On the end of Hooters

The real reason Hooters is disappearing across the country

via Mashed by Debra Kelly

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Usually, when you announce where you’re headed for dinner, it’s met with a bit of excitement and — hopefully — agreement. Announce to the family you’d like to go to Hooters, though, and it might be met with doubt and a disapproving scowl. There’s no denying that Hooters — with their scantily-clad waitresses and looks-based hiring practices — has always targeted a certain client base.

It’s hard to believe they’ve been doing it for more than 30 years, and according to USA Today, they haven’t aged well. They called Hooters “a fading relic of the 1980s,” and they’ve been on a very slow downward slide for a long time. There’s only one year in recent memory that they saw a sales increase, and even then it was just a pretty sad one percent. In 2008, they had 400 restaurants. By 2011, they had closed 35 locations and lost an annual revenue of more than $100 million (via Time). Between 2012 and 2016 they closed a further seven percent of their locations, says Business Insider. So what’s going on with this bro-centric breastaurant?

BrandIndex is a company that surveys a wide customer base across dozens of industries in order to determine what’s trending and what’s not. They took a hard look at Hooters in 2013, and what they found was pretty hilarious… or would be, if it wasn’t so dismal.

Customers were asked to rate Hooters on a scale of 100 to -100, and as of 2013, women rated the chain at a pretty sad -21. That might not be surprising, but how about the guys? Their average score clocked in at an almost equally sad 2, climbing a bit from the -3 they scored just a few months prior.

And that’s a big deal. According to American Marketing Association CEO and restaurant expert Russ Klein, getting rid of any taboo associated with Hooters is key. And that taboo? The numbers say it exists with guys, too.

Do you know what’s not good for any company’s image? People staging protests and picketing your plans to open new locations.

That’s exactly what happened when Hooters announced they were expanding in the UK. In 2010, protesters started campaigning against the imminent opening of a Hooters in Cardiff, with one spokesperson saying (via The Guardian), “Everyone should have a job but they should be good jobs with dignity. Not only is it a sexist institution, but it encourages a sexist culture.” (In spite of protests, The Guardian also reported the chain opened there a few months later.)

Wales wasn’t the only country to protest Hooters, and in 2010 Marks & Spencer was threatened with boycott when a Bristol location announced they would sublet space to Hooters (via The Telegraph). A Birmingham location was only open for a year before closing, and Sheffield’s Hooters got such strong opposition that it never even opened. The Independent called it “the feminist nightmare” when they reported on Scotland’s condemnation of the chain as a “degrading spectacle” in 2008, saying that people from government officials to students weren’t happy about the idea of getting one in their town.

Hooters’ message of objectifying women (something Salon notes they were once quite upfront about on their own website, on a page that’s now gone) has never looked more dated than it does post-2017. Thanks to movements like #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Time Magazine’s naming of The Silence Breakers as 2017’s Person of the Year, the world is suddenly listening to women who are sick and tired of suffering sexual assault and harassment in silence. And that makes the hot pants and low-cut tops of Hooters’ waitresses even more uncomfortable.

The presence of a Hooters restaurant and an increase in the potential for sexual assault was connected by Cathy Jamieson, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She noted (via The Independent), “Violence against women is a big problem… and these types of establishments do nothing to promote equality of women in the workplace.” Feminist academic Carol J Adams went even further, saying, “It makes the degradation of women appear playful and harmless… thus everyone can enjoy the degradation of women without being honest.”

In case you’re wondering whether or not Hooters has ever been connected with assault and harassment lawsuits, the answer is yes.

It goes back a long time, too. Former waitress Sara Steinhoff sued Hooters for the abuse and harassment she says she suffered through between 1996 and 1997, and by the time the jury was done deliberating, she walked away with $275,000. Her testimony included horrifying details like her managers’ attempting to take her home, and threatening to tie her up. Others claimed they forced waitresses to participate in bikini contests as punishment (via ABC News).

In 2017, Jade Velez filed charges against Hooters, too. According to Philadelphia, she was subjected to sexual harassment finally culminating in a physical attack. Her managers, she stated in the lawsuit, not only refused to do anything about it, but interpreted her walking out of the restaurant as grounds for her termination.

It’s not just the chain’s female employees that have had issues, either. In 2016, two men filed charges against their former Hooters managers for sexual harassment. When they complained to upper management, they were fired (via CBS).

Hooters’ original business strategy may have been to lure in the bros with, well, hooters, but some fascinating surveys suggest this tactic is failing for a weird reason: people just aren’t feeling the need to oogle women’s breasts at a “breastaurant” any more.

According to Business Insider, a meta-analysis from PornHub revealed some changing tastes in adult entertainment. When it came to the searches of people between 18 and 24 years old, they were the least likely to be looking for entertainment that was, well, breast-centric. Look at the age group that was between 55 and 64, and they’re 17 percent more likely to be searching for breasts, but they’re also not really the target market.

And they say that’s a real problem for Hooters. The younger generation just isn’t as impressed by women in low-cut shirts as their elders are, and when that’s your schtick, it hurts your bottom line when it falls out of fashion.

The type of person that goes to Hooters for a little oogle with their chicken wings is still out there, of course, but Hooters is losing their business, as well. In 2017, Business Insider reported that relative newcomer Twin Peaks was managing to increase their sales by being even more risque than Hooters ever was. They saw a 63 percent increase between 2013 and 2015, and according to their CEO, it’s all thanks to their waitresses and their tiny, tiny outfits.

Twin Peaks built their image on being a sort of smutty sports’ lodge, with waitresses offering customers beers with names like Gold Digger and Dirty Blonde while wearing barely-there plaid shirts and even smaller shorts. According to what then-CEO Randy DeWitt told Bloomberg in 2014, it was a direct shot at Hooters because, “Hooters just wasn’t racy enough.”

Hooters trying to soften their image a bit, coupled with the hardcore emergence of chains like Twin Peaks, means that Hooters is even losing their original audience.

Today, headlines are dominated by movements to give women equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunities… and that makes it really, really weird that Hooters is legally allowed to discriminate during their hiring processes.

Business Insider looked at why Hooters can get away with only hiring young, well-endowed women as servers. In 1997, two men sued the company after being turned away on the basis of their gender. Hooters settled (and settled a similar lawsuit in 2009) — but they were not forced to employ men as servers, based on some disturbing arguments. They claimed they weren’t hiring waitresses, they were hiring “entertainers” who didn’t interview as much as “audition.” They did agree, however, to offer some gender-neutral positions.

They cited a footnote in the Civil Rights Act to justify their hiring practices, saying (via The Conversation) that having a smokin’ hot body was a “bona-fide occupational qualification,” so it wasn’t discrimination to refuse to hire anyone who didn’t have a specific set of… qualifications.

Hooters is one of a number of casual dining restaurants, and part of their struggles is a decline in the industry that’s being felt by all their competitors. Chains like Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse are closing, too, and they all have something in common: millennials just don’t like their style.

According to Business Insider, millennials are abandoning casual dining restaurants in favor of fast-casual chains (like Chipotle), meal delivery services, and trendier new chains like wine bars. They’re more focused on convenience and less likely to want to spend a few hours sitting in a restaurant, and that’s impacting Hooters, too. In 2013, USA Today looked at how Hooters was trying to get more millennials in the door, and they started by overhauling locations with new technology, outdoor seating areas, and better AV systems for more sports.

That’s great, but it hasn’t had as much of an impact as they might like.

Remember when people used to defend their choice to go to Hooters? It wasn’t about the girls, they would say, it was for the food. They had good food, right? You’ve probably heard people singing the praises of their wings, and while that might have gotten them by in the 1980s and ’90s, we have higher expectations now.

When Hooters got their 30th-anniversary overhaul, USA Today reported they were finally giving their menu an update, too. It wasn’t until then that they brought in a new chef with some actual fine dining experience, and he wasn’t impressed with how they had been doing things. Chef Gregg Brickman told one reporter that when he arrived, the most important tool in a Hooters’ kitchen was “a pair of scissors — to open a bag.” Yikes.

Those wings? Frozen. The burgers? Frozen. You get the idea. In an era of social media and celebrity chefs, people just want to get more than that for their hard-earned dollars, and Hooters spent far too long coasting on the idea that people were really actually going there just for the food. Honest.

Hooters are also disappearing because in their place, their parent company is trying something new. It’s called Hoots, and they’re hoping this fast-casual version of their chain is going to solve all their problems.

Hoots locations have a smaller menu, counter service for take-out and dine-in customers, and that will (in theory) get millennials in the door. They’re also hoping that switching to employing both men and women — and dressing them a little more modestly — will help shift their image to something not-so-skeevy (via Tampa Bay Times).

American Marketing Association CEO and restaurant expert Russ Klein calls this “an adjacency strategy,” and depending on how well Hoots does, it could mean a few different things. The two versions of the chain may coexist, or the entire chain might be rebranded into fast-casual Hoots instead of the version we’re all still more familiar with. “It could be existential if the Hooters brand is becoming perceived as increasingly offensive,” Klein said, and only time will tell if this fast-casual, better-dressed restaurant can save the brand.

Not only are we a little more aware of sexual harassment these days, we’re a little more aware of the damage that can be done by sexually objectifying women, too. In 2015, faculty from the University of Tennessee’s psychology department set out to find what kind of consequences working in this environment had on waitress’s mental health, and the findings were pretty disturbing (via The Conversation).

All the waitresses they interviewed suffered from some degree of depression, anxiety, anger, confusion, and feelings of degradation. They reported feeling demeaned on a regular basis, suffering from poor work relationships, and having to face challenging, unpleasant customers on a daily basis. They also found being so objectified increased their own sense of body shame, spiraling into deeper depression.

More research from the same school also found (via USA Today) that employees of Hooters (and other “breastaurants”) were more susceptible to eating disorders, and were at the mercy of a largely male-dominated management team. So, if you’ve ever felt uncomfortable on behalf of the Hooters’ girls, that might be why. And that’s not a good vibe for any brand.

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