Hooters-style restaurants experiencing a mini-boom
New York • The waitresses at Twin Peaks wear skimpy plaid tops that accentuate their chests. In case you didn't catch the joke, the chain's logo is an image of two pointy, snow-capped mountains. And the sports bar doesn't stop there: It promises "scenic views."
Twin Peaks owner Randy DeWitt downplays all of that and insists that the appeal of the restaurant goes beyond the obvious. Hearty meals and a focus on making customers feel special, he says, are what really keeps them coming back.
"We believe in feeding the ego before feeding the stomach," he says. Or as the website of the mountain lodge-themed restaurant states, "Twin Peaks is about you, 'cause you're the man!"
Twin Peaks is part of a booming niche in the beleaguered restaurant industry known as "breastaurants," or sports bars that feature scantily clad waitresses. These small chains operate in the tradition of Hooters, which pioneered the concept in the 1980s but has struggled in recent years to stay fresh.
Instead of relying on lust alone, the new crop of restaurants is growing by offering new themes (think: rustic lodges and Celtic pubs) and varied menus (think: pot roast and shepherd's pie instead of just burgers and wings). In other words, they're hoping maybe people really are coming in for the food.
The nation's top three "breastaurant" chains behind Hooters each had sales growth of 30 percent or more last year, according to Technomic, a food industry research firm. They still represent less than 1 percent of the nation's top restaurants, but the upstart chains are benefitting as other mid-priced options like Applebee's and Bennigan's have experienced declines during the economic downturn.
"The younger crowds want to go to a newer place, not where mom and dad took them," says Darren Tristano, an analyst at Technomic.
Tovan Adams says he frequents Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery in Tempe, Ariz., where waitresses wear matching tartan mini-skirts and bras that fit in with the restaurant's Celtic theme. He even brings his daughters, ages 6 and 9, with him for lunch.
"If you come in the evening, you'll see a lot of kids here," says Adams, an electric engineer who likes the menu's variety. "Everyone's still got their clothes on. If you go to the beach, it's a lot worse than being here."
Lynette Marmolejo, a college admissions worker, dropped in at the Tilted Kilt for the first time recently. She likes that the restaurant is dominated by the "corporate crowd" rather than the "college crowd." And she says the half-dressed waitresses don't bother her.
"Prices and the food if those are good, I don't care what anybody's wearing," Marmolejo says.
Tilted Kilt, which serves dishes such as shepherd's pie and "Irish nachos" (potato chips instead of corn tortillas), had annual sales of $124 million last year, reflecting growth of 33 percent, according to Technomic. And by the end of this year, the company expects to have 95 locations, up from 57 at the end of last year.
That growth is one reason Tilted Kilt CEO Rod Lynch, bristles at the "breastaurant" moniker. He says the word implies that the company's success is based purely on sex appeal. To the contrary, he says his customers about three-quarters of whom are men and of the average age of 36 consistently say the experience is about far more.
Tilted Kilt doesn't go so far to call itself a family restaurant. But Lynch understands the risks of crossing a certain line.
"We want to be very PG-13," he says. Its "class in all things" motto also means servers can't have tattoos, piercings or dyed hair.
Rose Dimov, a 22-year-old waitress at Tilted Kilt, says her job is no different from any other waitressing gig; make guests feel special and ensure they have a good time. As an aspiring ballroom dancer, she also says she's not fazed by the revealing outfit that comes with the job.
"Going to a restaurant should be an experience," Dimov says. "We're entertainers."
Although the name might suggest otherwise, the owner of Mugs N Jugs in Clearwater, Fla., says his place also is like any ordinary restaurant with entertainment. Sam Ahmad says his game room, pool table and karaoke are why 40 percent of his customers are families.
Sales at the restaurant grew to $3 million in 2008, from $700,000 in 1998, Ahmad says, but have since declined because of the recession. After selling a second location to a franchisee last year, Ahmad is looking to find others who want to open franchise locations under the Mugs N Jugs banner.
As for the tank tops and shorts the waitresses wear, Ahmad says they don't reveal too much. And those photos on the Mugs N Jugs website showing waitresses leaning over a pool table? Ahmad explains they are purely for marketing purposes.
"They're at an angle because they're at a pool table," he says. "When you're in the restaurant, you won't see that. She'll be standing."
Taking a cue from its much smaller rivals, Hooters is also making changes.
The company opened its first location in 1983 in Clearwater, Fla., with waitresses sporting the now famous tiny orange shorts and tight white tank tops. The chain grew rapidly at first but has struggled in recent years. Sales have fallen steadily since peaking in 2007 at $960 million, as the menu and decor grew stale.
Last year, a group of private investors bought the chain of 365 restaurants and decided to try to revive the business. In February, Hooters opened a renovated location in Atlanta to showcase its new look with upgraded TVs, an outdoor bar and a covered patio. Remodeling is slated for another six to eight restaurants this year.
In April, Hooters also beefed up its menu with items that include a Baja burger, buffalo chicken sliders and a spinach and shrimp salad. The idea is to offer dishes that draw new customers, says David Henninger, Hooters' chief marketing officer. Currently, more than three quarters of Hooters customers are male, with an average age of 45.
As part of the effort to improve its image, Henninger says Hooters is looking to showcase the life stories of its servers, many of whom are studying to go on to professional careers.
"The public can be misinformed about what we do," says Henninger, who was hired this year. "They jump to their own conclusions."
Without explaining how, he says the "curious" name of the restaurant could easily be misinterpreted. He says that the name is "part of the fun" and is about being "in on the joke."
No matter how hard they try to open their doors to a broader audience, Hooters and its rivals remain the subject of criticism. "If it's an adult entertainment business, that's fine," says Mona Lisa Wallace, president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women. "Where they're crossing the line is when they expose young children to the objectification of women."
Not every chain is defensive about the reputation of breastaurants.
At Twin Peaks, based in Addison, Texas, sales last year grew 35 percent to $44 million from the previous year, according to Technomic. Owner DeWitt touts the 22-restaurant chain's amenities but is under no illusions about the main attraction.
Waitresses, for instance, vary their costumes for special occasions. Around the holidays, servers dress up like Santa's little helpers. Around Easter, they dress up like bunnies.
The owner of Tilted Kilt is just as frank. "We hire only spectacular talent," Lynch said. "They have to fit into that costume."
AP Writer Terry Tang contributed from Tempe, Ariz.
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