Bruce Horovitz -- USA TODAY
ATLANTA - As if middle age isn't tough enough for regular folks, for Hooters, where every wrinkle counts and every blemish is magnified - it's agonizing.
The chain renowned for its perky, shapely waitresses attired in skimpy orange shorts and slightly-too-tight and extra-low-cut white T-shirts, turns 30 this year.
The good news: Only a tiny fraction of restaurants ever make it to 30. The bad news: Hooters is showing every one of its 30 years in an industry where three decades isn't just old - it's ancient.
Pushed by gobs of new competitors and a multiyear same-store-sales decline that only recently began to improve, the chain that inarguably invented the $2 billion "breastaurant" category is desperate to re-create itself as something other than a fading relic of the 1980s. Which may explain why Hooters is about to do the unthinkable: It's going to mess around with its iconic uniforms - and let its social media-adoring public have a say in the new duds.
It's also going to redesign its 420 restaurants in 28 countries to look brighter, It's even turning its menu upside down. No more frozen chicken wings and burgers: all fresh. And, for the first time in Hooters history, it's even started to serve entrée salads.
USA TODAY was exclusively invited inside by Hooters to take an early look at the planned changes and to visit its recently renovated store in downtown Atlanta which looks very un-Hooters-like with its wide-open outdoor dining area and its wall-to-wall windows.
"Our goal isn't just to survive middle age, it's to prosper," says Terry Marks, the former Coca-Cola Enterprises senior executive and former CEO of The Pantry convenience store chain, who was recruited by a headhunter about a year ago to fix Hooters. "That requires doing the basics right." That means better food and cleaner, jazzier-looking stores.
None of this will be easy - or cheap. And there are doubters. "Hooters has been dead in the water for a long time," says restaurant researcher Malcolm Knapp. "It went basically un-managed for years."
Perhaps there's some irony in the fact that in 1983, the very year that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, Hooters was incorporated by six businessmen from Clearwater, Fla. It was sold about a year later to businessman Robert Brooks, who was CEO until he died in 2006. His son, Coby, took over as CEO of the privately held company and a long struggle for control began.
About two years ago, Hooters of America was bought by a consortium of private investors - with H.I.G. Capital having controlling interest. Then, about 18 months ago, it hired Marks to bring Hooters back to life. He's had at least modest success. In 2012, for the first time in six years, its annual same-store sales finally rose - albeit a paltry 1%.
Even then, industry analysts are concerned. "Hooters is bringing the growth rate down for the whole category," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the research firm Technomic. The breastaurant category is growing at a double-digit rate, while Hooters' sales have mostly fallen for five of the past six years. During that time, it closed about 50 restaurants while competitors, such as Twin Peaks and Tilted Kilt, were opening stores at a furious pace.
But some experts says it's too early to count out Hooters.
"They're still the granddaddy of the category," says Ron Ruggless, Southwest bureau chief at the trade publication Nation's Restaurant News. "They can't be discounted."
Hooters is going to fix it all, insists Marks. Here's how:
FIXING THE UNIFORMS
Hooters uniforms are about to enter the 21st century. The only two things certain to stay the same: The shorts will remain neon orange, and the T-shirts will stay white. But everything else is in play, from the cut of the shorts to the shapes of the shirts to the design of the iconic owl, Hootie.
"Every element on the uniform is on the table," except for the colors, says Ericka Whitaker, global brand manager for the Hooters girls, who oversees the look of all 20,000 Hooters girls. Among the changes being considered: adding belts; killing the panty hose and familiar baggy, white socks, and even making the shorts look more skirt-like.
Ultimately, there will be a social media element to the uniform update where Hooters fans and foes - there are plenty of both - may be able to cast their votes on the redesign.
"It's the most distinctive uniform in the restaurant industry," says the the 52-year-old Marks. "We want the consumer to be engaged in the process."
But 23-year-old "Sam" Arena, a Hooters waitress in Atlanta, hopes it doesn't change too much.
She says just putting on the iconic outfit not only changes her appearance, but her attitude. "People tell me I walk a little different when I have it on."
One customer doesn't want Hooters to change a thing - not the food, décor or the uniform. "I enjoy the uniform as it is," says Antwan Matthews, a 37-year-old federal employee from Atlanta.
FIXING THE FOOD
Until earlier this year, some Hooters restaurants were still selling frozen chicken wings and frozen burgers patties. And the only salad you could get was a tiny side salad.
Then, last June, the chain started getting serious about fixing the food. It brought in Gregg Brickman as its new executive chef and director of product development. Brickman has some serious fine-dining background, formerly a regional executive chef with Wolfgang Puck catering and a former sous chef at one of Puck's premier restaurants, Spago.
"When I first got here," he says, shaking his head while taking a reporter into the kitchen of the Atlanta location, the most commonly-used kitchen tool "was a scissors - to open a bag."
Besides the five new entrée salads he's already added, he also hopes to soon add sautéed mushrooms; seasonal fresh Maine lobster rolls and new late-night and value lunch menus.
FIXING THE LOOK
Among Hooters' most critical goals: remodel every restaurant.
That will include new Millennial-targeted technologies with far superior AV systems for sports enthusiasts, says Marks. Many stores will offer more windows and outdoor dining. Most will re-do the bar area as islands. And seat backs and cushions will be added onto bar stools.
The first ground-up new Hooters, with the complete new look, is scheduled to open in mid-June in New Orleans.
FIXING THE NAME
One pop culture guru says Hooters' biggest problem isn't the food, store design or uniforms. It's the name. "For many people, the name Hooters is tantamount to a stop sign," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. So, he says, the names needs an update most of all.
Except of course, says Marks, the odds of that happening are "less than zero."
Never mind that the name was snatched from a late-night skit more than three decades ago by comic Steve Martin. During the skit, in which Martin invents new names for things, he suggests that a better name for breasts would be "hooters." Little did he suspect, someone would turn around and open a racy restaurant chain by that name.
When Marks first tells people that he works for Hooters, he says, "the instant reaction is a smile - a guilty smile," he says. "You would pay anything for that as a brand marketer."
FIXING THE FUTURE
What's next for Hooters?
Not another airline, that's for sure, says Marks, who notes the ill-conceived venture of Hooters Air cost the company about $40 million. That was a mighty expensive distraction, he says. Only after the chain is back on its feet, he says, would he look into new licensing deals. Among them: a "Hooters Girls" reality TV show. "We get approached on that all the time," he says.
In the end, Hooters must get back to doing the what it does best, "wings, beer and friends," says marketing chief Dave Henninger. "Our strategy may have wavered over time."
Hooters is trying to get back into fighting shape. And just maybe that will help it make more female customers, like Tayler Williams, feel welcome.
She's a 25-year-old psychology student from Birmingham, Ala., who insists, she's not embarrassed at all to be seen eating at Hooters. And she doesn't just come for the wings. "I come to Hooters," she smirks, while closely surveying the surroundings, "because men come to Hooters."