PLANT CITY No one will ever know if Hooters would have still become a global empire had Plant City native Lynne Austin never worn the famous white tank top and orange short-shorts.
But there’s no doubt that the original Hooters Girl certainly did her part to help launch a chain that’s grown to more than 450 restaurants as far flung as Singapore.
“As soon as I saw her, I knew she had just the look we were looking for. Once we put her out there and put her on billboards, it just took off,” said Ed Droste, one of six founders of Hooters.
Thirty years ago, Droste convinced Austin, then a telephone operator, to become the face of Hooters after spotting the shapely 5-foot-6-inch blonde at a Clearwater Beach bikini contest.
Austin recalled an early meeting with him.
“Ed told me I’d be famous one day and I’d make more money than I could ever imagine, but I was skeptical. I was climbing the corporate ladder (at GTE),” Austin said.
She’s glad she accepted and became a Hooters icon – and a sex symbol.
Austin, born in 1961 at South Florida Baptist Hospital, was hired just as the first Hooters was preparing to open in Clearwater in April 1983. Her first job wasn’t very glamorous – she cleaned the place for $5 an hour until the restaurant welcomed its first customers.
The first few days were dreadful because the place was empty.
Droste said fortunes changed when billboards featuring a scantily dressed Austin got noticed and she started making the rounds of local radio stations to drum up publicity.
“We knew she had great looks when we hired her but we didn’t realize that she had such a gift to communicate and relate to people. She is very witty and had a very tasteful sex appeal,” he said.
She worked as a server for her first six years and had such a following that customers would wait up to three hours for a table in her section.
In the meantime, she posed for calendars and made personal appearances at promotions. In 1986, she bared all as Playboy’s Miss July centerfold.
Over the years, she appeared in videos for Hooters and Playboy and had bit parts in two episodes of TV’s “Married with Children.”
She’s now a married mother of four children who lives in Palm Harbor. She worked in talk radio for a number of years but now has a few business ventures of her own, including Calendar Girl wine, which she opened with two friends, and a jewelry business.
She hasn’t lived in Plant City since her parents moved to Tampa when she was 5, but she still visits family here that includes an aunt and uncle as well as cousins.
“One of my favorite memories was my grandparents taking me to Snelgrove’s Restaurant to eat,” she said, adding that she also enjoyed visiting BuddyFreddys restaurant and the Florida Strawberry Festival.
At 52 years old and with looks that can still turn heads, she remains what Droste called Hooters “company royalty.” She’s still called on for promotional work, he said.
“When people think of Hooters Girls, they think of Lynne Austin. She set the bar very high for all the 300,000 Hooters Girls who followed. She’s a cornerstone of Hooters,” he said.
She was among the guests of honor when the chain threw a recent celebration for its 30th anniversary.
She said she feels fortunate.
“I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I’ve been able to travel all over the world and met a lot of great people. When you get older, it’s the memories that you treasure the most – not money – and I’ve had a lot of great and happy memories.”