Hooters history: 40 years ago in Clearwater, the breastaurant was born

CLEARWATER — At the world’s first breastaurant last Saturday, kids played with Hooters Frisbees next to frat bros arguing about college football. One patron shuffled to the bathroom wearing a “Hooters Dubai” T-shirt. Others browsed merchandise, from hot sauce to Hooters bibs.

If you peel your eyes from two dozen flat-screens or the waitresses in tangerine hot pants, you can’t miss the memorabilia lining the walls. Framed pictures of Hooters Girls stretch over to the museum by the front door. Love it or hate it, this restaurant at 2800 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. is where it all began.

Now Hooters is synonymous with hot wings, beer and the babes who serve both. But four decades ago, the six men behind the restaurant didn’t expect the concept to last. They incorporated on April 1, 1983, knowing they might be pulling an April Fools’ Day joke on themselves.

On the 40th anniversary of the “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” chain’s opening on Oct. 4, 1983, let’s take a look back.

Clearwater inspires a new kind of restaurant

HMC Hospitality Group (formerly Hooters Management Corp.), still runs over 20 Hooters in Tampa Bay and the Chicago metro area, including its original Hooters in Clearwater. Hooters of America LLC operates over 420 Hooters in 42 states and 29 countries.

Before that, there were the Hooters Six: Liquor salesperson Gil DiGiannantonio, painting contractor Lynn “L.D.” Stewart and partner Ken Wimmer, retired service station owner “Uncle Billy” Ranieri, brick mason Dennis Johnson and real estate exec Ed Droste.

There was not much of a restaurant background among them.

“I’d been a head waiter at a Tri Delta sorority house for four years,” Droste said. “So I had experience with a lot of young, wild college girls.”

Their goal was to open “a place we couldn’t get kicked out of,” Droste said.

The mostly Midwestern founders longed for the neighborhood bars they missed back home. They wanted a menu of their favorite meals, from a St. Petersburg restaurant’s steak sandwich to Buffalo chicken wings and Myrtle Beach oyster roasts. Plus, the flirty, beach town vibe they loved about Clearwater. The name came from a popular Steve Martin comedy sketch. To match the innuendo, Stewart’s wife, Juanita, sketched out an owl logo.

They found a building roughly 15 minutes from Clearwater Beach. Never mind that a string of other businesses, ranging from a pizza joint to a biker bar, had already flopped in that same spot.

“We took a picket fence out in front and put out tombstones with the names of all the other businesses that failed,” Droste said. “And then when an imitator opened up on 19, we put their name out front, too.”

Droste put on a rented chicken costume and ran around in traffic to attract customers. (A replica of the outfit now stands in the Hooters museum.) When a boat sank near the causeway, he swam to it and painted, “HOOTERS” on the side.

But his most famous idea — the one you know even if you’ve never stepped foot inside — was what catapulted the restaurant to stardom.

The first Hooters Girl

Over 300,000 Hooters Girls, past and present, have donned skimpy tank tops and nylons in the last four decades. It started with Plant City native Lynne Austin.

The summer before Hooters opened, Droste discovered Austin at a Jose Cuervo bikini contest on Clearwater Beach.

Then 22, Austin had a degree from Hillsborough Community College and a job working at a telephone company in Tampa. At the suggestion of her mom, she’d recently started competing in — and winning — local bikini contests.

“(Droste) convinced me that (Hooters) was going to be world famous,” Austin said. “You know, I was going to be world famous. We were going to make a lot of money.”

Austin quit the phone company and agreed to model for the first billboard but also requested a job. She started at $5 an hour, cleaning used fridges and waiting tables. Her uniform was a cream top and brown Dolfin athletic shorts — the same kind some of the founders wore while running or playing softball.

The opening weeks were a bust. Waitresses started walking out. Management swapped brown shorts for orange ones. Droste was sure Hooters was doomed.

Super Bowl 1984, featuring the Los Angeles Raiders and the Washington Redskins at Tampa Stadium, saved the restaurant. John Riggins, Washington’s star fullback, stopped by for a bite. Word of mouth spread after he returned with limos full of teammates. Wait times soared as high as three hours.

During the rare slow moments, the Hooters Girls would hula hoop and dance. Austin and her friends often arrived straight from the beach, smelling of sunscreen.

“Try to pull on pantyhose with sand all over you,” Austin said. “It was everything you would think of in, like, a 1980s movie with a Jimmy Buffett soundtrack.”

By the end of 1984, the Hooters Six sold the rights to Hugh Connerty, who expanded the concept under the name Neighborhood Restaurants (later Hooters of America).

Austin’s fame exploded, too. She starred in the first Hooters calendar, the 1986 edition. Then Droste mailed her photo to Playboy. She was the July 1986 Playmate of the Month, with numerous videos to follow.

“I did travel the world with Playboy,” Austin said. “When I was in town, I would pick up a few shifts.”

A brawl of the breastaurants

The term “breastaurant” emerged in the early 1990s, a few years after Hooters imitators started to pop up around Tampa Bay.

“It wasn’t one we used. We kept it lighthearted,” said Droste, still not a fan of the word. “Our first menu was more about making fun of ourselves.”

There was competitor Melons, whose bombshell waitresses served meals garnished with the titular fruit. Mugs ‘N Jugs, whose hiring ads sought “foxy servers with smiling faces.” And Knockers, whose logo was a pair of breasts bursting from a bikini.

All featured barely there uniforms and bar food menus like Hooters. One Pasco eatery, Penelope’s, advertised its sexy vibe with a billboard proclaiming, “We don’t give a hoot!”

“Actually, they’re promoting our business. We’re not intimidated,” Droste told the St. Petersburg Times in a 1989 article titled “Food wars fought with wings and legs.”

By 1990, the Times reported, “The Tampa Bay Area could almost be named Hooterville.”

None of the imitations had the same national exposure. Austin introduced films during a late-night television program called “Hooters Nite Owl Theater.” Hooters of America sponsored NASCAR driver Alan Kulwicki. After he and several Hooters execs died in a plane crash, the company created a racing series in their honor.

The biggest threat to Hooters was not other breastaurants but the government.

After a four-year investigation in the mid-1990s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission demanded that Hooters hire men as servers, saying that the chain’s policy of only employing Hooters Girls was a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Men are hired for management and kitchen roles). More than 500 guys had applied to be servers, and the commission wanted Hooters to pay $22 million in restitution.

“We said, look, we know we got to take this to the people,” said Neil Kiefer, President and CEO of HMC Hospitality Group.

Hooters spent nearly $1 million on a campaign to sway public opinion, printing full-page ads in national outlets starring a St. Pete manager-turned-“Hooters Man” in a blonde wig.

Amid a government shutdown in late 1995, reporters with little else to cover flocked to a Hooters news conference in Washington, D.C. A block from the White House, 100 or so Hooters Girls picketed and gave out free wings. The commission caved to the negative publicity.

“Hooters Girls, with their charms and all-American sex appeal, are what our customers come for,” Mike McNeil, vice president of marketing, said in a Times article. “And they’re the reason we’re successful. Our concept is not about the serving of food.”

A “delightfully tacky” legacy

The national breastaurant scene got raunchier through the early 2000s, thanks to spots like Twin Peaks and the Tilted Kilt. Their waitresses wore less clothing than Hooters Girls: microscopic shorts or miniskirts with bare midriffs and push-up bras.

The competition did not deter Hooters from taking risks.

Hooters Girls became in-flight entertainment for the short-lived airline Hooters Air from 2003 to 2006. A Hooters Casino Hotel hosted gamblers near the Las Vegas Strip for over a decade. In 2017, fast-casual concept Hoots featured a to-go menu, scrapping the Hooters Girls completely. All the Tampa Bay Hoots closed after the pandemic, Kiefer said, due to rising real estate costs.

Hooters Girls brought calendars to troops in the Middle East, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and raised millions of dollars for causes like breast cancer research.

“We got America through 9/11,” said Droste. “All of the first responders, they flocked to our stores to watch with jaws dropped.”

Austin, who resides in Palm Harbor, channeled her legendary status into a modeling and radio career. She praised the chain’s job perks, such as volunteer opportunities and tuition reimbursement. Though it’s been years since she’s waited tables, she still is involved, doing radio spots and judging the Miss Hooters International Pageant.

She knows part of the chain’s legacy includes criticism. Hooters has been accused of objectifying its employees since the beginning. In 2021, thong-cut uniforms from Hooters of America made a splash on TikTok. The backlash was so strong that the company reversed its stance: The new version of the shorts became optional, rather than mandatory.

“There’s going to be some women that don’t have the experience as the other women, for whatever reason … because we’re franchised,” Austin said. “But these women choose to do this because it’s a great opportunity.”

At work, Austin always felt like she was in on the joke.

“I never felt harassed, and if I went to my manager and said, ‘This guy is being a complete jerk,’ that guy would be gone,” she said. “I think you can get catcalled or harassed when you’re ordering a burger at Wendy’s. It’s not exclusive to Hooters.”

Above all, the last 40 years have given her a community.

“There are women that have watched me give birth — and that is not a lie – that were my sisters in orange shorts.”

If you go: Hooters 40th anniversary festivities

Wednesday: Hooters 40th Anniversary Party and 2024 Hooters Calendar launch take place at the Original Hooters (2800 Gulf-To-Bay Blvd. in Clearwater). Enjoy 83-cent wings (dine-in only), listen to throwback songs and meet Hooters Girls in ‘80s attire. Calendar signings begin at 5:30 p.m.

Thursday: Calendar signings will take place at Hooters of Odessa (16070 State Road 54, Odessa) from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Hooters of North Tampa (13606 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa) from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Friday: Calendar signings will take place at Hooters of Brandon (10023 E. Adamo Drive, Tampa) 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Saturday: Hooters 40th Anniversary Breast Cancer Research Benefit Concert features rock band Chicago at The Sound at Coachman Park (255 Drew St., Clearwater). Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Hooters will present a check to Moffitt Cancer Center and Morton Plant Mease Hospitals at 7:30 p.m. Moffitt’s house band, The ReMissions, plays at 7 and Chicago performs at 8. Tickets range from $9 to $40.