The Rise and Fall of the American Breastaurant
‘I neither lament nor celebrate the fall of the breastaurant,’ writes Sascha Cohen, who worked at a Santa Monica Hooters while attending college.
“There’s an art to this,” restaurant manager Lisa (Regina Hall) tells a new hire at the fictional bar and grill called “Double Whammies” in the film Support the Girls. The perky young servers must be flirtatious but not indecent, assertive but accommodating. Double Whammies is a casual dining spot, “like Chiles or Applebees,” Lisa explains, but with sexier uniforms and, ostensibly, better tips. It’s meant to remind audiences of a class of establishments known as “breastaurants,” pioneered by Hooters over 30 years ago.
The movie’s release comes at a moment when millennials are reevaluating our relationship with this type of novelty dining experience. During the past couple of years, Hooters sales have stagnated, prompting the chain to close several locations and rethink their business model. One theory is that millennials, as evidenced by our porn searches, aren’t “into boobs.” This may or may not be true, but there’s something deeper at play. Breastaurants make the feminized labor of the service industry visible in a way that now reads as distasteful. Hooters became gauche because it was too on-the-nose, cheekily linking our gastro and sexual appetites and harkening back to an era in which sexual harassment was an implied part of many women’s job descriptions, making it at odds with the values of the #MeToo generation.
I was a Hooters Girl in Santa Monica, California, for the better part of 2005, while I attended college. The hourly rate was about one dollar above the state’s minimum wage, but the tips covered enough of my expenses that I could work just three shifts per week, and spend the rest of my time studying. The job offered me a chance to monetize my youth and beauty—the sole marketable assets I possessed before obtaining a degree or meaningful work experience—in a way that was legal and safer than many parts of the actual sex industry.
The problem was only that my cut should have been bigger. Hooters made multiple demands of the girls; we had to do our hair and makeup in a particular style (“like you’re going out on a date with your boyfriend,” the manager explained) and dance on the wooden barstools a few times per shift. We also had to upsell branded merchandise like T-shirts, beer koozies, and swimsuit calendars, and act as a sort of therapist to the needy men who regularly came in seeking attention from women 30 years younger than them. We had to perform the emotional labor of pretending to find these men fascinating, while deflecting their bolder advances because Hooters is, after all, “a family restaurant.” The gimmick was genius: give married dads hot wings, beer, and flesh to ogle, but with plausible deniability. Hooters is no strip club. It’s wholesome, peak America, where the labor of women goes invisible because it’s supposed to come naturally.
None of this constituted an abusive or hostile environment. But it did require more work than simply seating people, taking meal orders, bringing checks to tables, and making change—the tasks that are supposed to compose the bulk of any food service job, even though most women in the industry know better.
Hooters was founded in 1983, when American culture was in the midst of an anti-feminist backlash. Entertainers like Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, and Howard Stern, whose acts drew on the degradation of women, were on the cusp of making it big. The Reagan administration threatened to undo the gains of the women’s liberation movement with the glorification of traditional gender roles. Out of this milieu, six businessmen in Clearwater, Florida created a sports bar that played nostalgic 1950s songs, offered “manly finger foods,” and hired bikini models in jogging shorts. The concept was a throwback to the old days in which women in all types of service positions—stewardesses, secretaries, salesgirls, and waitresses—were supposed to cater to male desire, before second-wave feminists tried to end all the fun.
Hooters thrived for the next two decades, and inspired a spate of imitators, like the Tilted Kilt in 2002, and Twin Peaks in 2005. The breastaurants withstood the 2008 recession even as other casual eateries struggled to stay afloat. But in recent years, Hooters hit a revenue slump, and shuttered many U.S. outlets as they figure out how to rebrand.
The decline of Hooters is not some sort of feminist victory. For women, almost all wait staff jobs come with a degree of unsolicited sexual attention and the expectation of affective care-giving. It has become standard for servers everywhere to introduce themselves with a version of “My name is X and I’ll be taking care of you this evening.” The modern service economy means that millions of us have to earn our living by waiting on other people. Sometimes the best of the unpleasant, dead-end options is the one that will compensate you the most for your trouble.
In singling out places like Hooters, we aren't rejecting this larger system, only the businesses which make its true nature explicit. We can disavow the most cartoonishly sexist version of capitalism, but we will still be left with capitalism, minus the cleavage and hot pants. Just as Gloria Steinem’s takeaway from her stint as a Bunny at the Playboy Club was that “all women are bunnies,” the truth is that most working millennial women, whether or not our jobs involve skimpy uniforms, represent members of an exploited, disposable underclass.
The solution to such exploitation is two-pronged. First, the long-overdue unionization of food service jobs, with the goal of demanding higher base wages and benefits. Second, the total decoupling of emotional labor from the service sector. From baristas to rideshare drivers to retail clerks, low-wage women workers shouldn’t be responsible for managing the unpredictable moods of strangers all day long, for flattering and mothering and psychoanalyzing customers—while smiling the whole time—in addition to our other myriad job duties.
The Santa Monica building where Hooters used to be now houses an alternative wellness center. I neither lament nor celebrate the fall of the breastaurant. I just don’t want anyone to mistake it for real change in the status of feminized labor in America. Companies will find other ways to profit off of women—actual women’s work, as well as the idea of women as caretakers, sexbots, or both. As one of the characters in Support the Girls muses, after being fired from Double Whammies, “there’s lots of other shitty jobs out there.” Then she screams.