Bumps Ahead for Hooters
A brand, it is said, is not about what you — the company — says it is. It’s about what the customer says it is.
So…Hooters, that great family restaurant, it appears is suffering. Sales are down. Restaurants are closing. U.S. locations are buoyed only by those outside the states.
(I’ve eaten at Hooters only once — avoiding not because of any puritanical avoidance. As it happened, my son and I were out late, we were hungry, and it was open. The wings weren’t great. In my opinion, a six out of 10. And the experience wasn’t memorable.)
In an effort to rebound, the chain is trying to draw more women. As patrons.
That said, it’s expanding its menu to feature more salads and such. (What? No “Let’s just add more Michael Bolton music?”)
In light of this serious, all-out rebranding effort, I happened to catch a rerun of Undercover Boss featuring the chain’s CEO Coby Brooks. This is the program in which the big boss goes incognito and witnesses, as a regular schmo, the goings-on in his company. He gets to connect with the greats, the near-greats, and the ingrates.
Now, let me say: Automatically, I have respect for any company willing to participate in this show. One knows, beforehand, that things are likely to go both ways. You’ll uncover some great employees. But you’ll certainly bring attention to people and things that you’d rather not show on national television.
But, in Hooters case, I don’t think they thought that far ahead. The decision to pursue the show was probably enabled by only delusions of enhanced awareness and sales. Why? Read on, my fellow brand disciples, and ye shall see.
The show started off well. The CEO couldn’t cut it in an entry level position within the company and was “fired” the same day. Hmm…Hooters has high standards. They work their employees hard. I’m with you so far…
And then came the hammer…the things that will not, for lack of a better analogy, cause you to get in your car and indulge in their restaurants.
- CEO Brooks admits not having “stepped foot in a [Hooters] kitchen for 20 years.”
- One of his store managers — a schmuck who demeaned waitresses in ways you could not imagine — was NOT fired on the spot.
- A brand/culture so steeped in objectifying women that it fails to recognize its business model will not only never attract the fairer sex, it will continue to lose male patrons as well.
CEO is Out of Touch
Yes. He admitted that he hasn’t been in a Hooters kitchen (“back of the house” to you newbies) for 20 years. Really? Where’ve you been? Spending your time in the front of the house with the eye candy? What are your food revenues? Are they important? Do you ever leave your ivory-and-orange tower?
Okay. In his defense, Brooks does say that he never expected to assume the reins of the company. When his dad (the founder) fired the other guy in line for the job and made the son prez, no one was more surprised.
But that doesn’t mean you get a pass in becoming an expert in every facet of your organization. For God’s sake: You’re in charge of a company doing nearly $1 billion in sales! (Or, more accurately, you were.)
So…when you chat up your underlings — and they say they loved the “old man” but don’t know anything about his son who now runs the joint — are you surprised? Why would you be? (Which makes me wonder. Why did “Undercover Boss” modify his identity? Shaving the beard? Donning the glasses? Do you really think employees knew what he looked like?)
This one is choice: After hearing how low morale is — how much employees miss the old man, how bad things are — Brooks relays to an employee (who knows who he is), “What they’re saying is things could be [emphasis mine] better.”
“Could be better?” You’ve just heard some of the worst things any CEO could hear, and you’re couching your words? Any CEO who diminishes the extent of his problems — notably, low employee engagement — isn’t worth the hot sauce that bathes his overrated chicken wings.
Further, any CEO who doesn’t recognize that his/her employees are the lifeblood of his company — that his/her decisions and leadership are enhancing (or jeopardizing) not only the state of the company but the livelihoods of his staff — needs to spend even less time behind a desk and more time on the golf course. Put other people in charge…people who care.
Missed Opportunities to Make a Statement
Which brings us to the store manager. The one who claims every waitress on his staff is a primadonna. Who believes his brash tactics keep them under control. Who’s reading too much Soldier of Fortune magazine apparently. In his defense, Brooks bolts the restaurant when “Jimbo” (that was the manager’s name; I’m not making it up) conducts a despicable contest in which the women compete to see who can leave her shift early. But Brooks doesn’t blow his cover, approach Jimbo and (though we were waiting for it), does not smash a serving tray into Jimbo’s face.
Later, when Jimbo’s responses in the one-on-one with the big cheese don’t appease the CEO, the scene ends –again with the viewer unaware of Jimbo’s fate or future with Hooters. Best part ? Brooks would “never let” his daughters work in an environment like that. I’m guessing they won’t.
[Fast forward to closing credits. We learn that, alas, Jimbo has left to seek other opportunities. Perhaps Hooters didn't want to set off alarms by firing him and igniting sexual harassments from Jimbo's humiliated, denigrated underlings. Amazingly, the company faces those lawsuits anyway.)
Unclear on the Concept
As Brooks makes his way into the corporate meeting of his leadership to share the findings of his incognito initiative, I couldn’t help but note the artwork (below).
So…what is it, Hooters? What are you about? The ladies in tight shirts and shorts? The food? What’s your brand? We’re getting mixed messages here.
Your business model, in my opinion, is defunct. People are smarter and more aware today — decades after the demise of three-martini lunches and ignorance of glass ceilings for corporate women — popular when your dad launched the place. In the age of ubiquitous sex crimes and domestic violence toward women, waitresses in tops and shorts that are multiple sizes too small is just no longer cute or funny. Neither is your name.
But, go ahead. Add your salads to the menu.
And, uh…good luck with that.
Update: Since the original airing of this show, Hooters of America was purchased by a consortium of private investors and is no longer family owned. ”I am so extremely proud of what my father and our team here have built,” said Brooks.