America’s most famous breastaurant chain is now under new leadership and the eatery's current owners have a very family-oriented vision for the company’s future.
That future includes expanding offerings that will likely make the brand more appealing to customers of all ages — and their parents.
Hooters of America, LLC — the franchisor and operator of more than 430 Hooters restaurants in 38 states and 27 countries — was recently sold to investment companies Nord Bay Capital and TriArtisan Capital Advisors. However, Hooters will still retain a stake in the company so it's unlikely that most of the things that make the chain so iconic are going away any time soon.
To start, the two private equity firms plan to expand Hooters' fast-casual concept, Hoots, across the country. Hoots serves the same basic menu as its full-service counterpart, but there are some very notable differences — the big one being how its servers are dressed.
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The first Hoots location opened in Cicero, Illinois (which is just outside Chicago) in 2017. The counter-service-only restaurant features a one-page menu with the chain’s most popular items, including classic Buffalo chicken wings, buffalo chicken sandwiches, fried shrimp and snow crab legs.
Targeted towards families, millennials and those who just want freshly fried food on the fly, Hoots allows customers to order at a counter and take their food to-go or eat at in-store dining tables (just like a Chipotle).
Since it's been open for two years, the restaurant has been a hit with customers in the Cicero area, says Hooters.
“We are pleased with the early results of our new fast casual concept and plan additional openings later this year,” Hooters of America CEO Terry Marks said in a statement emailed to TODAY Food.
While Hooters is known for its all-female service staff dressed in the iconic orange booty shorts and low-cut branded tanks and tops, Hoots employs both male and female waiters. They are dressed more conservatively in khaki pants and orange, black or maroon T-shirts.
“It’s a logical extension of the brand and [opening more Hoots] will provide more people with more opportunities to enjoy our world famous wings,” Marks told Nation’s Restaurant News ahead of the first Hoots opening in 2017.
While transitioning some restaurants into a fast-casual experience is a good business move given how dining habits are shifting away from sit-down experiences, Hooters promoting its more conservative brand might also make the company more appealing to socially conscious customers.
"Providing a concept that equally employs males and females in both the kitchen and front-of-house, in addition to providing staff less provocative uniforms, sets this brand to compete in an era where staff culture, gender equality and brand perception is just as important to younger restaurant goers [as] the menu," Doug Radkey, the owner and lead consultant of Key Restaurant Group, told TODAY.
But Hoots really isn't straying that far from what has kept chicken fans coming back for generations.
Rohit Manocha, a founding partner at new investing firm TriArtisan, agreed that the Hooters brand will still be able to pivot its image while capitalizing on the chain's most popular menu item.
"As a true innovator in the chicken wing space for over 35 years, Hooters is highly differentiated in a category that is more popular than ever,” he said in a statement.
Earlier this year, Hooters of America announced that it's planning to open two more Hoots locations in the Chicago area and one in Atlanta in 2019, with even more coming by the end of next year, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. Though the company would not say if it plans to renovate older Hooters locations into Hoots, the new owners are focused on expanding the fast-casual concept.
"I think this is a great opportunity for the brand to start transitioning away from the original Hooters, which will be a lot easier to execute than simply re-branding all of the current Hooters locations,” Radkey said. “This is a step in the right direction of becoming more in line with the social consciousness of the increasing majority of today’s population."