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Pushing hot buttons and wings

It's in Taipei, Nottingham and Buenos Aires.

Singapore, Vienna and Sao Paulo, too.

And all over the United States.

Twenty years ago, few would have bet a dollar on the worldwide success of Hooters, the Clearwater-born chicken wing and beer joint known for its busty servers clad in teeny, weeny outfits.

The growing restaurant chain is in almost every state and in 10 countries. It's launched an airline (motto: "Easy to Buy, Fun to Fly"), a minor-league golf tour, a magazine, powerboat and motorcycle events, a civil rights entry in a high school textbook, a possible Las Vegas hotel and casino and plans for Hooters: The Movie.

Among Hooters alumni are a national radio talk-show host, a handful of Playboy bunnies _ and a certain Super Bowl-winning football coach.

But before going into all that, let's get the breast thing out of the way.

The restaurant says feminine wiles are part of its marketing mystique. But its founders have overcome a federal investigation and several highly publicized lawsuits to turn their "delightfully tacky" baby into a mother lode whose brood includes calendars, conventions, contests _ and profits.

"A lot of people think Hooters is just the girls," said Edward Droste, one of the restaurant's six founders. "We sell the sizzle, but we deliver the steak."

The wise owl

The idea was as basic as Adam and Eve.

Six men connected by various development projects and family relationships thought: What if we combined our favorite things? Good food served by good-looking women. Then toss in Midwest decor and friendliness, sprinkled with Florida's beach atmosphere.

The menu takes bits and pieces from various regions. South Carolina's oyster roasts and Tarpon Springs' shrimp were inspirations. Everybody, they figured, loves chicken wings. All they'll say about the sauce is that there is Wisconsin butter in it.

The name is a double entendre inspired by a Steve Martin skit. One of the founder's wives sketched the big-eyed owl.

The cheerleading waiter image came from a softball game. Droste saw a young woman cheering and wearing jogging shorts and a T-shirt.

Still, he said, "We didn't design it to be controversial."

The first Hooters sprang up at 2800 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. on Oct. 4, 1983. Now called the "Original Hooters," it's a mecca for Hooters fans.

But after opening, the place stayed empty for weeks, forcing Droste to don a chicken costume and dance near the street for attention.

Original Hooters Girl-turned-Playboy bunny Lynne Austin didn't wait on tables, but spent her shift cleaning kitchen equipment.

Then the billboard went up, with Austin wearing the trademark orange Dolphin brand shorts and the white Hooters half top (now a full tank top.) Men started lining up at the doors, and the "Hooters 6" made their $140,000 investment back in six months.

"A lot of girls walked out at first because there weren't any customers," said Austin, 41, on maternity leave from the 1010 AM "Sport Chix" radio show. "Next thing I know there's a line out the door and there's not a big enough pouch to hold all the tips we were making."

Two of the founders sold their stock, but the Clearwater portion of Hooters remains owned by four of the originals and some of their wives. The original owners maintain the Tampa Bay, Chicago and New York City stores, plus the movie, the casino, the calendar and the right to sell Hooters items in grocery stores.

Atlanta's Hooters of America owns the trademark and franchise licensing rights, and that group oversees the worldwide expansions, franchises and the airline.

Hooterdom

Some people think Hooters is a bad idea that exploits women.

"I'm not sure I can say happy anniversary," said Sandy Oestreich, a former president of the Pinellas chapter of the National Organization for Women. "I give those women credit for exploiting the pathetic male market. Hooters exploits them, and the women who work there know it. They're there for more than chicken wings."

Others, like Austin, thank goodness for Hooters. Austin parlayed her restaurant experience into Playboy bunnyland in 1986 and staunchly defends her "Hootering."

"You see more on the beach and in some nightclubs than you'd ever see in Hooters," Austin said. "I've never understood the whole jaw drop thing. I'm someone that has done Playboy, and I've never felt exploited by anything because it was of my own volition."

At the original Hooters, regulars take over during lunch. Eighties music blares from the radio, and ESPN is on the tube. Jaguars and tow trucks clog the parking lot as the mostly male clientele steps in for salads or sandwiches topped with friendly hugs from the wait staff, many who grace Hooters' swimsuit calendar.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," said Barbara Martinez, 28, of Tampa, who often brings out-of-state friends and her three children to the landmark.

Classic Rock 103.5 FM afternoon drive announcer Scott Legere usually comes with his golf buddies. Legere, 41, met his girlfriend, Tonya Phillips, 24, more than a year ago at a Hooters in Tampa. Now a fitness instructor, Phillips at the time was a Hooters Girl.

"It's like your local watering hole," Legere said while sharing a plate with Phillips. "The women aren't flirting, they're friendly. There's a difference."

Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, spent two months working at the Hooters on West Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa.

"Lo and behold it was the greatest job of all time," said Gruden, who then was a junior in college at the University of Dayton in Ohio. His dad helped him get the job.

"Everybody talked about that Hooters," Gruden said. "It had a reputation of real good food, good music and cute waitresses. I said, "That sounds right up my alley.' "

Gruden worked with the food.

"I was good at shaking the wings and shucking the oysters. If you're good, you can shuck two or three dozen in an hour. . . You want to make sure the batter is evenly distributed. You don't want to bruise the bird."

Attacks and flattery

Hooters was around for nearly 10 years when the federal government took it to task for not hiring men as Hooters Girls.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1992 launched a four-year investigation. Hooters led a retaliatory "March on Washington" in November 1995. The EEOC dropped the case in 1996, saying it had better things to do, but recommended Hooters hire men for the wait staff.

Hooters responded with a mock advertising campaign. In it, a burly, mustachioed man wears a blond wig, a stuffed T-shirt and short shorts while offering hot buffalo wings on a plate. The slogan read: "Come on, Washington. Get a grip."

In 1997, Hooters settled a separate class action lawsuit with seven men from Chicago and Maryland who were denied jobs as waiters at Hooters. The men and their attorneys split the $3.75-million, and Hooters agreed to create gender neutral "support" positions in their restaurants.

An Illinois court decided that being a Hooters Girl was a "bona fide occupational qualification." Hooters management declared the chain is "in the business of providing vicarious sexual recreation."

"(The girls are) part of our concept," said William Ranieri, one of the Hooters 6.

In January, Hooters of America filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Winghouse of Florida, alleging the Largo chain is replicating the Hooters concept.

"There is flattery, and then there is cheating," said Neil Kiefer, president of the company that owns the original Hooters.

Through it all, management knows some think the restaurant is tasteless.

"Everyone's entitled to their opinion," Kiefer said. "There certainly are other things feminists could be mad about."

The private company won't divulge its earnings. But Nation's Restaurant News ranks Hooters 66th out of 100 top restaurants. Last year, NRN reports, Hooters had $560-million in food sales.

"Most companies their age with far less units and far less market penetration have gone public, so we really don't know how profitable they've been," said Milford Prewitt, senior editor with NRN. "But from a top-line standpoint it certainly seems as if they're growing their business."

Hooters' success, says the company's president, speaks for itself.

"Florida was waiting for Hooters," Kiefer said. "I knew that at the very beginning."

_ Adrienne P. Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuelssptimes.com

Clearwater resident Joseph Centore, a Hooters regular, talks with Candise Perilli during lunch in Clearwater on Thursday. Perilli, who has been a Hooters server since 1993, has been in three of the restaurant's calendars.

Myrtle Beach, S.C., Mayor Mark McBride is helped by Hooters Girls Cameron Brooks, 21, left, and Hillary Vinson, 22, on Hooters Air's inaugural flight from Atlanta to Myrtle Beach on Thursday.

Bucs coach Jon Gruden helped prepare food at this Hooters at 4812 W. Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa for two months during his college days. "Lo and behold it was the greatest job of all time," he said.

Hooters by the numbers

+ There are 335 Hooters restaurants in 43 states and 10 countries. Together, they serve 12-million pounds of french fries per year.

+ Over the past 20 years, 200,000 women have been Hooters Girls, and 15,000 are serving food now.

+ Hooters chicken wings come from a "larger than usual" Texas bird.

+ From December 2002 to February 2003, 396,000 guests, or about 5,000 customers per week, visited Hooters in Tampa Bay, Chicago and Manhattan.

+ 2.75-million pounds of chicken were served and 141,000 gallons (or 28 truckloads) of wing sauce were sold in restaurants in those three cities last year.

The "Hooters 6'

Here are the "Hooters 6," the men who launched Hooters in 1983:

+ Ed Droste, 51, of Clearwater, is the marketing guru who dreamed up some of the outrageous ideas that put Hooters on the map. Droste is also chief executive officer of the Clearwater-based Provident Management Corporation, which operates Florida resorts. Droste helps to run Hooters and also runs Provident Advertising and Marketing, a company that designs Hooters' advertising.

+ L.D. Stewart, 59, is from Illinois, and lives in Oldsmar. Stewart sold his shares in the company and had owned a painting business that worked with Droste's company.

+ Dennis Johnson, 52, of Dunedin, is vice president of Hooters Management Corporation. Johnson grew up with Droste in Iowa and eventually went to work with Stewart.

+ Gil DiGiannantonio, 54, of Palm Harbor, hails from Chicago where he worked for a liquor wholesaler. He's now a Hooters VP.

+ William "Uncle Billy" Ranieri, 82, of Palm Harbor, is the company's treasurer. He used to own a gas station in a Chicago suburb and is DiGiannantonio's father-in-law.

+ Kenneth Wimmer sold his stock in Hooters in the late 1980s and moved out of state. Wimmer started out working with Stewart, ended up with his own paint business and came up with the silly sayings on the Hooters menu.

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