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Hooters Admits Using Sex as the Draw

ATLANTA — Retired from a long career in medical sales, Roger Toy can be found most days doing the daily crossword puzzle at his local Hooters, the restaurant chain known for its scantily clad waitresses and, oh yes, buffalo wings.

At the same restaurant where Toy hangs out, a trio of telecommunications managers dine as often as three times a day.

“The girls are really the reason,” said Toy, 54, who has never been married. “If you come up here a lot, you get to know them. I like coming here because everybody knows me.”

These “girls” are the Hooters Girls, a cadre of more than 17,000 women who work at the Atlanta-based chain’s 438 restaurants across the U.S. and in 20 countries. Besides their revealing attire of low-cut, tight tank tops and short orange shorts circa the 1980s, these waitresses are known for their playful banter and friendly smiles.

“It’s the girls. The girls are what we’re all about,” said Coby Brooks, the company’s president and CEO, before adding, “although we have great food.”

Having a brand image focused on staffers wearing less has meant more for the privately held company, which began in 1983 with a single restaurant in Clearwater. It’s blossomed into a chain that brings in $900 million in yearly sales and is expected to cross the $1 billion mark for the first time next year.

Although Hooters executives declined to disclose the company’s profits, business is booming enough for it to make over some of its oldest restaurants this year for the first time, including adding more seating and plasma TVs and remodeling with higher ceilings and restroom upgrades. Fifteen restaurants have the new look and most others will be remodeled in the next couple years. Brooks said the Hooters Girls’ uniforms will stay the same.

Hooters ranks 15th among U.S. full-service restaurant chains — behind industry leader Applebee’s but ahead of other popular eateries like Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Ryan’s, according to Restaurants and Institutions magazine.

The company is also into sports, such as the Hooters Tour with the National Golf Association and the Hooters Pro Cup auto racing series with the United Speed Alliance, sponsorships that are owned by Hooters of America.

There’s even a Hooters Casino Hotel in Las Vegas, which opened in February just off the glittering Strip. It lost $16.1 million in its first eight months of operation, which Hooters of America VP Mike McNeil said was because of pre-opening expenses and other costs.

He said all involved are pleased with its results. The property, run by a company partly owned by a handful of original Hooters founders, kicked up nearly $1 million in trademark royalty fees to Hooters of America.

Brooks’ father and former CEO, Robert, also tried to parlay the chain’s success into an airline in 2003. At its peak, Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Hooters Air flew to 15 destinations, ranging from small airports in Pennsylvania to Nassau, Bahamas.

However, the company stopped commercial flights earlier this year because of problems that Coby Brooks partially attributed to rising fuel costs. Robert Brooks died in July at age 69.

Hooters still raises eyebrows and draws criticism from community activists and local officials. The controversy begins with the very mention of the name Hooters, slang for a portion of the female anatomy.

McNeil is the first to acknowledge the double meaning.

“The essential ingredient what makes Hooters different from every other restaurant out there is the Hooters girls and the element of socially acceptable sex appeal,” McNeil said. “Beyond the connotations of the name, we hope when people think of the name ‘Hooters,’ we hope they think of a great place for food and fun.”

However, women’s rights groups argue the chain is disrespectful to women and irresponsible to build its brand on sex appeal.

“The most concerning part of a restaurant like Hooters is it’s been normalized — you even see sometimes families go in … and this is a place where a woman’s body is really the object of the restaurant,” said Taina Bien-Aime of the New York-based Equality Now.

For 26-year-old Tesha Allen, working at Hooters helped pay her way through college at West Georgia University in Carrollton. As an eight-year employee of the company, she now trains wait staff in Atlanta.

“A lot of people, when they first think of Hooters, they have a negative outlook,” she said just after customers popped balloons at their tables in search of a door prize hidden inside one. “It is a fun place — we come here to serve food and when we do, we have fun while we do it.”

The chain’s brand image has prompted some cities to protest when Hooters tries to open restaurants.

In early November, the chain filed a $1 million lawsuit in federal court against the city of Troy, Mich., after it refused to allow a decade-old Hooters restaurant to transfer its liquor license to a new location. The lawsuit is still pending.

Likewise, Arlington, Texas, denied Hooters a beer license when it opened there few years ago. It is seeking a liquor license instead.

“It’s the uniforms and the merchandise they sell, it’s all very sexually suggestive. It’s inconsistent with the standard of decency in this community,” said Mayor Pro Tem Ron Wright.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission investigated Hooters in 1991, saying that it believed men were discriminated against in hiring. In 1996, the EEOC told news agencies it would not pursue litigation.

On its Web site, the company says 68 percent of its customers are men ages 25 to 54.

Spencer Teague, 39, a customer services manager for a telecommunications company in Marietta who regularly eats at a Hooters with co-workers, said his wife “would always think we were here picking up girls” until he brought her to the eatery.
 

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