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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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