The Hooters debate: a U.S. restaurant chain flirts with Canada

At lunchtime on a Friday afternoon, the restaurant is nearly full. It is on prime real estate, the Harbor Place complex overlooking the old port of Baltimore. But the patrons have not come for the view. Is it the menu, which features such run-of-the-mill finger foods as steamed shrimp, french fries and chicken wings? Hardly. The ambience? Nothing special: wooden flooring and bar stools, a sign on the men’s washroom that reads, “The Crapper.’ No, what draws the clientele–the men, at least, who comprise more than half the 100 or so customers–are the waitresses, pretty young women wearing running shorts, nylon tights, athletic shoes and cotton halters tied in a knot at the back so that they only just cover the bustline. Welcome to Hooters, a place where the name indeed says it all. “I come here for a beer and a sandwich,’ explains postal worker David Taylor, 45, “and to look at the girls.’

That formula–food, booze (beer or wine only) and scantily clad hostesses–has proven to be a recipe for success since Hooters opened its first restaurant in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983. Today, the company operates 172 restaurants in 37 states and Puerto Rico, employs more than 13,000 people, including 10,000 Hooters Girls, and had revenues last year of $400 million. Sixty-five per cent of its income comes from food, 30 per cent from alcohol and five per cent from merchandise ranging from T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the Hooters owl logo to Hooters Girls calendars and Hooters Magazine (circulation 35,000). Now, Hooters is looking north, to Canada and its disposable-income-rich urban centres of Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. “I would hope that by the end of 1996 or by the first part of 1997, we will be in Canada,’ says Mike McNeil, vice-president of marketing for Atlanta-based Hooters of America Inc.

A US restaurant

A US restaurant

But if and when Hooters exports its particular brand of tacky Americana to Canada, it will also be exporting controversy. Besides criticism from women’s groups that Hooters uses sexism to sell food–even the name,critics charge, is clearly sexist–the chain now faces a lawsuit launched by four Chicago-area men who were denied employment as Hooters Girls because they were, well, men. More troublesome, however, has been the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After a four-year investigation, the commission accused Hooters last spring of discriminating against men in its hiring practices. Conciliation talks broke down in October after the commissionhanded Hooters lawyers an 80-page list of demands, which included paying $30 million to the alleged “victims’ of the restaurant’s hiring policy, establishing a scholarship to enhance job opportunities for men, and providing training to teach Hooters employees how to be more sensitive to men’s needs.

The commission, which has no enforcement power of its own and whose members have so far declined to comment on the case, could now take Hooters to federal court on charges of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the chain is not waiting for a trial to get its side of the story out. Earlier this month, the company launched a $1-million marketing campaign to fight the commission’s ruling in the court of public opinion. In major newspapers throughout the United States, it ran ads showing a false-bosomed, mustachioed man wearing the Hooters Girl uniform and holding a sign that read: “Washington–Get a Grip!’ Last week marked the end of a 10-city promotional tour that included rallies attended by Hooters Girls in tracksuits and aimed at garnering public support. McNeil, who led the tour, says that it provoked a “landslide of support’ for Hooters (and, by the way, increased sales at the restaurants). The employment commission’s action, McNeil adds, is senseless government intervention in a legitimate business. “If that’s where our country is going,’ he said, “then the next thing you know they’re going to have men in the Miss America Pageant.’

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Still, McNeil readily acknowledges that Hooters’ hiring practices are discriminatory in one regard: the waitresses have to meet the Hooter Girl image of the All-American cheerleader. “One thinks of attractive women, you think of a vivacious and bubbly personality, you think about female sex appeal,’ explains McNeil, who points out that 70 per cent of Hooters’ customers are men. But what about women applicants who do not fit the Hooters image? “Well, this is going to sound unkind, and I don’t mean it to be,’ replies McNeil, “but in terms of the law, ugly is not a protected class.’

Although Hooters may be months away from coming to Canada, there are already some indications that its brash (some might say tasteless) use of bosomy waitresses may not play well north of the border. Earlier this month, Alberta media prematurely reported that Hooters had signed a deal with a franchisee to open its first Canadian outlet in Edmonton on March 1. The reports prompted a raft of angry letters to newspapers. “I find the notion of a restaurant named Hooters not only sexist and offensive,’ read one letter to the Calgary Herald, “but also a discouraging reflection of some men’s underestimation of women.’

McNeil, for his part, denies that Hooters is sexist. “We think claims that we exploit women who are attractive are as ridiculous as saying that the CFL exploits men who are big and fast,’ he says. Employees and customers at the Baltimore Hooters seem to agree. Waitress Rachel Sands, 24, who is working on her master’s degree in biological oceanography when she is not wearing the Hooters uniform, says she loves working there. “I believe that any job is only as degrading as you let it be,’ Sands adds. And patron Michael Corea, a 23-year-old student, says Hooters’ ongoing battle with the federal commission is ridiculous. “I think this whole thing is stupid,’ he says. “Why would any guy want to work in a place like this anyway?’

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