by Malcolm Jolley
I wanted to know what happens at Hooters. For years I’ve crossed the downtown from Bathurst to University on Adelaide street and passed the low slung grey board building with the orange sign. Entrenched as it is in North American culture, I had an inkling of what I might find: young women in tight tops and short orange satin shorts serving wings and beer. But surely, with over four hundred locations in 28 countries, there must be more to Hooters than the chance to leer at a waitress? I thought, there must be some gastronomic secret to this success. There must be a secret sauce, a blend of 11 herbs and spices or something that makes Hooters more than just a repository of pretty faces. And so this week I set forth to find out.
In retrospect, I should probably have embarked on my Hooters quest by myself (more on that later). But Epicurus proclaimed you should always try and eat with friends, and what was good advice in Ancient Greece is probably still good advice now: Mr. Drummond was recruited against his better judgement, and we invited Kylie, our GFR intern along, thereby declaring the visit an official editorial meeting (please take note CRA). Kylie’s chaperoning presence would also, I thought, test the Hooters claim that it was a family restaurant, and I had heard that servers were trained to address ladies at the tables first, lest anyone conclude there was a whiff of impropriety or thoughts impure associated with short shorts and push-up bras.
As it turned out, both Mr. Drummond and Kylie had been to Hooters before. Both admitted to it in quick hushed tones, and didn’t seem inclined to talk about it. Jamie muttered something about being quite drunk already and not staying very long, while Kylie maintained she had a drink once on the roof top patio for fun with some friends, and it was okay. We would dine, then, with more or less fresh palates.
For some reason my colleagues dragged a bit and I was the first to arrive.
“Welcome to Hooters!” a chorus of twenty-something women greeted me. It’s one thing to see pictures of women in the Hooters outfits, but it’s quite another to be confronted with them in the flesh. I am happily married, but I do notice these things, especially in March in Toronto. Also, I was raised by a feminist mother in the 80s and earned a liberal arts degree at the height of the politically correct 90s. Abject displays of commercialized sex appeal bring on in me not a small amount of bourgeois shame and guilt as well as plain old embarrassment.
So, while I was trying very hard not to objectify the floor staff, I had a chance to check out the decor, which I believe could be accurately described as: wood and television. Hooters in downtown Toronto is set up like a big cottage, road-house (with fake old fashioned tin signs with not very funny witticisms about Hooters girls, which I can’t remember), with wood walls, wood tables and chairs and wood everything, except at eight feet up, on every wood beam and corner is a television showing some sort of sporting event. On one side is an open kitchen with a few grumpy looking middle aged male cooks shuffling around, looking like they were counting down the minutes before their next smoke break.
It wasn’t very busy at one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. There was table comprising of a family: young mum and dad with a toddler and, I presume, a set of grandparents. My guess is that they were tourists as they were neither dressed for Bay Street or Queen Street. This could be a good sign, I thought. Maybe the wings are so good, entire families drive hundreds of miles just to order them. Beside the the family, in a row of banquets was a party of three: two guys and a woman all in suits who looked like they were having some kind of meeting. The rest of the room, which was split into low tops and high tops where seated were men, and only men. Some men by themselves, ignoring Epicurus, nursing beers and staring at the TVs. Some in groups of two, maybe three, having lunch or a pitcher. Some guys looked like they’d come off construction jobs. One table had a pair of soldiers in fatigues. And there were a few salesmen-looking guys in smart-casual wear. One older middle age guy, who came with a sales rep’s case, was enjoying the attention of Hooter’s waitress that could have been his daughter, only the attention he gave her wasn’t very fatherly. The place was pretty creepy.
“Welcome to Hooters!” Jamie arrived to the chorus, looked around, then immediately at the floor, then up again to find me like a laser and hurried over to bury his head in the brightly coloured menu, that also advertised Hooters calendars, T-Shirts and other merchandise.
“Hi, my name’s Alexandra and I’ll be your server today. Can I get you guys some drinks?” Aha! Human contact. If you look someone in the eyes, then you can’t really be objectifying them, right? Beyond the short shorts, and sparkly tan tights I now realized all the servers were wearing, and beyond Alexandra’s plunging T-shirt neckline and prominent cleavage (like I said I do notice), her manner was perfectly professional. And she took our order for a pitcher of Labbatt’s Blue and came back to the table with it quickly.
“Ring, ring” It’s Kylie on my cell phone: “Are we still meeting at Hooters?”
Yes, I answer, we’d already confirmed an hour ago. Two seconds later she appears at the door (no chorus, interestingly). No way is Kylie going to step into Hooters by herself.
We’re hungry and it’s time to eat. I order the wings, hot with carrots and celery – the menu is not cheap: the wings are about $10 for 10 and the carrots, celery and blue cheese sauce is another two or three bucks extra. Kylie goes for wings too, but can’t decide between honey garlic or Cajun. Can she have a mix of both she asks? Alexandra goes to find out from a grumpy chef. No, but she can bring some Cajun sauce on the side (another 99¢ on the bill, I discover later), so fine. Jamie is not a wing man, so is inclined towards a burger. Ever interested in the provenance of his food – especially meat – he asks Alexandra where the beef comes from. She makes a second trip to consult with the grumpy cook and returns with a two word answer: “a cow”. The grumpy cook can be seen, in the open kitchen, muttering in hushed tones to his other grumpy cook colleague, glancing menacingly towards Jamie. Later, Alexandra will return with name of a distributor we hadn’t heard of, but by then Jamie is less concerned with where the burger came from than what the grimy cook might do with it. We ask for an order of onion rings for good measure.
After a long time, such that there’s not much beer left in our pitcher, the food comes. Beside the onion rings, and beside the carrots and celery are small plastic tubs of factory-made “sauce” with aluminum foil covers. With great flourish and ceremony, as though she was removing silver bells at the dining room of the Hotel Hermitage in Monte Carlo, Alexandra removes the foil covers signalling the beginning of lunch.
Jamie is introduced to what for him is an epicurean first: curly fries. He eats his cheese burger with indifference. At least, he remarks, the bun has been well toasted. With his burger is another small plastic tub of baked beans. Weird.
I get into my “almost famous wings”. They are not good. They are, in fact, not hot in temperature or flavour. They are coated in a thick, dry, tasteless batter with a few drops of Hooters hot sauce, which is as sweet with sugar as it is hot with chili. Kylie reports her wings are better, since the effect of the honey garlic gloop has moistened the hard cardboard crust of the wings. Plus she has her extra plastic tub of Cajun sauce to further lubricate the desiccate bird bits. The onion rings are nothing special, but they’re not bad. What’s weird is the plastic tub of sauce that comes it with, which tastes like a combination of Kraft Italian and French dressings mixed with Mazola. When Alexandra comes back to ask (again) if we’d like a second pitcher of beer, we decline (again) and say it’s ok to clear our not-cleaned plastic plates.
The bill was about $65. The food seemed expensive for pub fare, although the beer was comparatively cheap (or maybe Jamie and I aren’t used to buying industrial beer). I paid quickly, and the three of us were greeted out the door with smiles and “come agains”, back to fighting the good food revolution, confident that now, we know what happens at Hooters.