ATLANTA Hooters, the chicken-wing chain known for waitresses in tight orange shorts, wants to make it easier for guys to drop by. That means paying a little more attention to their wives and girlfriends.
When Chief Executive Officer Terry Marks was hired last year to make over the chain, he found women also were steering clear because the menu was stale, the restaurants were dated and the food was overpriced. Marks wants to remove the Hooters stigma so men arent embarrassed to put the chain on an expense account and women arent as quick to veto a meal there.
Face it, females are 51 percent of the population, said John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group in San Diego. Theyve enjoyed more employment growth and you cant ignore them.
Make no mistake. Hooters is still mostly for guys, who make up two-thirds of the chains customers. Marks insists Hooters will be every bit as sexy as always and that the iconic uniforms are there to stay.
Instead, hes freshening up the menu, creating a night scene and bringing more light into the restaurants to make it clear there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Theres an opportunity to broaden the net without putting wool sweaters on the Hooters girls, Marks said in his office in Atlanta. Everything we do should appeal more to women, but nothing we will do will turn men off.
Theres reason to look for a happy balance. After Hooters U.S. revenue peaked in 2007 at $960 million, the recession took a toll, pushing down sales every year since, according to Technomic. Revenue dropped 3.4 percent to $858 million last year, while U.S. full-service restaurant revenue increased 1.8 percent, data from the Chicago-based researcher show.
Hooters facing increasing competition from similar chains, including Tilted Kilt and Twin Peaks is vying for customers as U.S. consumer confidence declines and prices for raw ingredients rise. Confidence among Americans fell in August by the most in 10 months as households grew more pessimistic about the economic outlook.
The first Hooters opened in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983, a lark by six businessmen who didnt take the beach bar too seriously. A group of Atlanta investors added capital, and the chain has grown to 430 restaurants in 44 states and 28 countries.
More salads, fresh burgers
Hooters of America, the franchiser that hired Marks, operates the majority of stores and is controlled by a group of investors, including Charlotte-based private-equity fund Chanticleer Holdings. Marks, a former Coca-Cola bottling executive, has spent most of his 10 months with Hooters improving the menu.
Hooters now touts fresh, not frozen, wings and hamburger patties. The chain doubled its salads to six, replacing iceberg lettuce with mixed greens and adding shrimp, spinach and fresh herbs aimed at women and health-conscious men.
In company-owned locations, burgers now come with fries, and wings are served with blue cheese after research revealed customers felt nickeled and dimed buying them separately, Marks said.
There are signs of traction, said Jessi Isola, marketing director at Oceanside, Calif.-based Hoot Winc LLC, a Hooters franchisee with stores in California, Washington and Oregon. More women are showing up at the companys 18 West Coast locations, she said.
Hooters will renovate 70 percent of its U.S. stores, adding amenities such as street-level patios and replacing some of the dark wood with more contemporary furnishings, to evolve the beach shack vibe.
Putting chain in better light
One of the most important design elements will be larger windows so people outside can see in.
There is nothing to hide, Chief Marketing Officer Dave Henninger said. For those folks who are convinced theres something to hide inside a Hooters, this new design should disabuse them of that notion.
New flat-screen TVs have replaced old box televisions, and Marks sprung for costly sports programming packages so they could make a nationwide promise to show every game. National Football League games and Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts bouts are huge draws for couples, Henninger said.
New TV ads feature former NFL Super Bowl coach Jon Gruden, once a Hooters cook, pitching the chain as the place to watch football.