As business models go, it’s all pretty straightforward: beer, fried food, and pretty girls who smile a lot and show some skin. And it’s successful, too. The ‘Hooters’ chain has made a lot of money that way, but so have a number of other chains. For evidence, see this story by Jason Daley, for Entrepreneur: ‘Breastaurants’ Ring Up Big Profits.
Franchises inspired by the Hooters model–such as Celtic-themed sports bar chain Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery and faux mountain sports lodge chain Twin Peaks–have expanded rapidly over the last half decade, while corporate-owned chains like Brick House Tavern + Tap and Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke are picking up steam regionally. In fact, for the next couple of years, this segment (often referred to as “breastaurants”) is poised to be one of the fastest-growing restaurant categories….
OK, so it works. But it is also a business model that draws its share of criticism. A man doesn’t have to be a total prude to find himself thinking, “hmm…would I want my daughter / girlfriend / sister working there?” And if not, “why am I so comfortable with other people’s daughters / girlfriends / sisters working there?”
And being vaguely “uncomfortable” with such restaurants (if that’s your reaction) is a perfectly reasonable moral position. This is just the kind of case to use to illustrate the point that ethics doesn’t have to be done in terms of binary, go-or-no-go, ethical-or-unethical evaluation. The ethics of a business model that uses sex (or at least the idea of sex) to sell food is pretty grey. It’s easy to sketch a very rough kind of ethical justification of that business model, cast in terms of a commercial transaction between consenting adults, etc. It’s also easy to prejudge the situations, intentions, and attitudes of the women who work at a place like Hooters, and to cry out “exploitation” without truly understanding, say, the point of view of an actual Hooters Girl. But both of those options are too quick, and neither does much to increase our understanding. But it’s also worth seeing that refusal to opt for either extreme is not the same as shrugging your shoulders — it can be a principled point of view.
Besides, restaurants like Hooters or Tilted Kilt are part of a much larger spectrum, along which various restaurants and chains locate themselves. You certainly don’t have to go to a “mancave” restaurant of that sort in order to see either short shorts or low-cut tops on the waitresses and bartenders. That’s not justification for any particular business practice, but it is reason to question singling out particular chains for especially harsh criticism. And it’s also worth noting that in many cases, outside of these chains, it’s individual waitresses who make their own wardrobe decisions. Again, that fact doesn’t obviate the option of (or indeed the need for) social critique; it just means that we can’t reasonably roll our eyes at the very notion of a place like Hooters, and then merrily skip down to the neighbourhood bar where the waitresses wear short skirts and tube tops all summer.
Finally, it’s tempting to think there’s a sort of arms race going on here: that restaurants in this category (and some individual waitresses) will compete by having skimpier and skimpier outfits. But that seems unlikely. For one thing, the picture painted in the Entrepreneur piece is much more complicated than the ‘beer-and-boobs’ stereotype. Cleavage and short skirts may get men (in particular) through the door, but any restaurant that wants return business is going to have to do more than that. After all, if it were just about the boobs, then the “businessman’s lunch” offered by many strip clubs would be a lot more popular.