Wing-Driven Thing: Hooters gets a menu makeover, but some things never change

Jul 18, 2013 at 4:00 am
Hooters' original wings are battered, deep-fried and tossed in Buffalo sauce.
Hooters' original wings are battered, deep-fried and tossed in Buffalo sauce. Madelaine Azar

Late last summer the top brass at Hooters of America announced that the 30-year-old chain of beach-themed restaurants would undergo a makeover. They wanted one thing: women. Not as employees, but as customers.

The "breastaurant" segment — so named for the practitioners' penchant for hiring only comely female servers and dressing them in revealing uniforms — is much more crowded than it was ten years ago. Although Hooters and its "delightfully tacky" '80s-cheerleader theme is still the big dog in the fight with 430 locations worldwide, it has ceded ground to newer, growing chains with even teensier outfits, like Tilted Kilt and Twin Peaks. Executives at Atlanta-based Hooters decided it was time to re-feather their nests with an eye on attracting a younger and increasingly female clientele. The company's leadership announced plans to replace frozen food with fresh ingredients and remodel twenty locations per year. A modernized prototype Hooters opened in Slidell, Louisiana, earlier this summer with redesigned banquettes, brick walls instead of wood paneling and an emphasis on natural light and an open floor plan.

The Kiener Plaza location in downtown St. Louis, which opened in 2006, hasn't seen any changes to its décor just yet. Crowd approval from Busch Stadium is audible from beneath the iconic orange Hooters awnings and through the glass double doors. The dining room walls are still wood paneled and decorated with cheeky signage and neon lights. A placard that says "John J. Crapper" leads the way to the restrooms. But a revised menu is off to a flying start.

On the first of my pair of visits to Hooters, three waitresses — dressed in the trademark Hooters white tank, orange shorts, flesh-hued pantyhose and chunky white sneakers — immediately ceased the conversation they were having and seated our party. It took less than a minute for a server to come by to take drink orders.

Glancing up from the somewhat sticky menu, there's nowhere for the LCD-weary eye to rest. On my first visit, the flat-screens played the Cardinals game (which was unfolding in the flesh mere blocks away) to a predominantly older, male crowd, though there was at least one family and a smattering of couples.

We began in the only place that made sense: with the traditional Hooters wings — ten pieces, battered, deep-fried and tossed in Buffalo sauce. They arrived, glistening, faster than our waitress took to get us our plastic plates and wet naps. They were crisp, messy and left a pleasant burning sensation on the lips. On a second visit we ventured into the fifteen other wing flavors. The "Samurai" sauce was less successful than the Buffalo, tasting of soy sauce and little else, while chipotle-honey was sweet and mildly spicy. Most baffling were the "boneless wings," which we ordered with the lemon pepper rub. Boneless wings are often just another name for chicken fingers tossed in sauce, but what arrived were odd little eraser-size nubs, almost like popcorn chicken, bearing little resemblance to their bone-in namesake.

Because the menu reboot emphasizes the addition of salads and burgers, I tried one of each — a blackened-shrimp and spinach salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and a "Baja" burger topped with jack cheese, guacamole and pico de gallo. Our server did not ask how I wanted the burger cooked, but it arrived expediently, generously heaped with avocado paste, the bun lightly toasted. The shrimp on the salad were almost certainly previously frozen and definitely not the least bit blackened. They were well seasoned, however, and the spinach was a welcome green break from the batter-heavy menu.

We ventured further into the non-chicken options with a pulled-pork sandwich and the Philly cheesesteak. Aside from too much salt on the steak, both were passable and forgettable. When we asked our server on the second visit which sandwich she recommended, she seemed amused by the question and offered little in the way of opinion. When I polled my dining companions afterward, they shared her indifference about everything but the wings.

Which brings us to the heart of the Hooter: Though corporate says it wants to bring in customers with the girls but get them coming back for the food, ultimately the chain continues to lead with the chest.

Being in possession of a pair myself, the servers' hooters neither improved nor detracted from my dining experience. Neither did the sometimes-ample crescents of buttock waxing from beneath the trademark orange shorts. But the approach to service at Hooters is different from that at more traditional restaurants. She's not there just to bring and remove plates. She's there to be a part of your experience.

She's supposed to be "approachable."

Our first waitress was professional, extremely attentive and friendly. Shortly after seating us, she asked my companion how he did his hair, then compared it to her own son's haircut. She asked us where we work. She tried to connect.

Our second server seemed to be more o board with the old Hooters way of business — she was friendly but uninterested in small talk. After taking an order or dropping off food, she plunked down in a seat at a nearby table where a middle-aged gentleman appeared to be eating alone. For all I knew it was her dad, but while he was enjoying her company, one of our appetizers failed to arrive until the end of the meal (and only after we reminded her). She was apologetic, but I couldn't help thinking we'd have gotten better service if we were a posse of old men.

One member of our party remarked that the Hooters girls made him "sad." I disagree. While I understand the impulse, there's also something weird and paternalistic about it. Anecdotally and from interviewing a former Hooters waitress here and there, I can report that they seem to make good money and genuinely enjoy their regulars. They sell flirtation as well as food, but then lots of servers do, and by today's standards the Hooters uniform is practically tame. Who wears pantyhose anymore?

Hooters may be taking baby steps toward modernizing its image, but thus far the new look has sunk barely a talon into St. Louis. And really, that's fine. The Hooters girl is still an icon and she still does the same things really well: cold, cheap beer and wings, and service with a wink and a smile.