Journey Inside Hoots, the Breast-less, Unsexy Hooters for No One

Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Maria Sherman/Jezebel, Hoots/Facebook)

As a teen, I yearned to be a mall rat; as a teen in Germany, that desire went mostly unfulfilled. There were no malls in my immediate area; the closest shopping arena to sulk in was an indoor center in Neunkirchen, a moderately-sized municipality known (to me) for its H&M and (to everyone else) for its train station, an unremarkable building haunted by its post-war architecture. Despite its lacking, the tiny town was the only place in our corner of Saarland to shop that didn’t require hitting the Autobahn, and its crown jewel was an “Amerikanische sportsbar,” a saturated orange bootleg-Hooters called Chillers. Naturally, I went there a lot.

Something about hanging out in a breastaurant that was so obviously a parody felt subversive: I was choosing to enter and occupy space in a room built
to captivate the male gaze. Doing so, I felt, challenged the institutions’ sordid goal of turning dudes on in front of giant plates of microwaved meats. That, I was confident, was feminism.

It wasn’t. To be honest, Chillers was simply a convenient place to eat bowling alley-quality baby foods, not unlike a slutty Olive Garden. As I grew older, I realized I was full of shit: going to Chillers simply fueled my rebellious desire to do something that would disappoint my parents if they ever found out. (They never did.)

But Hooters has always held an unjustifiable place in my heart—an endearment that’s bypassed irony to the point of active embarrassment. So when I heard that the people behind Hooters had launched offshoot, Hoots, a refined family-friendly joint designed for the millennial palate, I was intrigued.

There are a number of differences between the two chains. Unlike the cave-reminiscent Hooters, Hoots is bright with windowed walls, though the color scheme is nearly identical to its namesake restaurant. Unlike Hooters, the Hoots logo is all lowercase, though the the double-o’s still look like boobs. Unlike Hooters, Hoots is counter-service only. Unlike Hooters, men work in the restaurant. And, most notably, unlike Hooters, no breasts are involved in the Hoots experience, as both men and women employees wear modest, conservative uniforms.

What’s a breastaurant without breasts? After getting stranded in Chicago last month, and learning that Hoots’ first and only outpost was located in Cicero, Illinois, a nearby suburb of Chi-town, I needed to know.

Image: Maria Sherman

Hoots is located in a nondescript strip mall, around the corner from a Popeyes. Above the windowed doors are the giant orange letters “hoots,” and a surfboard-shaped blue-grey sign that reads, “A HOOTERS Joint.” Though I arrived to Hoots firmly in the lunch hour there wasn’t a patron in sight, save for a single older gentlemen who sat solemnly, staring at a muted hockey game on a TV hung slightly too high for his cranial comfort.

I entered Hoots with one ambition: I wanted to understand why the popular restaurant-bar chain Hooters, one so synonymous with skimpy uniforms, ballooning bosoms, and American sleaze, would launch an alternative establishment where employees are modestly clothed, mixed gendered. The management argued that slightly improved food, would be enough to lure a new generation to the Hooters brand. I was skeptical. As anyone who has ever consumed anything at a Hooters will tell you—no one really goes for nourishment. And if they say they’re in it for the wings, don’t believe them.

According to their website, Hooters first opened in 1983 when six self-proclaimed “irreverent” businessmen with no restaurant experience took their unearned white guy entitlement and put it to use by launching the first of the chain in, where else, Clearwater, Florida. The aim, according to actual quotes from the Hooters site, was to combine “their favorite manly finger foods” with “50’s and 60’s music,” essentially time traveling to what they believed to be the “happiest” moment in “Americans’ memories.”

Named after a Steve Martin sketch in which the comedian jokes that boobs should be referred to as “hooters,” chicken wings and scantily clad women quickly became the business’ bread and butter. A few Super Bowl ads later, Hooters became an international success and the “Hooters six” were solidified as pioneers in the genre of eatery referred to as “breastaurants.” At this very moment, there are over 420 Hooters (heh) in 42 states and 29 countries.

Regardless of those successes, Hooters is shrinking. Young people simply aren’t as interested in chain restaurants, or boobs, or breastaurants as much as they have been in past generations, and Hooters is feeling the cultural shift, hard. According to Business Insider, Hooters locations stateside dropped by more than 7% from 2012 to 2016. Perhaps its archaic schtick finally feels gross, or maybe its customer base is responding to a slew of lawsuits alleging discriminatory hiring practices that occasionally read as fully racist. (For example, in 2013, a black woman named Farryn Johnson alleged she was fired from a Hooters in Baltimore because of her blonde highlights, a style white servers were permitted.)

In the last few years, Hooters has attempted to rebrand to entice both a younger clientele and, possibly for the first time ever, women. They’ve done this by adding more options to their menu (according to the Atlantic, that means “more salads and fresher ingredients”) and modernizing their decor (or, “lightening up the beach shack decor, and adding space for a bit of nightlife.”) None of this appears to be working, which perhaps is why Hooters’ new owners, the equity firms Nord Bay Capital and TriArtisan Capital Advisors, announced last month that they are looking to expand Hoots.

A week before Hoots opened its inaugural location in Cicero in February 2017, Hooters shared a press release branding the restaurant as modern. “The hoots smaller footprint lets us bring America’s favorite wings to more and smaller neighborhoods,” the company’s president and CEO Neil Kiefer said in the release. “It will provide more people with more opportunities to enjoy our world famous wings,” echoed Hooters of America CEO Terry Marks.

Without being totally explicit, Hoots was announcing itself as an attempt to appeal to clientele Hooters historically has not: suburban families.

Image: Maria Sherman

A short Uber ride from Chicago’s West Loop brought me and two friends, fellow New Yorkers stuck an extra day in the Midwest city, to Hoots. Because they voluntarily decided to spend their Monday afternoon with me chowing down on questionable animal parts instead of, say, going to the fabulous Art Institute of Chicago, I suggested they order. The menu was much more limited than Hooters, which presents guests with a multi-page binder of burger-adjacent bar foods. I assume this is intentional: How many variations of fried treats (pickles, tots, onion rings, mozzarella sticks) does one person need outside of a baseball game, anyway? Unlike the original breastrauant, where middle-aged patrons are expected to spend hours chugging Bud Lite and yelling at television screens, Hoots was low-energy, quiet, and the food came out within minutes. The message appeared to be: Get in, get some grub, and get out.

My friends and I settled on 20 wings Daytona style ($20.99), Snow crab legs ($17.99), a bottle of water ($2.49), a Jarritos ($2.59) and with a side of Blue Cheese dip, an extra $0.89 cents. The crab legs, a joke purchase, were fine, I guess, I’d never had crab legs before and they seemed decent. What was not decent, however, was the plastic seafood cracker given to us to excavate the warm meat from within. It hardly functioned. (See below.)

Also decent—the storied wings. I’m a lapsed vegetarian, so maybe don’t trust my judgement? Come to think of it, this was a weird assignment to take on. Honestly, Hoots offered an unremarkable meal at best, but I did appreciate that the font type on the menu was far less embarrassingly dated than that of Hooters. Though the food teetered a line between “mediocre” and “fine,” it was better than any other appetizer I’ve consumed at a proper Hooters.

Image for article titled Journey Inside Hoots, the Breast-less, Unsexy Hooters for No One
Image: Maria Sherman

I asked two women at the counter, both dressed in high-cut v-neck t-shirts, which exposed no cleavage, and even more modest khaki pants (instead of shorts), if they liked working here, and they answered in unison, “Yes.” (The only men I saw worked in the kitchen. There were maybe two or three on deck, wearing similar ensembles, save for their t-shirt necklines, which were round and collarless, crew neck-style.) One of the women informed me that Hooters is working on erecting two additional Hoots in Chicago proper, one in Logan Square and one in South Loop.

I told her that there are also plans to bring Hoots to Atlanta, in Reynoldstown, two minutes from downtown, too. She said, “Oh, cool.”

Somewhere between my first and second crab leg, American Airlines alerted me that my flight home was cancelled yet again, and that there were no flights into New York until the following morning. Naturally, one of my dining companions suggested we head back into the city and eat at a proper Midwestern Hooters for comparison.

It was like every other Hooters, complete with wilting salads dosed in unidentifiable dressings, fare best described as “flaccid” or “milky.” The atmosphere, however, was lively, and there were children present (unlike the so-called “family-friendly” Hoots). Our waitress, Samantha, was hospitable, and made sure to offer another round when our beers were only half drunk. The food was cold (don’t get the nachos) but there was a much wider selection at Hooters than Hoots, so, to each their own. Clearly, Hooters is built for customers to spend a healthy amount of time and money in.

Image for article titled Journey Inside Hoots, the Breast-less, Unsexy Hooters for No One
Image: Maria Sherman

Despite it’s crappy legacy, it’s easy to make an argument for why Hooters exists. Judging by the men I saw in Hooters, baby boomers fucking love the place, especially the version that involves short-shorts and “suntan” pantyhose straight out of 1983. I can’t say I share in their enthusiasm. I tried to find some redeeming qualities to the place beyond adolescent nostalgia and settled on this: Samantha was a great server, and Hooters’ has $5 beer specials, which is a mighty fine deal. If millennials are killing breastaurants, surely they must appreciate the affordability of its booze? Who doesn’t love a drink served in neon orange cup, not unlike the color of toxic waste?

When compared to my experience at Chillers over a decade ago, Hooters gave me no pleasures. To be fair, neither did Hoots, once the novelty of eating at “the sexless Hooters” wore off. If wings are really, truly what you’re after, Wingstop is a much cheaper option (and in the case of the Cicero location—is literally across the street.) There’s really no reason to patronize either Hooters restaurant, unless, of course, you’re desperate for crab legs and only have 15 minutes to acquire them. In that case, hit up Hoots. They’ve got you covered.


The Tao that can be spoken

I’m surprised that nobody opened another bird themed restaurant called “Cocks” that had only buff male waiters dressed only in bicycle shorts. It could be big among the gay and divorced mom set.