It's been one year, one month, and two weeks to the day since I retired my orange shorts and chunky Skechers (not that I’m keeping track or anything). For a little more than 6 years, I worked as a Hooters Girl in Lewisville and Austin, Texas after spending nearly 3 years in high school imagining what it would be like to work for the restaurant chain. More similar to a typical teenage boy, I spent my 15th, 16th, and 17th birthdays perched on top of unstable orange stools eating wings and half dreading/secretly anticipating the moment I would be pulled off my wooden pedestal to have the birthday song chanted by the Hooters Girls I so admired. These girls had it all, in my opinion - a job that they made great money doing, one that they appeared to enjoy, and a whole staff of potential friends to work alongside. At some point, my mission post high school graduation became joining the elite group. The rest is very recent history.
The great Hooters debate, as I like to refer to it, is a case I’ve attempted to make with several people, especially over the last two years. I imagine the timing had something to do with the fact that the end of my college career was in clear sight and, according to some, I was rapidly closing in on the Hooters Girl retirement age. I’ll save that discussion for another day.
During one of my recent Facebook study breaks, I mindlessly scrolled past a blurry picture of glowing orange. Uno momento! I would recognize that glorious shade of orange anywhere. To my delight-turned-dismay, the picture was of my former kind and the cover of a recent article by Business Insider. The title alone should have been enough warning that this was not a quick/light-hearted read appropriate for 10 minutes before needing to be out the door, but who am I to judge. The article, titled The Toll of Being a Hooters Waitress, was one of those cases that it would have been ok to judge. I got worked up into a tizzy in a hurry. You should check it out for yourself here.
The piece was disappointing for several reasons. First, the statistics presented were extremely misleading and not at all representative of the ‘breastaurant’ industry they claimed to analyze. According to the published study cited in the article, 11 women were surveyed. Eleven. In a high-growth sector that boasts double-digit sales growth numbers in the 19-45% range despite the restaurant industry’s stagnant state, 11 women were deemed a large enough sample. Even more damaging to the study’s credibility, the researchers deemed women to be eligible to participate if they worked at any “so-called breastaurant," not necessarily Hooters. This means the study not only assumes that the limited sample size is representative of the much larger industry, but that the 11 waitresses surveyed are an accurate reflection of Hooters Girls specifically. The qualitative portion of the research is, in my opinion, severely lacking in quality.
Second, the article made false claims about the sexually objectified environment waitresses at Hooters work in. One assertion in particular really struck a nerve. Business Insider suggested that working at Hooters involved wet t-shirt contests. As a six-year veteran, I can say with confidence that the only way Hooters sponsored a wet t-shirt contest is inadvertently because they served beer in oversized mugs with clumsy girls in oversized tennis shoes. THAT I have experienced at nobody’s fault but my own - graceful is not my natural state of being. Furthermore, Hooters Girls are not subjected to lewd comments or sexual advances anymore than women experience in the grocery store or at the gym. If you’ve got “it,” you’ve got it over here, you’ve got it over there, and you’ve got it everywhere. Good looks and a charming personality exist well beyond the walls of Hooters.
Third, Facebook has a way of bringing out the “experts," which I had the pleasure of interacting with shortly after reading. Aside from learning about how my degree in psychology is clearly a poor use of time and money (which A) I do not agree with and B) is a degree I do not have), I read comment after comment that progressed from variations of “duh, of course they’re damaged” to critics reminding the public that “nobody should feel bad for those girls." May I just say, nobody asked you to!
I’ve wanted to share my thoughts and experiences about my time with Hooters for quite a while. Nothing like a little fire to inspire you to get after it.
Professors and classmates at the university couldn’t imagine me working at Hooters and my coworkers and Hooters customers couldn’t imagine that I was really a school geek by day. I never understood why we’re so often placed into a single category. We can be this or we can be that. I wasn’t satisfied with either of those options. I am still a very firm believer that it is possible to have the best of, in my case, both worlds. I found it especially motivating that people told me it wasn’t possible.
It’s been said many times that I must not have been thinking about the long-term implications of working at such a “scandalous” place. “What about your career,” they would say, “How will you sell that to future employers?” I’m here to say that my reasoning behind applying at Hooters to begin with is quite the opposite of the expected answer. Brace yourself - I worked at Hooters BECAUSE I had my future in mind. Shocking, I know.
“How would working in one of these breastaurants affect your emotional and psychological well being? What’s it like to actually be in the shoes of a waitress at one of these restaurants?”
Excellent questions, Feltman and Szymanski. Let me address those for you. Here is the unbelievable toll being a Hooters waitress has had on me.
THE SOCIAL SIDE
From a social stance, Hooters was a goldmine and one of the best parts of working for the company. I ended up spending a lot of time with a lot of funny and intelligent girls, some of which I am lucky enough to call friends even in the post-Hooters era. My fellow Hooters Girls were an eclectic blend of students, college athletes, wives, mothers, vocalists, artists, dancers, models, and so many other things. The common denominator, despite occupation or ambition, is that the girls I worked with were amazing women and so much more than the stereotype projected on Hooters employees.
Fortunately, the blessings didn’t stop there. I befriended numerous customers and still keep in touch with them today, in spite of resigning my orange spandex and moving 1200 miles away. Between coworkers and customers, I gained exposure to a wide range of cultures. Working under my superiors was like an introductory course to management styles. And as a result of all three groups, I learned a necessary life skill: how to gracefully walk away from a conversation when need be.
THE FINANCIAL IMPACT
One of the most memorable things a professor has ever shared is that “money buys freedom.” In my particular situation, Hooters generated the money needed to buy my “freedom” in terms of living expenses. It is this job that allowed me to save enough money to get out from under my parents roof and under several of my very own. Talk about a feeling of pride. I made enough money to decorate and furnish my temporary homes, to have electricity, cable, a cell phone, and food other than what I could harvest from the restaurant. I paid cash for a full year of classes at a community college before transferring to Texas State where again I was able to cover the difference between financial aid and my tuition bill without worry (well, above my usual level of worry). Hooters money even teamed up with my dad to buy my first suit for my first National Collegiate Sales Competition appearance and SIFE National Exposition presentation. Have I mentioned opportunity cost? To be as academically involved as I was required a lot of time. My time was very valuable. As a Hooters Girl, I was able to put in minimum hours compared to friends and still generate a much higher return.
THE PROFESSIONAL INFLUENCE
Professionally speaking, Hooters worked wonders. I was very soft spoken coming out of high school, which I was fully aware of. I was also very aware of the implications of being such an introvert in terms of my career aspirations, so I took matters into my own hands. Working in the restaurant industry forced me to talk to strangers every day about things I had various levels of knowledge about, if any at all. Being a Hooters Girl helped me to begin mastering the art of small talk and made me comfortable with public speaking, as I was responsible for hosting a weekly contest for customers. And, as it turns out, my gift for babbling with strangers is called networking, which I did. Extensively. Because of my time at Hooters, I landed two more jobs as a brand ambassador for Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, and Maybelline products. I enhanced my time management, improved my decision-making skills, and practiced the sales process every shift I worked. Working at Hooter’s even allowed me to internalize the academic theory I studied in class, especially in marketing. In fact, most of my projects were Hooters inspired, effectively enhancing my knowledge of the business and brand while solidifying my understanding of the concepts. Today, the Hooters Girl title is a conversation starter with recruiters.
THE PERSONAL IMPACT
Despite the study’s finding, when it comes to boosting self-confidence, Hooters was sort of like that amazing-lighting-and-trick-mirror combo in the Victoria Secret fitting rooms – you know, the one where you have to do a double take in the mirror because you think Gisele just stumbled into the same fitting room as you? I felt amazing. Was I uncomfortable in the uniform at first? Yes. Did it take some getting used to? Of course. Those feelings, however, were completely independent of how much or how little the uniform covered. I’ve always had personal issues with my body, but those insecurities existed long before Hooters and are something I’m still working on today (except, of course, when I’m in front of those dang VS mirrors).
Instead, Hooters took my self-confidence to a whole new level. As a Hooters Girl, I learned to have pride in my appearance AND my work. I learned to not be so hard on myself, and that more often than not, nobody even noticed the blemish on nose until I pointed it out. I learned about independence, how to prioritize, and improved my communication skills. I learned about empathy, patience, and the value of a dollar. Working at Hooters transformed me from a shy teenage girl who was too timid to speak her mind into a more confident self-starter who isn’t afraid to walk up to a group of strangers. I like to think that I went from being an introvert to a happy medium as an ambivert – not too little, not too much, but somewhere that is just right.
The best part is that this is not an all-inclusive list. Hooters and Hooters Girls are so much more than what outsiders portray them to be. Emotionally and psychologically speaking, I experienced gratitude for my managers/customers/coworkers, enthusiasm for the fun environment my job operated in, confidence that I would be able to pay my bills each month, and certainty that Hooters was the best choice. Objectified is not a word I would use to describe the experience.
Truth-be-told, Hooters is the reason the other great things on my resume even exist. Did my managers teach me the sales process, make me practice answering objections until I was objecting the objections, or coach me on appropriately using trial close statements? No. They did something even better – they were accommodating to my demanding practice and class schedule, allowing me the flexibility to pursue academic interests while paying my bills. My managers helped me develop professionally and personally, and provided plenty of comic relief along the way.
My coworkers, well, they were my biggest cheerleaders. Sure, they may not have known exactly what it was I was doing (but quite frankly, I didn’t figure it out until I was a full year into both academic teams), but they didn’t have to. That’s not what was important. They rooted for me on and off the clock.
It’s possible that my six-year tenure as a Hooters Girl will deter a company from hiring me in the future and that’s ok. I’m just as proud of my Hooters Girl title as any other award or achievement on my resume. And, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that saw my former job title as anything less than Hooterific. Working at the world-renowned chain known for being delightfully tacky, yet unrefined was simply just… delightful. Now, how does that sound?