More than a Mouthful: How the Breastaurant Industry Feeds America’s Appetite for Exploitation

I hereby acknowledge and affirm that (1) my job duties require I wear the designated Hooters Girl uniform; (2) my job duties require that I interact with and entertain the customers; and (3) the Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace. I also expressly acknowledge and confirm I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements, or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile, or unwelcome. p.45 Hooters Employee Handbook

The press-release version of the Hooters’ story goes something like this: Back in 1983 in Clearwater, Florida, six businessmen with no professional bar or restaurant experience got together to create an establishment they couldn’t get kicked out of. Their idea was to combine music from the 50s and 60s, their favorite manly finger foods, cold beer, lots of wood décor, and an abundance of pretty, well-built girls. They hired contestants from bikini contests as waitresses, crafted a menu loaded with irreverent double entendres aimed at their own employees, and erected a centerfold-style billboard directly above the building. A year later, when the place was so busy there was a two-hour wait just to get in the door, the founding six declared their little experiment to be “the happiest accident in restaurant history.”

Hooters Inc. now operates over 430 franchises in 33 countries, as well as a casino hotel in Las Vegas, a magazine and calendar featuring Hooters Girls in pin-up poses, and 425 collective Hooters brand stores worldwide. The company sponsors numerous sporting events, pro golf tours, a swimsuit pageant, and NASCAR races. They market a Play Station racing game called “Hooters Road Trip,” a mobile phone wallpaper app featuring Hooters Calendar Girls, and several other officially licensed games for mobile consumption.

The secret of Hooters’ success is not, as the website claims, “a casual alternative to fern bars and fine dining that offers lots of really good food.” The secret ingredient that catapulted a mediocre Florida sports bar into a branded international institution is the formulaic precision with which they serve up female sex appeal. In the 80s, at the height of conservative America’s identity as the sole purveyor of family values, Hooters swooped in and effectively called its bluff. The founders gambled on hypocrisy, society’s enduring tolerance for sexist behavior, and the predictable spending habits of heterosexual men, whom they exclusively targeted. In the long run, it more than paid off.

Hooters’ business model has proven so successful, dozens of imitators with comparably raunchy tongue-in-cheek names like Twin Peaks, The Tilted Kilt, Show-Me’s, Mugs ‘N Jugs, and Bone Daddy’s have emerged, forging an entire niche industry dubbed “breastaurants.”

Since the recession, both casual and fine dining establishments have experienced a steady decline in sales, while “breastaurants” continue to report blockbuster growth. It seems by combining food and drink with soft-core entertainment, they attract the budget-minded consumer who wants a little more action for his hard-earned pay. While the wording is slightly different on their respective websites, the breastaurant branding philosophy is simple: Feed the male ego.

Hooters was the first to break the barriers of food service respectability by brazenly featuring cleavage as part of the family dining experience. Hooters blurred America’s boundaries of decency, conflating corporeal and culinary lust, and franchise by franchise turned the archetypal male fantasy of being served by scantily-clad nymphs into a reality. But unlike other cultural catalysts of the 1980s, e.g. Madonna, MTV, Jerry Springer, or even the sitcom “Married…with Children,” which faced scrutiny from the gentry for their corrupting influence, Hooters encountered little, if any, public disapproval.

Hooters’ initial concept was to offer customers one of three ideal female types: surfer girl, all-American cheerleader, or the girl next door—each with requisite large breasts, of course. When the chain expanded, and they became famous for their signature attraction, they refined their application criteria to include specific physical attributes, such as long hair, no body piercings or visible tattoos, weight limits, and gender. Upon official hiring as a requirement of employ, waitresses—or Hooters Girls, as they are called—are contractually mandated to comply with image and grooming standards referred to in the Hooters’ handbook as “The Look.” In addition to signing an agreement that prescribes—down to the color of their nail polish and number of rings on each hand—what they are permitted to wear when performing the duties of “Hooters Girl at the Bar” or “Hooters Girl on the Floor,” employees also must sign an arbitration agreement, limiting their options for legal action, if the need ever arose.

Hooters not only made it socially acceptable to use overt sex appeal as a marketing tool, but they also found a loophole in the 14th Amendment (which addresses antidiscrimination in hiring, termination, compensation, and retaliation), enshrining its legality as well. This loophole, called the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification Exception, lies in the Title XII provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It states that businesses are allowed to discriminate based on qualifications if those qualifications are necessary for the normal operation of the business. Hooters has been sued many times for equal employment consideration, but aside from a class action case in 1997 that opened provisional positions (i.e., busboy, bar-back, and floor host) to men, Hooters has settled every lawsuit with their hiring practices intact. Hooters so successfully (and repeatedly) argued that it wouldn’t be Hooters without hooters, there is a provision in the employee handbook referring to the statute.

In addition to the strictly enforced hygiene and dress code, a Hooters Girl must consent to act in a certain way, a servile way, willing to take care of her customers’ needs, from pouring pitchers of beer into glasses, to peeling their shrimp and deboning their chicken wings. A Hooters Girl is expected to tolerate behavior from patrons that would be considered harassment in any other environment. She is supposed to laugh at all the men’s jokes and not be offended by suggestions or propositions—no matter how lewd. The only thing she can legitimately refuse is graphic physicality, but shy of that, she is told, the more she puts up with, the more tips she will make.

The average Hooters Girl is 21-years-old, many are students, some are mothers, and each believes it is her right to use natural female sex appeal to earn a living—just like Victoria’s Secret models, NFL cheerleaders, Vegas showgirls, and Hollywood actresses do. If men are willing to pay her to cozy up to their table, wearing booty shorts and a smile, and she is willing to do it, then what is the harm? It seems like an expedient way to offset college tuition or buy a new car or pay rent—but, is it?

The average Hooters Girl earns $24,000 annually, or $12/hour, which is 4% higher than the national average for all waitresses but 87% lower than the national salary average for all working Americans. $12 per hour to fend off handsy drunks, errant butt grabs, brushes against thighs, knee pats, and oogles galore. $12 an hour to be at her customers’ beck and call, deflecting their remarks, avoiding cameras that photograph her body parts, and navigating around potential stalkers—all exacerbated by alcohol.

The average Hooters Girl shows up for work 45 minutes early to participate in group primping and cleavage tying; she spends her own money on makeup, hair, tanning, cosmetic breast implants, and the infamous pantyhose; she buys her own uniform.

The average Hooters Girl uses a pseudonym to deter customers from contacting her outside of work, reports advances from men with such regularity that there is a standardized form with which to do so, never walks from the bar to her car alone, and checks her rearview mirror to make sure no one is following her home.

Twelve dollars an hour is hardly adequate compensation considering the breastaurant industry is profiting so fiercely, but, really, what is the fair market value for suppressing one’s humanity and individuality? What is the cost to our society when we allow an institution to systematically reduce women to vessels?

It’s no accident that Hooters et al has been silent during the #MeToo revelation: it’s their collective strategy. That they continue to fly just under the radar with their para-Playboy clubhouses while we’re distracted by the debauched antics of the current administration is a calculated waiting game. But make no mistake, we see them and their time will come.

Being paid to elicit the male gaze in a sexually objectifying environment isn’t female empowerment. It’s exploitation.
Do your daughters and sons a favor, eat wings somewhere else.

Photo Credit: A. Strakey Flickr via Compfight cc

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