March 5, 2009— -- The restaurant chain Hooters had the market cornered when it came to affordable food and a scantily clad, attractive wait staff. Lately, however, competition is, well, busting out all over the place. Imitation chains such as Twin Peaks and Bone Daddy's are both flourishing, as is the original.
While the downturn in the economy has forced many chain restaurants to close, Hooters brought in a billion dollars in sales in 2008, a 2 percent increase from 2007.
"Business is good," said Mike Herrick, the company's vice president. "It's the great escape ... You come here when you get a job, you come here when you get a pink slip."
Herrick says it's a fun line of work.
"You walk around today and you wouldn't know we are in our worst time since the '30s. ... You wouldn't know that in Hooters today," he said.
Brittany Johnson, who works as a waitress at a Hooters in South Arlington, Texas, said, "Honestly, the reason people come here and they don't stop coming here is because of the economy. They have so much on their mind ... they want to get away. They might not have the money to go to Florida or California, so they go to a nice environment like this and talk to nice girls like us."
Laci Law, 22, another waitress, admitted, "there are pretty faces here," but added that "the food is really great."
One customer, Wes Williams, said he doesn't feel like a sexist pig because he patronizes Hooters.
"A pig, yes," he said. "But not sexist."
Said Law: "I've been asked if I'm embarrassed to work here ... 'What does your dad think?' Well, my dad was just in here yesterday, so what do you want me to say?"
And it's not just dads. A lot of moms show up, too. Hooters says more than 30 percent of its customers are women, drawn in part by a menu where it's tough to find anything costing more than $10.
"The food's got to be good to justify coming ... because the first thing your wife or girlfriend will ask you is, 'Are you just there for the girls?'" said another male customer. "No, it's the food. Why don't you go too?"
Good Food Plus Sex Appeal
That may explain why down the street from the Hooters franchise in South Arlington you'll find Bone Daddy's, where the women wear even less and serve up a similar menu of food and flirtation.
"The girls that work here are drop-dead gorgeous and as friendly as you want them to be," said Bone Daddy's founder Mike Leatherwood, who just opened his fourth franchise. "If I had a 19-year-old daughter ... this is the only placed I'd want her to work, because I know how committed we are to creating a great environment to work in."
Leatherwood expects that each Bone Daddy's location will bring in more than $6 million in 2009.
"This restaurant has been insanely busy from the minute we opened," said the bartender, Allison Bingham, 22. "I don't think [the recession is] affecting us. I think the way we take care of people, the atmosphere, nobody else can do what we do, and I think that's what sells, and I think people set out a budget to what they do and then they come spend it here."
Leatherwood believes his restaurants are recession-proof because, while the food is good, the service may be even better.
"What we are doing is putting on two shows a day ... we got a show called 'lunch' and one called 'dinner,'" he said. "I'm the producer, the manager on the floor is the director. It's an amazing ensemble cast that comes to perform every day. The only difference is there are no lines. ... It's all ad-libbed and the audience sits on stage with us."
The sort of overt sexuality onstage at Bone Daddy's certainly brings in the men, and it doesn't seem to drive away the women.
"You know ... I wish I could dress like that but I can't, so I don't," patron Shantel Garner said, laughing.
Marketing experts say these restaurants are so successful in the sluggish economy because they've earned their own name.
"This category is becoming known as breastaurants," said Drew Neisser of Renegade Marketing Group. "And I think that says it all. It's food and it's sex appeal and it seems to be recession-proof."
"The target here are the 'man boys,' sort of adolescents who are trying to stay young," he said. "They want to be with the guys, very into bonding and going to a restaurant where there is something to talk about ... something to look at it. Keep everything on the surface and just have fun ... just have some 'yuks,' and right now having some 'yuks' is a pretty darn good thing."
Lost Your Job? Cry in Your Beer Here
Having fun is keeping business brisk at Twin Peaks, one of the newest Hooters knockoffs that promises scenic views in a rustic setting.
"We have a fireplace ... everyone needs that in the mountain lodge, as well as a shot gun ... and a buffalo head," said Randy Dewitt, who has opened seven Twin Peaks in four years, and has three more under construction.
"People are losing their jobs, they're not getting bonuses if they have a job... no one wants to spend money," he said. "If you are going to cry in your beer, wouldn't you rather do it here?"
Ironically, Twin Peaks is expanding so quickly because so many other chains have been forced out of business. A Twin Peaks in Bedford, Texas used to be a Ruby Tuesdays.
"We have wonderful food," 24-year-old bartender Alicia Massey said." A lot of people don't think we have great food but we do."
They also say it's all about value.
"In this part of the country, chicken fried steak is the ultimate comfort food," owner Dewitt said. "Ours is big as your face, it's very flavorful, and it's less than $10."
Waitress Angela Lushaj, 27, says she doesn't have a problem with the uniform, "because I look good in it. ... We seem to get very good reactions to it."
Further proof that sexy still sells, even when not much else does.