Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Just Felt Like Sharing

(Star Telegram) Good restaurateurs know how to sell the sizzle, and few chains have done a better job of hustling the stuff over the past 2½ decades than Hooters.

But now, inspired by the success of Hooters’ wings-toting female staff, restaurants such as Twin Peaks, Bone Daddy’s and other local operators with cute waitresses, cold beer and a male clientele are, well, busting out all over. And Texas, where the sole Hooters’ franchisee is both the chain’s sales leader and No. 1 in locations nationally, is a prime market for the "breastaurant" concept.

Having withstood lawsuits by men who wanted to join the women-only waitstaff and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination charges, Hooters had systemwide sales of $997 million in 2008, up 2 percent from 2007, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution report. Hooters won’t admit to worrying about the competitors, even in a bad economy.

"At this point, there’s no Avis to our Hertz," said Michael McNeil, marketing vice president for the privately held, Atlanta-based Hooters of America. "We’re not looking over our shoulders."

Still, there’s only so much dining dollar on the table in a bad economy, and the new kids are going for a piece of it, using many of Hooters’ hooks.

Addison-based Twin Peaks brings the battle to Bedford with a new store tentatively set to open Thursday. The renovated restaurant is a million-dollar roll of the dice in a failed Ruby Tuesday site.

Privately held Front Burner Restaurants owns Twin Peaks, and CEO Randy DeWitt brainstormed the chain’s trademark "imaginary story." It involves a guy and a girl in a mountain hunting lodge.

"I don’t think it’s a big secret" that men — typically 21 to 58 years old, in Twin Peaks’ case — will flock to such places, said, Pat Moreo, chairman of the food and beverage management department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Harrah Hotel College. "They just had the chutzpah to do it."

Instead of Hooters familiar orange color scheme, the Twin Peaks decor includes river rocks and mounted trophy animals. The waitresses wear flannel shirts tied at the waist and shorts. The menu has burgers, steaks and wings, and there’s a full bar.

"It’s a guy’s world," said DeWitt, who recently sold his piece of the Rockfish Grill operation. "You can’t get it at home; you can’t get it at your workplace anymore. But you can get it at Twin Peaks."

Rupert Spies, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, said it’s a solid insight.

"In this society, we’re a little bit repressed," Spies said. "Fantasy goes a long way. Sex sells."

Consumers cut back

Most casual-dining places are suffering in today’s economy as cash-strapped consumers cut back.

Ruby Tuesday, a chain with about 950 stores, had a $37.4 million loss in the most recent quarter, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, were down 10.8 percent at company-owned locations.

"One of the easiest things to cut is eating out," McNeil said.

DeWitt said every one of his stores occupies the site of an unsuccessful predecessor.

"Our business is up, year over year, double digits," DeWitt said.

Stowe Shoemaker, professor and associate dean of research at the University of Houston’s Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, calls the trend "dining as entertainment."

"It’s all about the customer experience," Shoemaker said. "It’s just something to make it different.  . . . It’s kind of like escapism."

Though the check average isn’t much different from a Hooters tab, Twin Peaks goes for a slightly more white-collar clientele. While his patron may drive a truck, it probably won’t have a toolbox and pipe rack on the back, DeWitt said.

"The day of the general restaurant, we believe, is over," DeWitt said.

Good times, bad times

Maybe it’s the bikini car washes on the second Saturday of every month.

Whatever the reason, while restaurant patrons travel three miles to the average eatery, DeWitt said, Twin Peaks diners drive 13 miles to his stores, despite a plummeting stock market and continuing job cuts.

Hooters also picks up business from guys who can no longer afford to eat and entertain at pricier places.

"Some trade down," McNeil said. "For $100, four guys can go to Hooters and be treated like kings."

They’re also getting budget-conscious families these days. Families make up about 10 percent of the Hooters clientele. The male/female customer ratio has changed from 80 percent/20 percent in 1991, when McNeil joined the company, to about 68 percent/32 percent now.

At the Smoke Pit, a Fort Worth barbecue institution on East Belknap Street that has long advertised its waitresses, co-owner Annette Hinkel thinks she could be seeing a bad-economy bounce. She serves barbecue and runs a daily lunch special that employs mostly college-age waitresses who wear shorts and tank tops when the weather permits.

Hinkel said she has recently begun seeing new faces in a crowd that had skewed toward blue-collar regulars.

"The economy just hit me great," Hinkel said. "I’ve got a different kind of people."

She said the Smoke Pit didn’t set out to be a trendsetter. She said the concept originated with the first owner, who opened the restaurant in 1953 and put her daughters to work in the place.

"The lady had five good-looking daughters who worked here," Hinkel said. "She married ’em all off."

Delivering the steak

Not everyone loves these restaurants. Hooters has met resistance in some communities, with critics saying it sells sex appeal as much as food. A group called the Partnership for Community Values in Arlington spent several years trying to prevent from chain from selling beer and liquor in southwest Arlington, objecting to its location near Martin High School and some churches. Hooters gave away free beer for several years before gaining its liquor license.

The company knows its calling card, and says that’s why it has spawned so many imitators.

"The essence of our business is female sex appeal," McNeil said. "That’s the idea. I mean, what’s cheerleading?"

Nick Galanos, an industry veteran who previously ran the Ruby Tuesday that occupied what will become the Bedford Twin Peaks, acknowledged that his waitresses cater to men’s libidos as well as their taste buds. Twin Peaks’ franchise fee is $35,000, and Galanos believes in the concept so strongly that he has nailed down rights for the entire state of Arizona.

Hinkel calls her place a sports bar, even though food and the waitresses are the main draw for many patrons. She barely had time to talk Friday morning as she prepared for the lunch rush.

"They come in for the pork chop on Friday," Hinkel said. "It makes ’em crazy."

And, she said, it won’t be just guys at the table.

"I’ve started getting some females lately," she said. "They’ve decided they’ve found all the men."

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