The surprising story of how Hooters conquered the restaurant industry
On April Fool’s Day 1983, six mid-Western businessmen, with tongues set firmly in cheeks, unveiled plans for a radical new restaurant. With no previous experience of the food industry and no real idea what they were doing, hopes for Lynn D. Stewart, Gil DiGiannantonio, Ed Droste, Billy Ranieri, Ken Wimmer and Dennis Johnson were not high. However, they were brilliantly cunning. This is the surprising story of how Hooters became a fast food superpower.
The first restaurant set the tone for the franchises that would follow. Located on the site of a shabby former nightclub, the building was bought cheaply thanks to the litany of local businesses that had gone before it. In a sly nod to the failure of others, the original Hooters featured a mock graveyard containing the “corpses” of the previous unsuccessful tenants. According to the founders, the goal was to build an eatery that provided “manly” finger food in a nostalgic environment. The restaurant was bedecked in planks of polished wood and played hits from the 50s and 60s on loop.
The menu featured American fast food classics such as fried chicken, clams, shrimp and key lime pie. There was and still is a particular focus on hot wings, with the restaurant offering a variety of options cooked to carefully guarded recipes. In the early days, in a bid to attract customers to the fledgling business, co-founder Ed Droste donned a giant chicken costume and accosted unsuspecting passersby with the promise of wings. However, it wasn’t the environment or the food that helped Hooters to stand out.
The first “Hooters girl” was former bikini model and telephone operator Lynne Austin. Hired in the summer of 1983, Austin went on to become the face of the business for the next 10 years. Wearing the now instantly-recognisable uniform of bright orange jogging shorts and tight white tank top, she featured in a giant full-body poster that stood watch over the original restaurant, defining the business’ predominant marketing strategy for years to come. The use of female employees’ bodies as a tool to make money is the reason that Hooters can’t be considered an ordinary restaurant chain.
From the outset, the business has been brazen about what they see as their unique selling point. The restaurant’s official website openly declares that the “most important element” in the Hooters experience is “the beautiful and vivacious Hooters Girls”. To this day, Hooters’ Girls in the US are only permitted to start work once they have signed an acknowledgement that “the Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal”. In other words, customers come primarily to look at the staff.
As the 80s continued, Hooters enjoyed growing success. A now-famous Super Bowl commercial starring a costumed Austin holding a pitcher of beer brought the business to the public’s attention. A predominantly male audience flocked to an environment that encouraged lewdness. In 1985, looking to capitalise on their unique selling point, Hooters launched their first ever “Girls Calendar”, featuring provocative pictures of numerous employees, including Austin. The restaurant also contacted Playboy, seeking to gain further exposure for the business by having some of the Hooters girls featured on a centrefold. The collaboration proved successful, and Hooters’ reputation as a place to see beautiful women was bolstered.
For all the controversy, the Hooters blueprint had clearly found a following. Its primarily sexual offer, barely buried beneath the veneer of “delightful tackiness” and “humour”, attracted investors from across the world, who immediately recognised the money that could be made from this new breed of business. Hooters made a slew of marketing deals throughout the nineties and noughties, including sponsorship of Nascar and an entertainment agreement with the United States Military. Piggybacking off the brand’s success, a host of similar restaurants popped up, including now-established competitors Twin Peaks, Spice Rack and Tilted Kilt. Though critics railed, a new dining subculture had been successfully established, all thanks to the Hooters model.
Though the business has gone on to launch over 400 restaurants in more than 30 countries, it has not all been plain sailing. A tragic plane crash in 1995 killed three of the original founders, forcing the brand to reevaluate and slow expansion. In Hooters’ heyday in the early 2000s, hubris got in the way of good business sense, as executives embarked on a host of ill-advised business decisions. Hooters Air - a short-lived airline where passengers were served by Hooters girls for the duration of the flight - lost the group a cool $40 million. Plans to expand the business into some new markets, in particular the United Kingdom, proved unsuccessful amid fierce protest. For all the business’ claims of innocuous fun, Hooters clearly remains an objectionable operation to many.
The controversial principles at the heart of the business have caused Hooters a number of legal issues over the years. While numerous allegations of sexual harassment - against both male staff and customers - have been extensively documented, Hooters’ most significant disputes have revolved around their hiring policy. In 1997, three men from Chicago successfully sued the business for $10,000 each after not being hired on account of their gender. Further successful suits have been settled out of court by jobseekers denied employment on account of their appearance, and accusations of bias towards employees who “look the part” have tarnished the business’ reputation as a place for equal opportunity. The depths of these problems just reinforce the uncomfortable conclusion that Hooters and restaurants like it are, ultimately, about girls' looks.
Despite years of success, it remains to be seen where Hooters fits into the modern dining scene. Adult entertainment masquerading as a family-friendly environment, it is difficult to see how the excuses of the past can continue to carry weight. Babies’ bibs and children’s shirts are available for purchase at most outlets, and the brand proudly declares its appeal to all generations, while insisting that female employees accept that “the work environment is one in which joking and innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace." It's easy to understand why some feel a business that demands women play the part of pliant mannequins in order to remain employed is not an empowering organisation. This is not the fault of the women who work there, but the society that continues to endorse it. As the discrimination suffered by staff shows, Hooters has never simply been about harmless fun.