Thirty years ago this week, Hooters opened its doors at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Hampton Road and started a revolution in American dining by merging chicken wings and beer with a casual atmosphere and no small amount of sex appeal.
Today, the Hooters brand extends to more than 425 restaurants in 28 countries, including a Las Vegas casino.
On Oct. 4, 1983, though, the “breastaurant” with the naughty name in a shabby wooden shack was far from an immediate hit.
“It was empty,” founder Ed Droste said of that first day. “Two plumbers and one carpenter. Three guys.”
To make the place look a little more full, Droste and the five other founders — L.D. Stewart, Dennis Johnson, William “Uncle Billy” Ranieri, Gil DiGiannantonio and Ken Wimmer — held a birthday party for a friend.
“We figured at least we'd be full one day,” Droste said. “We didn't know we'd be in business 30 minutes, let alone 30 years.”
Some of the restaurant chain's founders held a birthday party at the original restaurant Friday to celebrate the milestone. Missing from the gathering: Ranieri, the retired service station owner who became a restaurant millionaire. He died on Sept. 12 in Chicago at age 92.
“He was our age when Hooters opened,” Droste said. “That's been driven home to us. What was said at his wonderful ceremony was that this brand kept him lively. It keeps you young, whether you're working in or around it.”
Droste, along with co-founder Johnson and Hooters CEO Neil Kiefer, sat down recently at the original location to reminisce about the early days. They sold the rights to the Hooters name in 2001 to a group that formed Hooters of America and expanded the brand overseas. But the original founders still operate almost 30 stores in Florida, Chicago and New York.
The Clearwater restaurant was rebuilt and refurbished in 2012. The floors and tables are shiny. There is tasteful landscaping, high-definition flat-screen TVs everywhere and a large bar for customers. The kitchen is equipped with the latest cooking appliances. All that remains of the original is a small corner over by a southern window.
But the memories are still there.
Johnson: I've known Ed for a long time. We're from the same place in Iowa. We became business partners in '83.
Droste: We used to fight over the same girls in Waverly, Iowa. Back then, it was a town of about 6,500. We went to the same high school together.
Johnson: I came down (to Florida) in '83 to paint condos. I was a bricklayer up North. Ed had a guy working for him who had a painting company I went to work for.
Droste: I had a 2.3 grade point average (at Iowa State), so I only got one job offer. I came down one day after graduation and started to work for U.S. Home Corp. in 1973.
Kiefer: I grew up in Pittsburgh. I came down here the same year Ed did, in 1973. I started out as a high school coach and PE teacher because I had about a 2.1 average. I met Ed in my second year through a mutual friend I coached with who was a friend of theirs from high school. Ed and I met at a football game we were coaching at. He was working for a property management company for U.S. Home. Then I left, went to New York, and came back in 1979 after law school at Hofstra University.
Droste: (Hooters) was one of his first clients, which really looked good on his résumé.
Droste left U.S. Home and started a company that refurbished buildings across Florida.
Droste: We'd catch various places and bars around Florida as we were working. Wally Morris, who was a manager for my company on the east coast, said, “You've got to get over here to Fort Lauderdale and check out (a restaurant with) these chicken wings.” Chicken wings weren't being sold anywhere. That started a bunch of us guys saying that we should open a joint that we couldn't get kicked out of.
Neil (Kiefer) was the catalyst on the business and legal side of it. We had one gentleman, L.D. Stewart, who is still around. He was the bull in the china shop. He said, “Let's go do it and quit talking about it.”
Kiefer: We incorporated on April Fools' Day in 1983, purely by accident. Looking back, how appropriate was that? We were a bunch of fools who had never been in the restaurant business. You don't get rich in the restaurant business, allegedly. Back then, 9 out of 10 were filing bankruptcy after a year.
This building had been so many things. It was a Godfather's Pizza, a Red Eye Rock 'n' Roll bar.
Johnson: World's Worst Pizza. Weeping Willow Lounge.
Kiefer: Nothing had worked at this spot long-term. So when these guys opened, they put a bunch of tombstones in the front yard that had the names of the prior tenants here.
Droste: We got tired of people saying that we would never make it. We also put a tombstone out there with one of the new knock-offs. We might as well put their demise out there in the cemetery, too.
It was a stretch to call the place before us a restaurant. I always say we had two cockroaches co-sign on the lease. We opened (in the neighborhood) in the heart of the capital of fern bars. There was a Chili's, a Bennigan's, a Chi-Chi's.
Johnson: A Bombay Bicycle Club.
Droste: Here we were in the middle of them trying to figure out what we were.
Kiefer: Everyone put their initial investments as cash. There were six couples. It was about $140,000 to gut it and rebuild it.
The partners knew they wanted a neighborhood joint. What they didn't know was what the name should be. Droste had an idea.
Droste: Back then, there wasn't all the political correctness. Steve Martin had a comedy record out with a fabulous bit where he talks about all these things you should love and that you should refer to these (motions to chest) as “hooters.” We just kind of lightheartedly took it and threw it around.
Johnson: We all fell in when we heard it.
Kiefer: We trademarked the name when I was asked about it.
Droste: Where it meshed was the idea of an owl and Hooters. Then we added the component of the world-famous Hooters girls. The name was easy to say and lighthearted.
We wanted to create an oasis and not take ourselves too seriously. On our first menu, we made fun of ourselves. We were trying to create an escape. It was tough times economically. People needed an escape. That name and that whole tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness led the charge.
Johnson: We always wanted to show the wood on the walls. Several of us were construction people to begin with, so we liked the look of it and the smell of it.
With the concept nailed down, the focus turned to the menu.
Droste: We wanted almost every item be a signature item from somewhere else. Oyster rolls were famous in the Carolinas. Chicken wings were big at Tarks in Fort Lauderdale. Shrimp was big in the Tarpon Springs area. Denny was the guardian of the menu for years.
Johnson: It was a seafood shack concept at the time that morphed into what we have now. We only had 12 items on the menu. We weren't serving hamburgers.
Kiefer: No knife and fork.
Johnson: Except for the steak sandwich. That was the only protein sandwich other than the fish. The theory being you could grab anybody off the street to cook that menu. And we could.
Droste: Our partner Gil was obsessive about the quality of the food. With all this lightheartedness and Hooters girls and all of that, the surprise of it was you got delivered a first-class product. Early on, people wrote about the oyster rolls, but the wings caught on and took off.
Kiefer: The curly fries, too.
Johnson: We liked the look of them.
Droste: The originator of the chicken wing is the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. That wing is an unbreaded wing. Back then, wings were a throwaway. No one served them anywhere.
Kiefer: At happy hour in some places, they'd just give them to you.
Droste: This place in South Florida, Tarks restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, was serving them. We didn't go out searching for them. We just noticed them. I noticed pickup trucks parked next to Mercedes. Their place sat only about 30, all at a bar. They had shrimp and chicken wings. The sauce was really good. Our goal was to try to make ours even better in a breaded format.
What I liked about Tarks when we would watch them cook was that the little operator would dance around and throw the wings this way and that way and make a show of it. When we originally opened, our cooks sort of cooked that way for us.
Kiefer: Chicken wings still account for 40 percent of sales.
Business was slow early on. At times, panic set in.
Droste: I'd get calls saying, “Eddieeeeee, I thought you said this place was gonna be packed?” That was a terrifying thing because Gil had hired a terrific staff and they spent their time polishing the windows. I had to turn to desperation marketing. I rented the chicken costume and ran around in traffic.
Kiefer: He can't fit in it anymore.
Droste: About three or four months in, I remember breaking through $1,000 in one day. We thought we were in the money.
There was a pole-sitter at Jersey Jim Towers at the intersection of State Road 60 and U.S. 19. I talked him into putting a Hooters sign on his pole and we'd bring him chicken wings every lunch hour. Then he wanted steak. Then I found out what he was using the bucket for that we were putting the chicken wings in. I said, “Enough.”
Kiefer: He was up there a long time.
Droste: We were coming back one day from Tampa and the pressure was still on. “Eddieeeeee, there's empty seats in here.” So I saw a boat sunk off the shore along the Courtney Campbell in Tampa Bay. All I saw was this big white side of this thing. Something clicked, so we turned around and got some orange paint. I threw a six-pack in, too, of course. That's how we did everything.
I swam out with a paintbrush in my mouth and painted “Hooters” on the side. The next morning it showed up in one of the papers. You couldn't have bought an ad like that.
About a year later, the maritime folks wanted to charge us to haul it out because it said “Hooters” on the side. We said, “It's not our boat, we just painted it!”
Always looking for a hook, the founders had another idea: uniforms.
Kiefer: The original color was brown. The shirts were brown. Ed had a secretary at the time named Loretta. Back then we were all younger and thinner and jogging and all that stuff. Dolphin shorts were what you wore back then. Richard Simmons wears them today, but everyone did back then. Loretta wore them — nicely.
Droste: We would play softball against other businesses. Loretta would wear this to the game like a cheerleader thing. It was brown shorts and a tank, like a softball shirt. That only lasted a couple weeks. Gil brought in some alternative orange shorts and it popped more than the brown. It was off to the races.
To sell the restaurant's girl-next-door sex appeal, Droste found a swimsuit model from Plant City, Lynne Austin, to be the original Hooters girl and promote the brand.
Droste: We were out boating on Clearwater Beach.
Kiefer: With our then-wives.
Droste: I bet Neil that I would swim in and hire the girl who won the (José Cuervo) bikini contest that day to be on our billboard. Lynne won that day. I chased her around like a dirty young man. She gave me the, “Yeah, sure. Sounds fun. Have your people call my people.” She worked as an operator at GTE, and they wouldn't let her go to (compete in) the Hawaiian Tropic pageant.
She called up and asked, “Hey is that job still open?” Denny and the whole crew interviewed her. Her mother negotiated a contract for our first Hooters girl, and it took off from there. She was great. She started work on Day One. We made her clean out refrigerators to let her know who was boss. Real hard worker. Good worker.
We sent a little press release out to the media about the Hooters uniform, and Playboy fell in love with her more than the uniform. Eventually she became Miss July 1986. Lynne, being loyal, said, “Fine, but I want my interview to be done at the property.” So they flew the writer out, and he wrote a story about Hooters.
A series of additional happy accidents promoted the brand beyond the Tampa Bay area.
Droste: When the (Oakland) Raiders and the (Washington) Redskins were in the Super Bowl in Tampa, (running back) John Riggins, who was the whole Redskins team, found this place early and lived here. On the Saturday before Super Bowl, he was in our place the whole time. Meanwhile, Howard Cosell is announcing that the team can't find him and that he wasn't at practices. They all came in for a postgame party even though they lost. Somehow the media got word of that. That made it pretty nice for us. Our volume started building. When we got a three-hour wait in the parking lot at around February or March, that was when we decided we needed to start putting extensions on the building.
The brand would go on to be an icon in the American restaurant industry, inspiring numerous imitators, launching an airline, a Nascar race team and a Las Vegas casino — and becoming a national synonym for “tacky” and “unrefined.”
As the chain grew, the restaurant dealt with a backlash that its name and image sexually objectified women. At one point, the company organized a “March on Washington” to fight the federal government charges that hiring only women to be servers was unfair to men.
Clearwater-based Hooters Inc. continues to grow and will open a new store soon adjacent to Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Kiefer: You do have to pinch yourself. You look in the mirror and say, “Thirty years has gone by quickly.” It's the American dream. You start a business with a bunch of friends and it becomes an international phenomenon that keeps on growing. When you stop to think and reflect on it, it really has gone by too quickly. I'd like to hit the rewind button to be able to do it again. But it's nice to look to the future.
Droste: I think the core elements have been around since the beginning of time. I guarantee you in Roman days the gang got together at the watering hole. They had good food. They probably had a vivacious, attractive server. And they were probably engaged in the community and embraced the energy of sports.
Kiefer: As Ed used to say, “Beer and good-looking women don't ever go out of style.”