I Dined at the Hooters in Nottingham in 2003, and Can't Wait to Go Back!
by John Mendelssohn
Over the braying and bellowing of the Budweiser-imbibing bubbas who pack the place, you can make out Bill Haley promising to rock around the clock. In the kitchen, dudes in backwards baseball caps scoop coleslaw and potato salad into little bowls to accompany the chicken wings and ribs they're basting with barbecue sauce, all to be set before the bellowing bubbas by long legged, and, in some cases, big-bazoomed babes who, if just a little more predatory-looking, a little more liberal with their mousse and blush and lip liner, might be mistaken for the damn Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, American femininity at its most sublime.
Welcome to Nottingham, USA, site of the United Kingdom's only Hooters.
On April Fool's Day, 1983, six small businessmen from Florida's Gulf Coast -- a painting contractor and his business partner, a liquor salesman, a retired gas station proprietor, an estate agent, and a brickie with ambitions beyond his station -- came up with the idea of opening a restaurant together in which waitresses with big tits would serve the sort of food hungry heterosexuals like themselves loved best -- ribs, chicken wings, that stuff. Behold the birth of what the general manager of the Nottingham Hooters would refer to decades hence, reverentially, as The Concept.
Realising that an owl in the logo would make the name seem sufficiently ambiguous to defuse feminist indignation, the six named their venture after a Steve Martin comedy sketch that turned on the age-old Southern slang term for breasts. There was no Internet then, and thus no reason to fret about one who'd searched Google for Hooters winding up on a site depicting anatomical monstrosities with names like Pandora Peaks and Letha Weapons. They were simpler, happier times.
Shortly thereafter, the estate agent anchored his boat off Clearwater Beach and swam in to watch the Jose Cuervo bikini contest, whose winner, Lynne Austen, he tried to persuade to become the new restaurant's first waitress. We may presume that she thought him just another leering yahoo with a business card. But when General Telephone, where she worked as an operator, refused her permission to compete in another bikini contest a few weeks later, she rang the number on his business card, accepted the job, and behold: The Concept was personified. When the estate agent coaxed Austen into a pair of orange Lycra jogging shorts like those in which his secretary had been getting him all hot-'n'-bothered, and a form-fitting, cleavage-displaying white tank top, The Concept, behold, was made flesh.
Whereupon the estate agent next did that which any right-thinking American man over 40 would have done in like circumstances, and submitted photos of Austen to Playboy, which conferred upon her the most exalted benediction to which a young American woman of a certain mindset can aspire, Playmate of the Month.
Not one to stand on ceremony, the estate agent now dressed up as an enormous chicken and stood on Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. waving motorists into the Hooters parking lot. It wasn't dignified, but what a happy tune it made the cash registers sing, as local good old boys began arriving by the carload to ogle the babes, ignore the old music, guzzle the Bud, and eat the...well, whatever it was they had on the menu.
Recognising that, in Austen, they had the babe who could drive The Brand, Hooters worked her hard. They dispatched her to community events and charity functions. They published a calendar with her picture on the cover. They devised a television...vehicle for her to star in, Hooters Nite Owl Theater, soon syndicated in 13 major and semi-major markets. Moreover, they sponsored a NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Racing) driver and then an Arena (that is, minor) League football team, and a golf tour and a college bowl game. 'Twas whispered, inevitably, that a Hooters movie was...in development. Well, of course it was!
But there were spoilsports afoot, yentas with blue noses, bureaucrats who took umbrage at all that healthy all-American ogling 'n' leering, all that healthy all-American profit-making and wild international expansion. After four years' investigation, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission decided that, in not hiring men to be Hooters Girls, Hooters could reasonably be accused of discriminatory hiring practices.
Only in America.
Spoofing the previous years' Million Man March (for African-American equality), the company organised a 100 Hooters Girl March on Washington D.C. Some 500,000 Hooters customers wrote irate postcards to their Congresspersons, many not with crayons. Assured by their pollsters that very little risk was involved, no fewer than 23 duly elected representatives of the people took the floor of Congress to posture and pontificate on Hooters' behalf. The loathsome Newt Gingrich, that stupidest and whitest of what Michael Moore would later christen Stupid White Men, decried the EEOC on national television.
Bold Newt, standing up to the intrusions of Big Government at every turn!
There was the usual feminist carping about Hooters objectifying women. Every syllable was true, of course, but the company was nonetheless able to point with pride to the fact that its Vice President of Training and Human Resources, Kimberly Rivera, had started her Hooters career as a Hooters Girl, almost certainly as Kimberlee. It later came out that Empress Kali, briefly one of the East Coast's most notable dominatrices, had also worn the orange and white.
Hooters seemed to have a way of laughing off the sophisticated and politically correct. For two decades, San Francisco, bastion of gender enlightenment (the most glamorous waitresses in the city are the petite transvestites at Asia SF) and political correctness, had stood firm against them. We're too sophisticated, it seemed to say, too cool and cosmopolitan for your crass titillation (and manifestly non-California Cuisine). We, in whose North Beach topless (and later topless/bottomless) joints Carol Doda proudly displayed the country's first notable silicone-enlarged breasts back when people were still attending Doris Day films in large numbers, we whose gays have always been among the developed world's most visible and vocal, are too hip for the likes of you. And then, in its first week of operation, Hooters of San Francisco broke all standing records for combined sales of steamed clams and calendars, chicken wings and T-shirts and disposable cameras by better than $32,000. And it wasn't just tourists from the flyover states buying this stuff, presumably, because most of them were in town with the little lady and kiddies.
Yo, Frisco, we got some sophistication for you right here.
Various Hooters sauces went on sale in the nation's grocery chains. While U.S. Airways was declaring bankruptcy, while United and Delta cowered tremblingly on its verge, while American was making redundant no fewer than 7000 of its employees, Hooters was apparently concluding that the coffee-tea-or-me, uh, concept that had once made Pacific Southwest Airlines, for instance, the heterosexual man's airline of choice on the West Coast, wasn't dead, but only dormant. Soon Hooters Air was flying between Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, and the South Carolina resort...destination of Myrtle Beach, making it possible for one analyst to decree, rather wonderfully, "I expect they'll go bust."
Were we having fun yet? You betcha!
And nowhere more, presumably, if a little improbably, than in Nottingham, where on a recent Friday night in the month of its fifth anniversary, the UK's only Hooters (so far!) was absolutely packed with stag night celebrants in bad haircuts (looks long since discarded by David Beckham were huge, as too, improbably, were Gareth Gates-ish spikes) and worse tattoos.
The norm here seems to be the kind of laddish provincial who regards the cuisine of Thank God It's Friday as a bit too... haute, a lad's lad who wants women around only if they're highly decorative and servile. He makes an occasional display of his own implacable randiness -- here licking the hand of his waitress as she delivers a pitcher of Bud (the probable inspiration of the famous Monty Python quip about American beer being like making love in canoe), there leering at length at another's cleavage. And we pause to wonder why he chooses to strut his masculine stuff in an environment from which he knows he'll be summarily expelled if he does anything other than ogle and leer.
The Nottingham Hooters Girls may wear the same jogging shorts and tank tops, white socks (over tights!) and immaculate white, supremely not-trained-in-looking trainers as their colonial sisters, but are conspicuously less top-heavy. One sees a lot more narrow waists and long legs here than silicone implants. And while, following in the footsteps of their Cowboys cheerleader prototype, their American sisters commonly give off a distinct whiff of self-infatuation and condescension. Until I've got my tip in hand, I will indeed flirt with you, but don't dream I'd give you two milliseconds after my shift ends, the Nottingham girls seem genuinely friendly. At the top of every bill: a little kiss: Thanks! Jodi x.
Behold the benefits of what is known in the world of Hooters as F-A-T ("Fun-Attitude-Teamwork") Training, in which, for instance, the prospective Hooters girl learns that, by expertly deploying adjectives catalogued in the Hooters Girl Manual, she can make the food sound especially irresistible. Not justWould you like cheese on your burger, mind you, but Would you like thick bubbly melted cheese?" Behold the implied sensuousness of the Hooters, uh, dining experience!
During F-A-T training, the new recruit learns also that The First Commandment is, inevitably, Thou shalt always smile. Thou shalt, moreover, leave no arriving or departing guest ungreeted. Only when she is nearly ready to go among the Bud-guzzling blokes who make up 70 percent of the typical Hooters' clientele does the new recruit learn that, in the statistically unlikely event that a guy comes in with his girlfriend,she is to greet the girlfriend first, to preclude her becoming crazed with jealousy.
However enticingly it may be described, the food at the Nottingham Hooters is inexpressibly horrid. On the afternoon the Observer ordered the steamed clams, worse steamed clams weren't served anywhere in the United Kingdom. Our server's trainers couldn't have been tougher. They were accompanied by a sauce that resembled, and, indeed, seemed to have been infused with, dishwater. The night before, a £6.99 shrimp salad had comprised half a dozen shrivelled shrimps, some weary lettuce and red cabbage that had probably arrived at the restaurant pre-chopped in a 20-pound bag, and a positively knackered tomato, all hidden under millions of coin-sized croutons. To have lived for long in the USA is to have celebrated many Fourths of July, and thus to have eaten a great deal of potato salad -- and almost surely to agree that there has never been a worse version than that served at the Nottingham Hooters. It tastes like something schoolchildren would use in art projects.
Compared to the strangely acrid-tasting coleslaw, the potato salad is some mighty fine eatin' indeed.
For £14.99 in 2003 money, the Hooters patron can own a DVD of the restaurant's most recent bikini contest. For rather less, he (or she!) can buy a disposable camera to be photographed with his arms around a couple of the girls. (Posing with them represents the only chance he'll have to actually touch and be touched by them.) If a girl gets her customers to spend an average of more than £22 each, she becomes eligible for bonuses, and nothing raises the average spend quite so quickly as merchandise. The lessons of the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood didn't get off the train from St. Pancras before reaching Nottingham.
And yet, according to Mark James, the restaurant's transplanted Yorkshireman manager (who reports to a fellow in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who looks after a Louisville, Kentucky-based franchisee's restaurants in Texas and Toronto too), the food, diabolical though it may be, accounts for 55 percent of the restaurant's revenues, beverages for 40, and merchandise for only five. "We stand by being a restaurant more than anything else," he is somehow able to assert with a straight face.
You bet, bro. And your customers buy Hooters calendars so they'll always know the date.
If a diner gets cheeky with his server, she's encouraged either to try to embarrass him in front of his mates, or, in worse cases, to advise Mark, who in turn dispatches the restaurant's soft-spoken but Loughborough-sized bouncer to advise Mr. Bumgrabber, "Listen, Sunshine, you can't do that. You're going to pay your bill and go. This is not what we're about." At the same time, Mark acknowledges that titillation is exactly what Hooters is about, and that a razor's edge is precisely the right metaphor to represent the cruel paradox of luring the lads in with tits and ass, only to require that they treat the girls like students at a convent school.
To the extent that many of the girls claim to adore working at Hooters, and have done so in some cases, often while attending university, for as long as three years, the restaurant indeed seems to have done well by them. Mark James claims never to have had to advertise for new girls, as so many volunteer. A prospective Hooters girl doesn't have to have particular proportions, but only to be able to fit in the kit. Which, given its high Lycra content, would seem to accommodate nearly anyone.
Hooters' UK beachhead was actually in Birmingham, where half a dozen managers and 20 girls flown over from America made a brave go of it for six months in 1998. Before they'd spent a pound, Mark James remembers ruefully, prospective punters had already got to ogle the girls at length, as the restaurant was in a shopping mall, with big glass windows. "Birmingham couldn't comprehend what we were trying to achieve. It was used to American chains trying to become English pubs, but we had greater confidence in The Brand. It wasn't quite ready to accept our wow factor, our in-your face service to the nth degree." Indeed, the girls were flabbergasted by how little service the English expected -- and how poorly they tipped for it.
Pressed to explain his conception of Service to the Nth Degree (the Observer found Hooters' service as glacially slow as it was friendly), Mark James says, "Suppose you go to the Rose and Crown in May to watch the FA Cup final. You can't reserve a table, so you'll have to stand, and no waitress is going to come over to ask if you need another drink. At Hooters, you won't take a chance of missing a goal by going to the bar. And if you want to invite 20 mates to your stag party, no other establishment in the city is going to let you all in together. We will. And during the two hours you're here, you'll be well looked after."
In the next few years, we learn, the good old boys of London, Manchester, Porstmouth, Southampton, and Newcastle -- "cities with universities and football teams" -- can themselves look forward to being looked after as only Hooters can, as the chain expands, as The Concept proliferates.
The punch line to the Python quip about American beer: fucking close to water. So why, in a country that's been brewing its own robustly flavourful beers since what would later become downtown Clearwater was a Timugua Indian burial ground, the great popularity of Bud in the Nottingham Hooters? "Most of these guys will never be able to sample the ribs at the Hooters in Miami, or the chicken wings in San Diego," Mark James explains. "The more they feel they're having an authentic American experience, the more likely they are to spend money." And that, no less in Nottingham than in Nashville or New Orleans, is the name of the game.