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Hooters franchisee to open fast-casual spinoff

Hoots will serve Hooters’ food, but without its iconic waitresses

Would customers go to Hooters without the chain’s famous waitresses?

“We’ll find out soon,” Neil Keifer, CEO of Hooters franchisee Hooters Management Corp., or HMC, which is set to open a fast-casual version of the casual-dining chain in Cicero, Ill., in mid-February.

Hoots, A Hooters Joint, and will serve some of Hooters’ most popular items, including chicken wings, fries and crab legs. Customers will order at a counter, get their food and eat in or take out. The 2,800-square-foot location will have 75 seats and employ 30 people.

Unlike a fully counter-service concept, it will also have a bar area with 12 full-service seats. 

“It’s sort of a flex model,” Keifer said. “But it’ll be predominantly fast casual. We’re anxious to see how that works.”

Keifer was part of the Original Hooters group that opened Hooters in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983. Hooters of America acquired the brand and remains the franchisor and brand operator. Keifer’s company operates 25 locations in three markets, including Florida, Chicago and New York City. 

Keifer said the chain is working with the franchisor on the concept, which could be expanded if the first location succeeds. 

“We are very supportive of this initiative,” Hooters of America CEO Terry Marks said in a statement. “It’s a logical extension of the brand and will provide more people with more opportunities to enjoy our world famous wings. We have a lot to learn, but we are excited about the potential.” 

Hooters is among several casual-dining chains developing fast-casual concepts, with varying degrees of success.

Pizza Inn developed the fast-casual pizza concept Pie Five, which has grown to be among the biggest in its segment. Family-dining operator Cracker Barrel is incubating its Holler & Dash concept. And Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. has invested in a pair of fast-casual concepts, PizzaRev and R Taco.

It’s easy to see why: Casual-dining traffic has fallen in 21 of the past 22 months, and has declined for the most months in at least the last five years, according to MillerPulse. So casual-dining chains have worked to hedge their bets on the segment by taking a page from fast-casual concepts, which have been growing more rapidly in recent years. 

But Hooters is different. The brand was a pioneer in the so-called “breastaurant” segment — bar-and-grill concepts that employ attentive, scantily clad waitresses. That attentive service is vital to the sector, at least theoretically.

Still, Keifer remains proud of the food, and said it can be the centerpiece of a concept that is more flexible — especially given the struggles casual dining has experienced in recent years.

Indeed, his own company’s thriving take-out business gives him plenty of evidence that a waitress-free Hooters could work.

To-go orders represent 14 percent of sales at HMC. And three of the company’s 12 Chicago restaurants do 25 percent or more take-out business. 

Why has takeout worked so well at those locations? 

“I don’t know,” Keifer admitted. “It’s piqued our interest for years. So we thought we’d give it a try.”

And most Hooters customers do order food. 

“About 72 to 73 percent of our sales are food,” Keifer said. “We’ve only had hard liquor on the menu for 11 years. For the first 20 years it was just beer and wine.”

“We’re pretty proud of our food,” he added. 

Keifer said planning for Hoots has been in the works for about three years. The idea would give his company a more flexible model that can translate to more locations than a traditional Hooters, he said. That includes densely populated areas where quicker service and more to-go orders are in higher demand. 

The model is also cheaper.

“This will help us get into neighborhoods where we can’t find a site big enough,” Keifer said. “When you look at the price of real estate, this allows us to be a little more flexible.”

And the owners of HMC are willing to take a risk.

“Being privately owned, and not the franchisor but a perpetual licensee, we are a little more nimble, and we’re still entrepreneurial,” Keifer said. “This is a new venture. We’re cautiously optimistic. We’ll give it the old college try, so to speak.”

Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

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