5 Nasty Realities Of Work In A Hooters-Style Breastaurant
If you aren't a traveling salesman or a high school student who just got a driver's license, you might not realize that the landscape of mediocre hot wings and gratuitous cleavage has drastically changed over the past decade or so. Hooters is no longer the only PG-13 strip club in town -- newer joints like Tilted Kilt, Twin Peaks, or the expertly named Bone Daddy's House Of Smoke (in Texas, naturally) have popped up to get a piece of that lucrative boob pie.
We spoke to Chet, a veteran breastaurant manager; Laura, a former Hooters waitress; and Nicole, who's worked at Hooters and Tilted Kilt, to get the inside story on an industry that is every bit as creepy as you'd expect.
Gain Weight, Get Fired
It may not surprise you that the interview process for servers at most of these establishments includes being subjected to a decidedly amateur full-body photo shoot. This, according to Chet, allows management to review an applicant's assets, and it also gives management a baseline to go back to, should they notice one of the waitresses is putting on a little weight or irresponsibly reflecting the natural passage of time in her face or thereabouts.
"At Hooters, we did weight pictures," says former Hooters server Nicole. "They weigh you, take pictures of you. And if they notice a change in your physique -- it doesn't matter if it's five pounds or 20 pounds -- you have 30 days to lose it, or you're fired." And they allegedly do make good on those threats: Hooters girls have sued, claiming they were placed on "weight probation" for being too heavy. But don't worry -- at least one court has upheld the right for restaurants to fire cocktail waitresses for gaining weight.
Apparently, this woman would be better off working at Sea World. As Shamu's understudy.
Chet says it's no different at his current place of employment, the name of which we won't be sharing -- we will only say that it's basically like a Hooters if it got drunk and passed out in a border town during spring break. He's had to pull women aside -- many of whom he knows go to the gym daily -- to tell them that their thighs are looking a little thick. The pressure to remain thin is so great that the restaurant regulates what the waitresses are allowed to eat when they're on the clock. "We have what's called a 'spa menu' that they're only allowed to eat off of when they're at work," Chet says. "They're not allowed to get wings. It's just chicken breast, fish, that kind of thing."
"We'll let you inhale chocolatey air molecules for three seconds, but you better hop right on the treadmill after."
He's also found it hard to turn off this impulse to grade women like cattle. Chet recalls how his impression of an attractive neighbor drastically changed: "The first time I met her, before I worked at [my former employer] Bikinis, I thought, 'Oh, she's really pretty.' Maybe five months after I started at the restaurant, I saw her again and I found myself [doing an episode of] What Not to Wear. In my head I was like, 'What's up with her hair? That ponytail? She's got sweats on, no makeup. Her nails are a wreck.' I was breaking her down as I was talking to her, and I totally dissected her [appearance]. She looked the same as the first time I'd met her. You get in the habit of it."
The Employee Handbook Demands An Oddly Specific Look
Hooters set the industry standard of policing nearly every aspect of a waitress's physical appearance -- a fine balance for a brand that prides itself on a certain kind of tacky. The handbook emphasizes: "Our LOOK is wholesome, yet sexy, and the uniform is athletic by design." ("Athletic" is a word here meaning "something you would wear to ride a stationary bike, but not necessarily to serve French fries to children.")
Overly anal, extreme micromanagement is fun!
"We were supposed to fit into this certain mold," says Nicole. "They wanted the image of the Hooters Girl to be like the prom queen, the cheerleader." Or, as the official Hooters literature puts it: "All-American Cheerleader, Surfer, Girl Next Door." Nicole points out that the desired effect seems to be a bit 1980s teen comedy chic, which is an aesthetic that has not aged well. For example, the handbook requires you to wear all-white slouch socks, which is a look no one has enjoyed since Michael Dukakis ran for president.
On the other hand, it's a great way to ensure all those creepy foot fetishists eat elsewhere.
However, just because the Hooters look is dated by three decades doesn't mean that it's cheap to pull off on a daily basis. "You had to wear a minimum of blush, bronzer, tinted lipstick, mascara, and eyeliner, every day," Nicole says. "You weren't allowed tattoos or piercings at all." This may not sound unreasonable until you realize that we are currently living in the year 2015 and not the town from Footloose.
Other rules seem to be less about maintaining a look and more about appealing to someone's specific fetish. "I have naturally curly hair, and I was told I wasn't allowed to have that anymore, that I was to straighten my hair," she says. "So I started to, and then a month later I got in trouble because my hair started looking damaged, and I was told that looked bad. It was like, what do you want from me? I was told to go out and buy these hair products to make my hair look less damaged ... after I had been told I wasn't allowed to have curly hair."
Because, honestly -- aside from launching the entire goddamn company, what have curls ever brought to the table?
It seems like none of this should be possible in 2015 -- how can they make requirements involving things like weight and hair care? Well ...
Legal Loopholes Allow For Blatant Discrimination
Chet laid out the four magic words for any aspiring breastaurateur: bona fide occupational qualification. In practice, it means you can ignore small hurdles like the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 and effectively discriminate based on trifles like age or gender, if you can argue it is reasonably necessary to the operation of your business. To be clear, there's a legitimate need for this kind of exception -- BFOQ is why an employer can reject a septuagenarian who wants to try his hand at piloting commercial airline flights because his age is a dangerous risk, but it doesn't allow them to turn away male applicants trying to find solid gigs as flight attendants.
Uh, most of the time.
Yet a lot of establishments hide behind BFOQ by classifying their employees as entertainers and actors. Hooters, for instance, drives this point home in its orientation literature, which details how the Hooters Girl is playing a role she was cast in, which is largely "entertainment through female sex appeal." As the employee handbook reads: "Hooters Girls are to be camera-ready at all times. This is show business, just like the modeling industry. Make-up is not to be too extreme, nor too minimal." In other words, looking good and sufficiently like a young, fit woman, is a job requirement. And that argument has proven more or less airtight. It's the same reason a Hollywood casting call can insist on a "busty female age 18-22," but a law office can't.
"At Bikinis, it was called an 'image agreement,' and at [my current restaurant], it's called 'expectations of the job,' and it details that you're hired based on your look," Chet confirms. Not to say lawsuits haven't been filed. In 1997, a Chicago court found in favor of a group of men unable to secure jobs at Hooters, which had inexplicably become a hard-and-fast goal for them. While the court didn't compel the tacky/unrefined chain to put men on the floor, it did say the restaurant had to find some work for male employees, perhaps at the periphery of the male gaze. That's why you might sometimes stroll into Hooters for a gallant night of chicken wings and masturbation reconnaissance, only to be seated or served a beer by a goateed personal trainer.
The company responded to the ruling with all the maturity and class you'd expect from them.
The one thing employers can't call BFOQ on is race, which unlike age, gender, or religious orientation can never be a considerable exception when you're using BFOQ as rationale, unless you're running a Ku Klux Klan amusement park. And yet, as one super-anonymous source told us, "I've gotten in trouble -- my management team has gotten in trouble -- at [multiple breastaurants] for having too many African-American girls on staff," Captain Anonymous says. "Where I'm at now, they want no more than five African-American servers per store. [Store] was supposed to [feature] girls of no specific theme or background, but we caught a lot of shit at different points. ... We'd get a visit from corporate, and they'd say, 'You have too many black girls.'"
The establishment Chet currently manages is meant to cater to Latino men, and he's received similar hiring suggestions from the higher-ups. But, Chet says, he never gets criticized for having too many gringas on staff.
You're Told To Tolerate Innuendo, But No Touching
As you can imagine, sexual harassment at a place like Hooters is a huge problem. "It's tricky," Chet says. "When new employees fill out the paperwork when they're hired, it's the same as it would be anywhere, as far as sexual harassment goes. It says we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. You're always free to report it to ... any supervisor." However, as Chet explains, management expects you to make a few exceptions. "Elsewhere, it's explained that, given the nature of our restaurant, it is presumed that there will be some talk of a sexual nature with customers, so by accepting the job you're agreeing to allow some ... sexual connotation."
The chicken breast joke wasn't funny the first 75,000 times she heard it, but we're sure 75,001 will be killer.
Specifically, Hooters waitresses must sign an acknowledgment that reads, in part, "I hereby acknowledge ... 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." Our other former server, Laura, was pursuing her theater major when she applied at her local Hooters, unable to find a more conventional waitressing job in her college town. She discovered her improv skills largely helped her dodge the off-putting come-ons that seem to come with the territory without compromising her tips too much. "If somebody said something inappropriate, I was usually pretty smooth about shutting them down without making them feel shitty," Laura says. "My theater training started to click, and I could use it to navigate my way out of situations that made me uncomfortable."
"No, we don't serve gigantic melons here. We have plenty of tiny potatoes, though. I mash them myself."
But Laura knew where to draw the thin orange line: Although the Hooters franchise she worked at was located six miles away from a state prison, she found the monthly influx of newly minted ex-cons well-behaved, especially compared with a particular middle-aged regular. This regular would schedule his visits so that he only ever showed up at a time of day when business was slow, and he would then order nothing but a Diet Coke and proceed to make awkward conversation with the captive waitstaff. And, once an awkward conversation turns a certain corner, no amount of improv comedy can save it. "He finally told me some weird story about how he wanted to have sex with me in a river, and I was like, 'That's too much. I'm sorry. I'm done,'" Laura recalls. She told management, and they told the raconteur in no uncertain terms to go fuck himself in whatever river was most convenient.
And if you try to touch the girls, you can expect to be shown the door. "I used to walk off the floor with a handful of phone numbers and notes," Nicole says. "Or they'd try to get my Facebook. But it's a big rule at these places: No touching the girls at work, even if it's a tap on the shoulder. At Tilted Kilt, we had a bouncer for that. There were many times where customers tried to grab me or make inappropriate advances, but pretty much if you touch the girls, you've got to go."
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper's memory lives on in all men in kilts who can straight fuck your shit up.
Newer Breastaurants At Least Allow For Different "Types"
Neither Nicole nor Laura can swing by their old workplaces to say hi, even if they wanted to: Both of their Hooters stores are now closed. In fact, as of this time last year, 7 percent of Hooters restaurants had closed their doors, the management forced to hitch their boob-shaped wagon to another star. As it turns out, not many people go to Hooters to sample their delicious menu, and nowadays there's plenty of cleavage and beer to be had at breastaurants that don't force their servers to wear colored pantyhose and do their makeup like the female lead in a 1980s movie about skiing.
Only this time, the shy and sweet underdog doesn't really win. But the rich douche does get a bad case of beer and wing shits.
"It's an old concept now," Nicole says. "They haven't really updated themselves, and it's coming off as tacky, and they're trying to play off of that, but it's not working as well as they think." Or maybe the customer base is just getting old -- the '80s-girl-next-door look seems designed to appeal to a certain demographic that remembers that era as the glory days. Nicole wound up moving on to Scottish/English/Irish pub-style franchise Tilted Kilt (they wear plaid bikini tops and short faux-kilts instead). Not only is Tilted Kilt outpacing Hooters sales, but their average customer is nine years younger than a Hooters regular.
But no less creepy.
Nicole says they also have more lax standards for their waitresses; their employees (all clad in hyper-sexual schoolgirl attire) are allowed to be slightly more curvy, have visible tattoos, and sport a variety of hairstyles. Statistically, the wait staff appeals to a broader spectrum of tastes (and fetishes, if we're being totally honest), which means more customers. Newer breastaurants also offer a better variety of food, including pub fare, Mexican food, and whatever the hell it is that Twin Peaks serves.
All this competition, combined with their aging gimmick, has forced Hooters to up their game, which is another way of saying that Hooters just kicked off a five-year plan to turn themselves into a family-friendly establishment. It's gone about as well as you'd expect. "We tried to do a Mother's Day promotion," Nicole recalls, shuddering slightly. This was not the success that Hooters was inexplicably anticipating.
"You know what demographic we're missing? The moms." -a Hooters executive, moments before being showered with congratulatory Members-Only jackets and Wayfarer sunglasses by his fellow time orphans.
Ready for more inside looks at the restaurant biz? Then check out 6 Surprising Realities Of Life As A Hooters Girl and 5 Disgusting Truths About Every Restaurant (From A Chef).
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