“The worst thing that ever happened to me on the job – and it still sticks with me to this day – was this table of two couples that left me a single penny as a tip. When I asked them if something was wrong with the service, one of the women said to me, ‘It’s all you deserve. You’re dumb and you only got this job because of the way you look.’ I told her, ‘Keep your penny. I’m sorry you’re so insecure with yourself.’”
-Heidi Besett, former Hooters Girl
Growing up, my breasts were at best an afterthought. My mother was relatively small-chested, so I knew early big bosoms weren’t in the genetic cards. I also studied ballet seriously, and in those days, the Balanchine body ― thin limbs, long lines, no curves ― was the ideal. I counted myself lucky I could easily go braless in my leotard and grand jeté without my jugs bouncing all over the place. Besides, having big boobs wasn’t just disadvantageous for dance but also detrimental to my self-image: I was not, nor would I ever be, “that type of girl.” I was an ambitious, very smart, Harvard-bound, young woman (irony noted). Flaunting your décolletage may be fashionable in some circles, but I regarded it as a cheap parlor trick relied upon by females less intellectually endowed.
College permanently eroded that over-simplistic binary belief system. I met and became friends with organic chemistry majors who donned goggles in the lab, but low-cut tanks and go-go boots during dance team practice and social studies scholars who bested their (often male) classmates during political debates then changed into bikinis to compete in their hometown beauty pageants. For my naive 18-year-old self, it was a crushing paradox: You can be a woman whose cups runneth over with regards to boobs and brains.
But that epiphany was ephemeral, for as I grew older, wiser and flatter (thank you, gravity), I still clung to the belief that baring your breasts, particularly in professional situations, was demeaning, distasteful and decidedly unfeminist. (The fact that I had concluded there was one correct form of feminism gives you some insight into how philosophically immature and closed-minded I was despite my advanced degrees.)
The culinary professional epitome of the more-bucks-for-your-boobs environment is the “breastaurant” ― roughly defined as an eating establishment that explicitly showcases skimpily-clad female waitstaff as part of its charm. The most popular mainstream iterations of the breastaurant include Hooters, Twin Peaks and Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery. The OG breastaurant (a term, which, by the way, no one in the industry seems to be a fan of) is, of course, Hooters, which, according to chief people officer Cheryl Kish, was founded in 1983 in Clearwater, Florida, by six businessmen as a “haven for craveable food, cold beer and all the sports you could possibly watch on wall-to-wall big screen televisions.”
Oh, and one more thing: Facilitating this eating and drinking experience would be waitresses in sexy apparel. Not that the customers were there to watch anything but sports, mind you. Copy-cat models soon followed with the opening of the Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill (2001) and Twin Peaks (2005). Breastaurant sales continue to grow, and the major chains have seen rapid expansion domestically and abroad, with many chains opening locations across Europe, even Africa and the Middle East.
Now in my early 40s, I have made peace with the fact that being a knockout with huge knockers does not preclude you from being a genius; if Einstein worked as a clerk in a patent office, why couldn’t his female analogue pour draft beers at a breastaurant? And in the era of renewed attention to “my body, my choice,” did I, a privileged cis, hetero woman of no color have the right to tell any self-identifying female how and when she was allowed to leverage her physical assets in a professional setting? For hundreds of years, literally everyone and their father have policed women’s bodies, paying special cruel and unusual attention to those of trans, nonbinary and POC females. If breastaurant customers bellow, “show us your tits,” so to speak, to servers, who am I to say ‘no’ for them?
Still, I faltered at embracing, let alone patronizing, these establishments. I can eat delicious wings without objectifying the female body. And clearly breastaurants attract bad behavior both by clients and in the corporate ranks. The industry’s obvious preference for hiring voluptuous servers has unsurprisingly made it the target of numerous discrimination cases, such as one filed in 2020 by 34 Twin Peaks employees who alleged that the chain “preys on vulnerable young women” and is “run very much like a commercial sex ring.” Not to mention other tacky behavior by breastaurant management: See the case of the Hooters manager who promised the winner of a sales contest a new (Toyota) car, then gifted her with … a toy Yoda. The judge wasn’t laughing, either.
But if these places were dens of ubiquitous sexual harassment/assault (and served bad food), then what compelled thousands of women not only to work at breastaurants, but, and more importantly, remain loyal employees, and/or ascend through the companies respective corporate ranks?
At Hooters, for example, 40% of the operations leadership is female, most of whom are former Hooters Girls, including Kish, the aforementioned chief people officer. And when they did hang up their V-necks and bootie shorts, why did these breastaurant servers join alumnae groups with gusto to reminisce about the good ol’ days, posting randomly and with abandon? Eireann Fogarty Doherty posted, “On this day, September 8, 1995 I joined a family of the best girls around!!” Jennifer Beans shared, “I miss my Tilted Kilt days!!! Miss the Kilt family more!!!!” And Breanna Alexis offered this unprovoked pledge of fidelity: “In the 5 years I’ve been in the Orange Shorts, I have competed in three local pageants, one international pageant, shot for three calendars and made it in two, opened a new store in Fort Worth, and have met so many great people and made many more memories. So grateful for this company and all that they do. Bleeding orange, always.”
To explore this question, I visited several breastaurants across the Midwest, South and East Coast to speak with on-the-ground servers. Their perspectives tell a more complicated story with multiple glaring inconvenient truths, including but not limited to: Many breastaurants do more to protect their female employees than other comparable restaurant chains: Being a Hooters Girls may pave your way to becoming the first deputy of cyber security for the Commonwealth of Virginia, most male breastaurant patrons are generally respectful (and in some cases, exceptionally generous) customers, and raking in the Benjamins via your body, specifically your breasts, can be simultaneously emotionally fraught and exhilarating all at the same time.
First, let’s start with those notorious breastaurant uniforms, which are designed to be, ahem, titillating. What’s the emotional/economic-cost/benefit of using one’s mammary glands for moolah? Answering that question fully is beyond the scope of this article, but to their credit, virtually all current and former breastaurant servers I talked to didn’t pussy-foot around the obvious and embraced the signature look.
“You are putting on a show. You are selling yourself as well ― it’s part of the experience,” noted Heidi Besett, who worked as a Hooters girl on Staten Island for several years during the late 1990s.
“But to be honest, when I was 18, I wore less clothes on the street,” Shirley Torro, another Hooters girl who (wo)manned tables in midtown Manhattan, admitted. “I was young. It was fun if you had a nice body, to dress up and look cute.”
But servers are cognizant that their apparel can (initially) be a turnoff for some patrons: “At Hooters, we were trained so that when a male-female couple came in, the server should talk to the woman first because she might feel uncomfortable or out of place. A Hooters Girl’s job is to make everyone feel comfortable and that starts with the female customer,” said Eireann Fogarty Doherty, who worked at Hooters for almost a decade, beginning as a waitress in 1995.
And while playing the part of the breastaurant server can be very lucrative (“We would take home $300-500 each night,” Besett recalled fondly), what about the pitfalls and perils of showcasing your bubbies? In terms of unsavory close encounters with handsy customers, the majority of breastaurant servers with whom I spoke with were adamant they always felt safe and comfortable on the job, and many waitresses described their working environment as a “family atmosphere.” Bessett, now artistic director of her own dance school and a mother of two, avers, “To be honest, I got harassed more when I worked at Perkins.” (Perkins Restaurant & Bakery’s current tagline, by the way, is “Kindness served daily.”)
Speaking of kindness and family, multiple breastaurant servers claimed to have formed life-long bonds with their comrades-in-boobs, such as Alexis Rosenthal, who worked at a Boca Raton, Florida, Tilted Kilt from 2018 to 2020.
“I made lifelong friends; we lifted each other up and boosted each other’s confidence,” she said. Servers also detailed making lasting (non-amorous) relationships with their customers. “One of my regulars heard my grandma was sick in Puerto Rico,” Torro recalled. “And he paid for a plane ticket so I could visit her and then bought her a hospital bed so she could recuperate in my mother’s house! I mean, talk about family.”
So much for what I assumed was the ubiquitous ick factor when it came to the average breastaurant clientele … who, it also turns out, are often groups of women (occasionally with kids in tow), some of whom just happen to love wings and beer and some of whom just happen to love other women.
Whether or not breastaurants really function as a safe space for LBGTQ customers and employees remains somewhat of mystery. I reached out to leadership at multiple chains and received mostly muddled PC-corporate talk insisting all are welcome at their restaurants. However, when I asked Kish about Hooters’ policy when it came to hiring trans female servers, she answered without hesitation: “If you come in to interview for a job and you say you are a woman, we don’t ask questions or challenge your assertion, no matter what you look like. We accept it if you identify as a woman.”
As I pondered these aforementioned insider perspectives on that fraught feminist institution that is the breastaurant while sitting barside at a Twin Peaks in Houston, Texas, a server leaned over to take my drink order. It’s easy to mock the breastaurant and the women who staff them, but dismissing either as simply x or y (where both too often equal sexist and sleazy, respectively) is intellectually lazy and does a profound disservice to the complicated narratives of all parties involved.
Cultural and culinary critics be damned. As with all meals, whether you declare your dinner and a booby a triumph or a tragedy is ultimately a matter of taste.