A 20-something waitress clad in orange shorts and a bosom-hugging white tank sashays up to a table of four smiling guys and one ambivalent girl. The waitress is seemingly happy to parade her assets for the chance of extra tips and reels in the guys' attention like a fisherman drawing back a prized sailfish. My male dining companions don't think to ask her name; they simply desire to gaze upon her beauty and mumble any thoughts that dash through their primitive brains.
"Do you go to school around here?" asks one of the two Mikes straining to appear polite. All eyes turn to face the attractive server as we await her response. This is her chance to squash any preconceived notions that she is just a dumb waitress using her beauty to fund her Neiman Marcus card. With a gleaming smile she answers, "Yeah, I'm studying forensic psychology, but I think I want to be a veterinarian for small children if that doesn't work out."
Yeah, yeah. Sure, our server played straight into a stereotype of Hooters servers. And I can sense your snippy judgments about this week's restaurant review. But probably just like you, I eat at Hooters occasionally — once a year for my father's birthday or whenever I have an itch for chicken wings. There is something oddly addicting about the chain restaurant, which hit a pause button in time after the initial opening in Clearwater in 1983. The waitresses still flaunt the same silly orange and white uniform, and chirpy signs continue to hang on the wood-paneled walls. The chicken wings taste the same today here in Florida as they did when I was in college some 800 miles away. Despite a restaurant scene stuck in the '80s, I happen to like Hooters. So when the general manager of the Boca Raton location challenged us to review the restaurant, we gladly accepted.
In an attempt to see behind the curtain into the weird world of men, I took a group of guys with me to Hooters. Bypassing a crowded outdoor patio, the guys and I are seated indoors as pleasant scents of sawdust and fried food fill the air. Numerous svelte waitresses scurry across the wooden floor serving a dining area crowded with groups of men watching sports on TVs and families laughing at their high-top tables. "What happened to the hooters on these girls?" quips Mike #1 in reaction to a few with smaller chest sizes. "I thought Boca was known for plastic surgery!"
When our perky server brings our starters, it doesn't feel like I'm eating just fried pickles and tater tots smothered in cheese sauce, sour cream, and bacon bits. I rapidly consume the tasty appetizers (each $4.99), which successfully dulls the pain of being the only woman among a group of rowdy guys. I ask the men about their general opinion of the food at Hooters. Justin takes a heavy swig from his $5 Captain Morgan and Coke and replies, "You don't come to Hooters for a fine dining experience. You know what to expect. I come for the wings."
To appease the hungry clan, I order a platter of wings ($15.29 for 20), which is the freshest dish Hooters serves. A manager explains that the restaurants receive chicken within a week after the kill date, and since it's so popular, the wings turn over daily. A debate over which style is best quickly ensues.
"We have to get them breaded. It holds the sauce better," Mike #2 asserts with confidence.
"No way — the breading is too greasy!" rebuts Justin. I agree that the traditional preparation of the wings with breading can result in an oily glob, so we request them "naked." One downside to ordering them without breading is that they sometimes lack enough wing sauce. But this travesty can be avoided by requesting them "extra wet." The wings arrive just like we expected — crispy, saucy skin; juicy meat nicely balanced; and a side of blue cheese dressing (69 cents extra).
Trying to persuade four guys to order something other than chicken wings for dinner at Hooters is as tedious as convincing our waitress that veterinarians treat animals, not children. Soon into the meal, it becomes apparent why the guys were so resistant — they know the apps are best. Justin's crab legs ($12.99) arrive flaccid, making the shells extremely difficult to crack — likely a consequence of overcooking. He sits with quiet determination while attempting to free crab meat. Meanwhile, the other men continue to ogle the women.
"These bitches are too skinny," says Mike #2 as I choke on my mahi-mahi fish sandwich ($8.79) in horror. I try to ignore the comment and concentrate on eating my sandwich. The fish is fresh and lightly seasoned, but combined with too soft of a bun, it flakes apart easily, like a poorly constructed Jenga tower.
I can't say I'm surprised by how many remarks the guys make about the Hooters staff. The nearly 30-year-old business is successful, at least partially, because of the branding of beautiful, large-breasted women. The organization has an annual swimsuit calendar, a magazine, an international swimsuit competition, yacht charters, and a casino in Vegas filled with Hooters girls. There are eight locations in Broward and Palm Beach counties alone.
Hooters executives vehemently deny that they exploit women. After appearing in an episode of CBS' Undercover Boss, CEO Coby Brooks became inspired to develop a program, "Orange Pride," to help female employees feel good about their work. The Orange Pride website reports there are more than 17,000 Hooters girls employed worldwide, and 37 percent of management is female. Hooters says it employs women, not exploits them.
Brian, the young man who makes only one disparaging comment the entire evening, ordered the Buffalo chicken sandwich. He pouts while he waits for additional buffalo sauce, which he requested to add to the dry breaded fillet. Why Hooters is so stingy with the wing sauce is baffling. Is there a wing sauce miser in the kitchen measuring out every ounce like it's liquid gold? "How many women does it take to get a side of sauce?" Brian barks, displeased with his untimely service. Eventually, our waitress bounces to the table, rewarding him with a side of the coveted sauce, redeeming Brian's mood.
When asked how they liked their entrées, the two Mikes respond with shoulder shrugs — perhaps I was getting the silent treatment for not letting them order more chicken wings. The Philly cheese steak ($7.79) comes layered with peppers and onions and smothered with provolone cheese, but it's unremarkable in flavor. Mike #2's burger is on special ($5.99), but that cheap price doesn't make up for a dry and underseasoned beef patty. Both Mikes are unimpressed with their main dishes, but they didn't dislike them either. "It's what I would expect from Hooters," they both agree after swallowing the last morsel.
Take it from a group of guys: Hooters is best for chicken wings and fried appetizers. But lackluster food doesn't explain why the restaurant is bustling with cheery customers. Let's be honest: It's the Hooters girls that keep the chain successful. So does that mean the women are exploited? That would suggest taking advantage of unsuspecting individuals in a malicious manner. The women who choose to work at Hooters know what the job entails. They bait their hook with a bit of tolerance and a dose of flirtations, subsequently reeling in the tips. Any woman with that kind of patience deserves some sort of appreciation. But for my next visit, I'll stick with going to Hooters with my girlfriends or my father on his birthday.