The exit off Interstate 85 for the town of Concord, North Carolina is home to the Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as the headquarters of numerous NASCAR teams. It seems like a good enough place to pull over and eat. There’s Olive Garden, Chick-Fil-A, Panera Bread, Starbucks, Ruby Tuesday, Applebee’s, and one chain that may be less familiar: Twin Peaks, a faux log cabin-looking place blown up to the size of a small city block. “Eats, Drinks, Scenic Views,” its bright green neon lights promise.
Inside the restaurant, eight or so young women kibitz at a hostess stand, all wearing tiny khaki-colored Daisy Dukes and tight black-and-red-checked lumberjack shirts, tied up so that their midriffs are on display and their twins are pushed way, way out. Twin Peaks is, as advertised, a lodge-themed eatery. And: “Scenic views” means “boobs.” Twin Peaks is one of those places, where the waitresses are scantily clad and the clientele are male; it is also one of the fastest-growing, highest-grossing restaurant franchises in America.
The American breastaurant likely began as a mini-tavern ensconced in a brothel and broke into the mainstream in the Belle Époque era with the advent of Parisian cabaret culture, especially the world-famous Moulin Rouge, birthplace of the can-can (performed by topless dancers), open since 1889. The next major iteration was Hugh Hefner’s chain of Playboy Clubs, where Don Draper types drank cocktails, spun roulette, and ogled waitresses dressed in the trademarked bunny suits.1
Hooters, the juggernaut of all breastaurants, was founded in 1983 in Clearwater, Florida by a band of dudes known in company lore as the “Hooters Six”: a paint contractor, a brick mason, and a retired gas station owner. “After announcing their plans, the ‘Hooters Six’ … were promptly arrested for impersonating restaurateurs,” according to the company website. The Six’s idea was a beach-themed bar made with lots of wood (“T1-11 because it was the cheapest”) with “favorite manly finger foods.” It was a redneck Moulin Rouge, a Playboy Club with nachos … and it became a business worth more than $250 million.
To understand how exactly this business boomed, you have to acquaint yourself with Coby Brooks, a mild-mannered Southern gentleman in his late forties with light brown hair and twinkling blue eyes, the kind of guy who pulls out chairs for ladies and drinks Diet Coke. The only sign of his wealth is the IWC pilot watch on his wrist that retails for about $15 grand. Of the Hooters Six, Brooks says: “They had no idea they were sitting on a goldmine.” But his dad Bob Brooks sure did.
Bob Brooks is the Horatio Alger of the Hooterverse: He grew up on a tobacco farm in small town South Carolina, studied dairy science on scholarship at Clemson University, and then founded Naturally Fresh bottled salad dressings and condiments. In the early ’80s, a guy who owed him money paid him off with a Hooters franchise; by 1984, Bob Brooks had managed to wrestle the entire Hooters franchise rights from The Six, who knew how to run one bar but had no idea had to run many. Brooks didn’t either, but he singlehandedly took what was six outlets on the Gulf Coast of southwest Florida in 1986 and turned it into 450-or-so restaurants in 43 states and several countries (including Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Australia, Canada, and China) by 2010. Known as the “worldwide wing commander,” he founded Hooters Magazine, Hooters bikini contests and Miss Hooters pageants, the Hooters calendar, a Hooters NASCAR sponsorship, and Hooters Air, an airline marketed to golfers headquartered in his adopted hometown of Myrtle Beach.
His not-so-secret weapon was the girls, smiling big in their little shorts and tight tank tops, at every hole at charity golf tournaments, serving drinks aboard Hooters Air, and beckoning you from billboards. “I’m very grateful to every girl who’s worn a Hooters uniform,” Coby Brooks says. “They are a big part of my family’s success and my success.” A Hooters girl, according to the official waitressing manual, has to be a “trademark all-American cheerleader” who is “able to look good in a Hooters uniform.” Like Hefner, Brooks had chosen to trademark the girls’ uniforms: This way, in the eyes of the law, the ability to “look good in a Hooters uniform” became a bona fide occupational qualification.2 The food or the environs did not get the same attention: napkins were paper, cups were plastic, and wings were bought frozen.
In the early aughts, Hooters’s appeared to be going strong, despite the fact that the restaurant hadn’t updated its facilities or changed a menu item in 20 years. Then the unthinkable happened: Brooks, a longtime diabetic in the throes of the physical and financial demands of trying to maintain Hooters Air amid post-Katrina rising fuel costs, dropped dead. An epic battle among his five named executors over estate taxes and the future of the brand ensued. Coby Brooks, then a single dad then in his late thirties, had already been working as the CEO, but he was stuck with a defunct, indebted airline. Bereft and exhausted, Brooks decided to sell. “The 28-year-old business had a concept that was aging; it needed an infiltration of cash to become current, and the estate wasn’t in a position to do it. We looked at partners buying in, but the estate couldn’t agree on a partial sale or on which investors to bring in,” he says.
In early 2011, Hooters’ new owner became Chanticleer Holdings, a group of investors made up of Texas Wings Inc., formerly the largest Hooters franchisee. Brooks stayed on as C.E.O. for six months. He was not required to sign a non-compete or asked to stay on after that. “They didn’t give me a shot, and I had no authoritative power whatsoever,” he says. Brooks resolved to take a couple of years off, but soon he began hearing complaints about the new owners from longtime Hooters loyalists. And so a few weeks after he was released from his obligations to Hooters, he picked up the phone and called Randy Dewitt, CEO of Twin Peaks.
The Next Big Thing in American breastaurants is Twin Peaks. The facilities are not only 30 years newer, but the owners, Texas-based Front Burner restaurants, are keying in to something heretofore unique to breastaurants: We’ve become a nation of foodies. At Twin Peaks, the eats are on par with the bods. “Randy is a serious foodie,” says Coby Brooks.
Hooters are low-slung, low-ceilinged, dark gray wood-lined rooms that look like the inside of packing crates; Twin Peaks are wide-open blonde-wood palaces decorated with two-story stone masonry fireplaces and antler chandeliers. The women are models of “flirting without intent.” Megan, a 19-year-old at the Twin Peaks in Concord, has shoulder-length straight brown hair, a silver and turquoise Aztec-style necklace, and an admirable bustline protruding from her thin, narrow ribcage. “I’m 19, I know it won’t last forever,” she says of her physique. She embodies the unthreatening appeal of breastaurants: You might not want your daughter to grow up to become just like her (although Brooks says one of his four daughters is interested in the family profession), but she offers easygoing ogling for the low price of a cup of venison chili and 20-ounce Dirty Blonde house beer. And it turns out, the American male still values the innocence of that experience.
Before he founded Twin Peaks, DeWitt owned a struggling seafood franchise called Rockfish; while he poured his heart and soul into that operation, he says he couldn’t figure out why Hooters, which he considered well below average in terms of food and service, was killing it. “I thought, ‘I don’t get it, their food is terrible, their operation is hit-or-miss, their facilities are the pits.’ It became pretty clear to me that that was a niche we could enter.”
Nobody at Hooters had figured out that the brand was broken, so he would fix it before they did. He started with the beer. “Cold beer is like catnip. Those working guys like their beer really cold,” DeWitt says. “Hooters’ slogan at the time was ‘coldest beer in town.’ I thought ‘big deal.’ It’s just a sign, just an empty claim. So we worked with a manufacturer to serve beer below freezing. It comes out at 29 degrees! And we put a digital temperature display so we don’t ever say ‘coldest beer in town,’ we say ‘look at the thermometer, you decide.’” Then he took on the menu: Everything down to the ice cream was to be made fresh in each franchise; nothing was to be frozen or carted in ready-made. (Order the shrimp cocktail at Hooters to see why that’s a good idea.) And focus on comfort food, not bar food: Hooters serves only burgers and sandwiches; Twin Peaks has pot roast with green beans and mashed potatoes and green chile meatloaf.
DeWitt’s logic translates perfectly to this moment in American dining. Twin Peaks was named one of the country’s Top 10 Franchises to Watch by Nation’s Restaurant News. In DeWitt’s current “rapid growth mode,” they have 40 locations and plan ten more in the next two years. They’re as far west as Las Vegas, as north as Wheeling, Illinois, and as east as coastal North Carolina. They are turning down offers from potential franchisees—at an estimated start-up cost of $1.3 to $2.3 million including construction, furniture, fixtures, equipment, and other expenses—because they don’t want to expand any faster. They usually situate near a Hooters on purpose. “The average location takes in about $4.3 million, and the average Hooters is about $2.3 million,” says Brooks. “When we open near a Hooters we typically ding them 25 to 30 percent. Sometimes they recover but most of the time they end up with a permanent 10 to 15 percent reduction.” Talk to DeWitt and Brooks long enough, and you don’t want to take these guys to task so much as you want to buy a franchise.
Pamela Parseghian, former executive editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, says that breastaurants wouldn’t exist if they didn’t function as restaurants.3 “I had such low expectations. … What I got was good food, which I just didn’t expect. The wings were really good, and the food in general is good. But the service is great.” “Great” restaurant service means attentive without obsequiousness, and it is a cornerstone of the breastaurant experience. Spunky, with no hint of creepy. Refills a water glass before you quite finish but not after just one sip. At this, Megan excels.
Compare all this to the Hooters in Burlington, North Carolina, on the outskirts of town between two tractor supply shops. The entranceway is lined with Playboy’s 1994 “Girls of Hooters” cover, plus pictures of Hooters-visiting celebs like Billy Bob Thornton and Brooke Burke-Charvet. Rather than “top shelf” liquor there is one shelf of liquor. A semi-open kitchen houses a cafeteria-style line of deep fryers. Food is served on fiberglass plates that look like wood but feel like plastic. There are brown paper napkins and orange plastic cups. The chicken wings do not come with carrot and celery sticks on the plate. The waitress Jenni S. had a dead-eyed faux smile and looked ten million miles away.
As it happens, Twin Peaks is not the only wannabe Hooters usurper. The Titled Kilt, headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, with 93 franchises around the country, has more outposts than Twin Peaks. Because it’s more downscale than Hooters and spends less both on its outlets and its marketing, it’s less well-known outside the industry (and consequently less respected within the industry). The theme is, loosely, “Scottish” and the vibe is motorcycle bar, with more televised ultimate fighting matches than college basketball games. Raleigh’s Tilted Kilt is stucco square on the outside and a pool table-lined dark hole on the inside with the persistent stench of stale beer. Waitresses wear tiny red plaid “kilts,” tiny red plaid bras, and tiny white oxford-style shirts tied up under their bra lines. The look is naughty schoolgirl, including prominent tattoos. At the bar a petite waitress who resembled a blonde Kate Jackson from “Charlie’s Angels” was giving a large, much older bald man, his massive shiny black motorcycle helmet next to his beer, a backrub.
The wings aren’t crisp-skinned or particularly meaty, but they came with celery sticks. The “top-shelf margarita” was excellent. On the way out, a waitress sidled up to one of the very few women dining in the place, a tall African-American woman with a natural afro sporting a Michael Kors bag, a black-and-royal blue mod plaid straight skirt, and a coral blazer. The waitress’s uniform was particularly ill-fitting, her breasts spilling out of the plaid bra cups. “I love your outfit,” the young woman gently whispered to the customer. “Oh, thank you so much!” the businesswoman enthused. And she turned to her friend, “Was I supposed to tell her ‘I liked your outfit, too?’”
Literally: Hef was the first person in American history to trademark a uniform.
In her two-part expose in Show magazine in 1963, feminist author Gloria Steinem debunked the idea that the waitresses’ lives were glamorous (“Here bunny, bunny, bunny!” a club guard called to Steinem).
Parseghian wrote an article in 2003 called “Proud To Be a Hooters Girl, Er, Customer Thanks to Good Food and Great Service.”