been on the receiving end of a bevy of discrimination lawsuits by men challenging its female-only front-of-house policy. But the company is having none of it, citing the findings of the District Court of North Illinois which upheld its "gender eligibility requirements".
Furthermore, it insists that: "Hooters Girls have the same right to use their natural sex appeal to earn a living as do supermodels Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell." Yet a glance through the company's exhaustive dress code reveals a surprisingly demure, if not old-fashioned, admittedly sexist, view of the world. To capture the "All-American cheerleader, surfer, girl next door look" staff are warned (in block capitals) that the regulation Hooters-issue tangerine orange shorts must "NOT BE SO TIGHT THAT THE BUTTOCKS SHOW".
There is a no visible midriff rule, a straight ban on body piercings (especially tongues), no tattoos while unintentional flashes of bra strap are also strictly forbidden. Tight tops, good make-up, clean hair and flesh-coloured pantyhose are, by contrast, de-rigeur, as is the obligation to "SMILE!!!"
Perhaps most controversially, staff are required to sign up to the "entertainment through female sex appeal" philosophy by putting their name to an extraordinary disclaimer accepting, "I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile or unwelcome", which critics claim is a clear abrogation of their rights.
Hooters burst into life in 1983 in Clearwater, Florida, site of a series of failed business ventures. Though it writes its own colourful history on its website, something about a group of "semi-intellectual" businessmen who felt the overpowering urge for the smell of "roughsawn lumber" and the "taste of buffalo-style chicken wings" the truth is more prosaic.
True, it was started by a group of six "drinking buddies" with no catering experience and a penchant for the Floridian good life. Furthermore, this pioneering group was richly rewarded for the idea, holding on to the original 22 restaurants in the company's core areas of Tampa Bay, Manhattan and Chicago, until last year when they eventually sold out to Hooters of America Inc for a cool $55.1m.
But it was Brooks' decision in 1984 to team up with a group of fellow investors to buy the rights to the Hooters concept that was to turn the restaurant into a global brand. The entrepreneur had already gained a foothold in the food business after patenting a milkshake formula adopted by fast-food giant Burger King.
In the 1960s, he built a fortune selling non-dairy creamer to US airlines and created a range of dressings and sauces under the Naturally Fresh Foods brand adding various other businesses along the way, including a country club, speedway tracks and an Atlanta-based land development company.
The man who later became known as the World Wide Wing Commander and his successor, worked hard to extract extra value from the brand, offering everything from Hooters baby bibs to customised credit cards for its loyal customers. There is a Hooters video game, calendar and annual beauty pageant. More audacious still was the construction of the Hooters Casino Hotel, opposite the MGM Grand just off the Strip in Las Vegas.
Less successful was Hooters Air, the Myrtle Beach-based airline which brought the company's unique brand of in-flight entertainment to America's huge golf travel market. Services were suspended in 2006.
Mindful of the growing backlash, Hooters has run aggressive public relations campaigns in recent years, setting up its own charitable fund HooCef as well as donating money to a range of charities and dispatching its best- known calendar girls to cheer up United States troops overseas.
But all this seems unlikely to appease those lining up to oppose the roll-out of Hooters in Britain. Critics say that communities have sat back for too long and allowed the sex industry to colonise the high streets of our towns and cities, and they say, Hooters is little more than a glorified strip joint with bad food.
As the chain prepares to mark its 25th anniversary this year, it seems certain that some British critics will try to spoil the party.