I asked a friend to join me for a drink at Hooters, the popular but controversial restaurant at Harborplace where scantily clad waitresses serve mediocre food to ogling louts.
"No," she said.
"Because I'm not interested in anything they have to sell at Hooters."
"You feel they exploit women?"
"Of course, they exploit women," she said firmly. "Why do you think they named the place 'Hooters' ?"
"The owners claim they named their restaurant in honor of the wise old owl."
"Well then," she said, "the waitresses ought to be dressed up in owl suits."
Hooters, the nationwide restaurant chain based in Atlanta, bills itself as a family restaurant -- one that serves good wholesome food in a good wholesome atmosphere. The first Hooters opened in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983 when -- according to the menu -- several "semi-intellectual Clearwater businessmen" were playing Parcheesi at the "Home for the Visually Offensive" and got a hankering for "the finer things in life."
Since then, the chain has grown to include 107 restaurants in 28 states, with sales last year reportedly in excess of $150 million. The Hooters at Harborplace occupies one of the anchor locations at the mall: a second-floor corner spot with a balcony terrace that is visible from both the street and the harbor. Before Hooters, this spot was occupied by a Friendly restaurant and ice cream parlor. In its first year at Harborplace, Hooters reportedly did three times the business of Friendly's.
But, as my friend suggests, there is something sinister about Hooters; something sinister about its rapid growth, its popularity and success; something sinister, even, about the restaurant's prominent Inner Harbor location.
Critics charge that Hooters built its success through the exploitation of women. The chain has been sued for sexual harassment by former waitresses in Minnesota and Florida and by a Florida man who charges discrimination because the chain does not allow men to tend bar or wait on tables.
The owners claim their success is built on innocent "sex appeal" -- coupled, of course, with mankind's fascination with the wise old owl.
Naturally, I had to check these reports out for myself so I went to the Hooters at Harborplace yesterday. The waitresses -- called Hooters Girls -- were young and attractive and very friendly. They wore low-cut T-shirts, tied at the midriff; bright orange jogging shorts that allowed tantalizing glimpses of their bottoms; stockings; and heavy makeup.
When I was there, never did a Hooter Girl fail to lean over a customer's table in a way that the waitresses at Friendly's never did.
The customers yesterday consisted of a handful of businessmen with flushed faces, one or two families with small children, and a bunch of drunken louts. One drunken lout asked a Hooter Girl to autograph his baseball cap. Another drunken lout persuaded passing Hooter Girls to pose for pictures. A group of teen-age boys paced back and forth outside, peering in through the windows with wistful expressions, although there are no age restrictions at Hooters. The waitresses say they are rewarded for their friendliness with really generous tips.
And remember, the Hooters at Harborplace was forced by city officials to modify its act shortly after it first opened in 1991. Some waitresses at restaurants in other cities wear T-shirts with the slogan, "More than a mouthful" across their chests. There are Hooter Girl calendars and trading cards available. Some restaurants equip their Hooter Girls with hula hoops for customers who want to see them jiggle.
It would be one thing if Hooters' owners were open about their intentions -- like the old Playboy Clubs. Or, if they offered women an equal opportunity to ogle scantily clad waiters. But Hooters is distastefully dishonest about what it sells. The sinister thing is that this is just the sort of sexual slyness that sells in these sexually demented days. Hooters restaurants apparently make money hand over foot.
So, yes, somebody is being exploited there. But I'm not sure whether it is the women who are being exploited or the drunken louts. Probably both.