1. Business

Hooters restaurants have made the most of our changing world

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Published Apr. 24, 2015

Consider Hooters, if you will: A worldwide brand so resistant to change over its 32-year run, the Clearwater-born chain spent a long time debating, then cautiously altering, a certain aspect of its iconic servers' vavoomish outfits. No, they didn't swap out those snug white tops, the traffic-cone orange shorts or even that ridiculous scuba-suit hosiery.

"We gave the girls shorter socks," says Mark Whittle, senior vice president of global development. "There's a lot of brand equity at Hooters, a lot of pride."

Hold on — Hooters Girls wear socks? And shoes? Who knew?!

Okay, lame joke. The poig­nant truth is that Hooters, which was once considered a scandalous, salacious place to meet your bros, is now relatively benign, tame, about as provocative and titillating as Taylor Swift.

Hooters has actually become a family place for many now, a repeated refrain in Adam Sandler movies (Big Daddy, Blended) as something akin to TGI Fridays. Hooters didn't change, but over three decades, we did. We're constantly tweaked by a 24-7 news and social media cycle that competes for our attention with images far more risque than a pair of orange shorty-shorts.

And yet, Hooters continues to thrive, perhaps because we long for something safe if silly. Whittle, 49, is in charge of spreading Hooters globally, his company's current world-conquering game plan. There are now more than 75 Hooters outside the U.S., with plans to expand in Latin America, such as Chile and Peru, over the next year. (Hooters is actually split between two companies: the worldwide Hooters of America, which is based in Atlanta and employs Whittle, and the smaller Hooters Inc., which is based in Tampa Bay and controls a handful of outlets. Still, Hooters are Hooters, wherever you go.)

Later this year, Whittle will help open the largest overseas Hooters, in Pattaya, Thailand. That came with one small adjustment: "The people in Pattaya think of the U.S. as the American West, so the franchisee has requested, and we have approved, to put in a mechanical bull." Whittle is very serious about this mechanical bull. A little worried, too. After all, this is a company that sweats sock size.

Herewith, in a delightfully tacky phone interview, Whittle elaborates on what makes Hooters succeed, how big Hooters wants to grow and why a European Hooters Girl might not be as vivacious and friendly to you as a good ol' American one.

On April 1, 1983, Hooters was born right here in Clearwater. On April 20, 2015, Hooters still pretty much gives off the same vibe. Is that the business model? Hooter homeostasis? Like Cracker Barrel with hot pants?

I actually think the business model has evolved quite a bit since the beginning. There's now a broader tent demographic. If you look at our customer mix today, we're about 38 to 39 percent female. A lot of people don't know that. I was in the new restaurant in Henderson, Nev., for dinner and there was a very broad customer mix: a husband and wife with their 10-year-old, 20-something ladies enjoying cocktails, guys hanging out. It was easier to understand the mix when I saw it with my own eyes. My guess is that they probably didn't have that many females in the first store when it opened.

How did you convince people that Hooters was a "family" restaurant? I mean, after all, the place is called "Hooters."

Overall, the brand itself is just a fun, upbeat place to escape the ordinary. And now the menu is diverse enough without being overly complicated. Yes, the wings have been around forever. But we also have fish, shrimp, crab legs, burgers, something for everybody. I took my 6-year-old nephew for his birthday and when the Hooters Girls came over to sing Happy Birthday — I just loved seeing the look on the boy's face. He turned bright red. Most of the people who object to the Hooters concept have never been in the restaurant. We're really starting to attract millennials now, by the way. That's good, because otherwise you're around for 15 or 20 years and then your customers depart you.

Let's be honest, Mark, the primary business model still centers around really hot girls in orange shorts.

I think the Hooters Girls are what differentiate us from other casual-dining restaurants. You can't go to another casual restaurant and get that Hooters Girl hospitality. But we've had some design changes, too. That's been important. There's now more of an emphasis on the bar, closing off the kitchen, soft-seating those wooden bar stools that got a little hard on your butt and your back. We finally got rid of those old grays and taupes and beiges — new colors. We've started remodeling. Sixty company stores so far in 21 months. One of our franchisees in Arizona says sales are great, he's getting more families, more females — and the design changes are why.

You're opening two of the largest Hooters in the world this year: one the Palms Casino & Resort in Las Vegas and one in Pattaya, Thailand. How big are those suckers?

The Palms will be 15,000 square feet, the world's largest. It will open to the casino, the backside will face the pool. Eventually, about 125 to 150 Hooter girls on staff, 560 seats when it's done. Pattaya will be the largest outside the U.S., almost 12,000 square feet, a little over 500 seats.

Is marketing Hooters different overseas than in America? You're always hearing that Europeans are less uptight with their sexuality. Are the Hooters Girls uniforms different, more provocative?

There are a few marketing nuances internationally and within specific regions. But that Hooter Girl wholesomeness, the girls you wished you grew up next door to? It's the same. Same uniform around the world, too. About 90 percent of the menu in the international stores is still the core items, same menu as the U.S. But we will allow a few changes. Brazil has steaks; China has a lot of pasta. And I would actually say Europe is a little more conservative than we are. Even the Hooters Girls; it takes a little more to get them to be more outgoing, to adapt to the Hooters Girl feel. But everyone knows the brand, wherever I might go. I have yet to meet someone and tell them what I do and have them ask, "What's Hooters?"

Contact Sean Daly at Follow @seandalypoplife.