I had expected to make friends with eminent retired sports figures and pimply 16-year-old boys with disposable income. Who else would show up to the grand “VIP” reopening of Hooters Manhattan, which has moved twenty blocks south from its old location near Carnegie Hall into a sprawling, two-story venue near Madison Square Garden?
But when I arrived it was still early in the night, and since I couldn’t find the aging former pro athletes and teenagers, I sat down with two grey-haired men in suits to scan the room for Jackie, an exceptionally pretty young thing whom I had spotted earlier among dozens of Hooters waitresses in their requisite skimpy uniforms. Ogling is part of the Hooters experience, after all.
But other patrons were more entranced by Hooters’ sixty-four, huge, high-definition flatscreens, which appear to show every possible sporting event on television and cover a substantial surface area of the restaurant’s trademark wood-paneled walls.
After all I’d heard about the busty waitresses in ridiculous outfits, I was slightly disappointed that there weren’t more oglers and belligerent catcallers, if only for my own amusement. The atmosphere was decidedly tame. With its standard-bright lights and endless parade of fried finger food, the new Hooters seemed more like a fancy take on TGI Fridays than the infamous wings-and-breasts chain that has become a near $1 billion brand.
As promised in the VIP invitation, a handful of girls from the Hooters’ 2015 Swimsuit Calendar posed for photos with guests and signed calendars for fans. They wore tight dresses and sparkly “Calendar Girl” sashes to show their VIP status.
But everyone who shows up that night, it turns out, is a VIP, from longtime New York Post celebrity photographer Aubrey Reuben, who left his camera at home, to the seemingly dozens of marketing and sales executives for Anheuser-Busch.
The two grey-haired men in suits—Bobby Cohen, a law firm partner, and Steve Levine, who owns a boutique investment firm—say they’ve come to support an investor friend who has stake in the Hooters franchise.
They assure me they’re not regular patrons, and confess their tastes are better suited to the female staff at Manhattan’s more upscale establishments downtown, like The Tao in the Meatpacking District.
“They stuff the girls here into these outfits, many of whom shouldn’t be in the these outfits,” Levine whispers. “It’s not my thing.”
But the girls at The Tao don’t have the same alluring breast spillage, I counter, as a cheery waitress places a platter of wings on our table. Levine winks at her. Cohen is excessively gracious.
“Two of the calendar girls were very pretty,” says Cohen, nibbling at a fried pickle. "A little tacky, but still pretty.”
A Hooters girl would likely be flattered by this half-hearted endorsement. Given the company’s infamous slogan—”delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” —she knows what she’s signing up for when she accepts a job at any of the chain’s 410 restaurants (referred to by Hooters staff and alumnae as “stores”) around the world.
Tacky is synonymous with the look: sufficiently ample (ideally heaving) breasts; tank emblazoned with tongue-in-cheek owl logo; ample bum hanging out of orange hot pants; bronze panty hose; white tube socks and white tennis sneakers. Bar a few subtle tweaks (the iconic owl’s feathers were groomed and dyed last year as part of a logo redesign), the current Hooters uniform is nearly identical to the 1983 orange-and-white original.
“Believe me, we know people are looking at us,” says Marsha Droste, a five-time Hooters calendar girl who is married to Ed Droste, one of the chain’s six co-founders (he proposed in 2005 at the Swimsuit Pageant in Miami.) “It’s a part of life. But what’s more important is how you deal with it and the bigger picture, what you want to strive to be. And every Hooters girl wants to be something great.”
Other Hooters girls working that night—Jlynne, Brittney, Taylor, Samantha, Eliana—are less forthcoming about male attention. “It’s no different than any other restaurant,” says Brittney, 22, who declines to give her last name.
Marsha eagerly rattles off statistics—“Hooters has 300,000 alumnae; 7,000 Hooters girls vie for a spot in the calendar every year”—and boasts of former Hooters girls who are now actresses, doctors, lawyers, and business executives. “Kat Cole [the President of Cinnabon] is my favorite person. She’s brilliant and so marketing-driven. You get that savvy from working in the trenches of the restaurant business.”
She also mentions actress Amy Adams, who recently opened up on the red carpet about working for Hooters after high school, telling a reporter it was “a great way to earn money for a car!” (Adams was not among the VIPs on Thursday night.)
Marsha, now 36, began serving at Hooters in Lexington, Kentucky after college. “I knew it was the right place to work when families would come in on a Sunday and ask for me,” she says in a slurred Southern drawl. “It was the biggest compliment!”
She had retired from Hooters and was working for the Home Shopping Network in Florida when she met Ed through mutual friends. They currently live in Clearwater, Florida, home of the original Hooters.
“My wife knows the brand better than any of the executives in the room,” says 63-year-old Droste, who is short, slightly round, and wearing cowboy boots, jeans, red polo shirt, and a grey blazer.
Marsha beams. “I definitely bleed orange. That’s what we say in the Hooters family!”
They both emphasize the family’s blue-collar roots. Droste was the only co-founder with a corporate job (he worked in real estate) when Hooters opened in 1983. “We were just six knuckleheads who decided to open a restaurant that we couldn’t get kicked out of.”
People assume that Hooters’ clientele is overwhelmingly male, says Droste. Not so.
“Our best kept secret is that our target market is much broader than most people would think. Our Chicago store gets more women and children than men. For them, Hooters is a day at the beach.”
He proudly remembers hosting a Hooters calendar signing in New York a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks with former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. “We just wanted to have a toga party because New York needed to get its mojo back.”
“We’ve persevered through a lot of shit,” Droste adds. In 1995, the U.S. government “tried to put us out of business because we wouldn’t hire men as servers. They argued that we were violating the Civil Rights Act. I had to march in Washington to save the brand.”
All for a schlocky, euphemistically-named sports bar?
“People needed a place like this to let their hair down,” says Droste. “There were times I was worn out, but America needed its little oasis.”
And if that oasis in these fractious times comes with orange hot pants, tube socks, and wink-wink breast spillage, then so be it.