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A conversation with Hooters co-founder Ed Droste

Hooters girls flank co-founder Ed Droste, on right, with original Hooters girl Lynne Austin and Neil Kiefer, CEO of Hooters Management Corp., at the remodeled Original Hooters in Clearwater.
Published Jan. 24, 2014

A conversation with Ed Droste, Hooters co-founder, Clearwater Beach, 62.

I never cooked a chicken wing. Not one in 30 years.

Study the market. Study what the market's looking for. Identify the niche and then evaluate your product objectively and find out if it meets that niche or if you need to modify your product to meet the niche.

In college, I promptly disappointed everyone by struggling through (with) a 2.3 grade point average. The idea of becoming a lawyer kind of went to the side.

When we opened the doors to the first Hooters, nothing. I'm panicking. I had to get it going. I thought advertising, but I had no budget. My partners were like, 'Eddie what do you need an advertising budget for?' So my budget was me renting a chicken costume and running around in traffic.

Out of the clear blue, we get a charge that we're basically in violation of the Civil Rights Act because we didn't hire guys as Hooters girls. This was 1993, '94, '95. We knew we were okay because there's a federal law statute that allows it — it's called a BFOQ — Bona Fide Occupational Qualification. In certain positions, you can't discriminate, but you can differentiate if the sex is essential to that position. You know, the Rockettes should be girls. From the beginning, we put the Hooters girl up on the billboard. She was the catalyst and star of our product. She wasn't some afterthought. She was an essential element.

Well, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission didn't care. In mediation, they wanted us to pay $27 million, which we didn't have. They wanted us to fire 50 percent of the women working for us and offer the jobs to men. This would have put us out of business.

I dedicated a hall up at Iowa State, where I went to college. It's supposed to be like a study hall — the Droste Den. It's really cool, but the last time I was up there everybody's in there sleeping and I thought, 'How appropriate.' That's kind of the way I went through school.

I've had a lot of luck with a little thing I've done over the years, which is I focus on cultivating my strengths. I know what I'm good at and I want to get better, so I cultivate it. But I also know my weaknesses. In a million years, I'm not going to get really good at financial reporting. I'm not going to get really good at empirical studies. I don't have the discipline for it.

Entrepreneurs worry all the time. You're going to bed a little bit scared and waking up a little scared, but that's why you do it. You like that little fear factor.

Even when we were having legal issues among the partners, we always remained civil with each other. Our attorneys could never understand how we could beat each other up in court and then go out for beers afterward.

My wife, Marsha, is fantastic. She's young, a lot younger than me, so maybe it's not out of the question that we have a kid. The kid would have to call me grandpa. Right now, we are considering the biggest, biggest decision of our marriage. We are thinking about a dog or maybe two dogs.

Sen. Connie Mack pulled me into the Moffitt Cancer Center. First, it was just as a major supporter. A few years back, I was elected chairman of the foundation's board for a two-year term that I'm now in my sixth year of.

When we first started Hooters, myself and five partners, we kind of represented the niche. The restaurant industry was overwhelmed with fern bars at the time: Chili's. TGI Fridays. Bennigan's. We were all from the Midwest and so our idea was Midwest meets carefree beach oasis. We tested it on ourselves. We figured if it worked on us, it would work on others.

We don't embrace the term "breastaurant," but it's often said. We were first in the category, but that isn't what we set out to create.

I love golf. I have this foursome with Jon Gruden, myself, Bruce Allen (general manager of the Washington Redskins) and Jim McVay, the Outback Bowl CEO. We play smash-mouth golf. We're all pretty crappy golfers, but we trash talk. We'll build up a match like it's the Super Bowl. You know how Jon Gruden prepares for Monday Night Football. Imagine him preparing for a match. Everything gets pulled out from your past performances.

Marsha came up through the Hooters ranks. She was in the calendar a bunch of times. I always voted against her because I thought she had pudgy cheeks. We still laugh about that.

This story originally appeared in Florida Trend magazine. To read other Florida Trend stories and interviews, go to floridatrend.com.

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