Hooters restaurant planned for downtown Portland
City officials criticize chain’s image, impact
By Chris Busby
Hooters is coming to town. The Atlanta-based international restaurant franchise famous – some would say infamous – for its image of ample-breasted waitresses in tight shirts and short shorts will set up shop in the Free Street space currently occupied by The Stadium.
Stadium owner Michael Harris said Hooters will occupy the portion of his 31,000-square-foot building that fronts Free Street and Brown Street, and The Stadium will move into the vacant portion of the building facing Congress Street. Harris will own both the franchise and The Stadium. He also owns The Oasis, a Wharf Street bar and dance club.
News of Hooters’ arrival in downtown Portland has already stirred the ire of some city officials, for a variety of reasons.
“I don’t care for that chain,” said City Councilor Donna Carr. “I don’t like the image of women it presents…. They don’t respect women.” Carr said she might be more sympathetic to the business if it hired men as well as women as wait staff and required both sexes to wear similar uniforms – but that’s not about to happen anytime soon.
Harris said it is Hooters’ corporate policy to only hire women to work as wait staff. Men can work at Hooters as managers or kitchen staff, he said.
Hooters is “infamous for its portrayal of women and its denigration of women as employees,” said City Councilor Karen Geraghty. But Geraghty is equally disturbed by the prospect of a chain restaurant opening in the heart of downtown.
“I hope this is a wake-up call to the city to really look at the issue, the role of chain restaurants and chain stores in the downtown area,” said Geraghty. She added that “it’s ironic” Hooters is coming to town so soon after a new initiative was launched to promote locally owned, independent business in town.
That initiative, called the Portland Buy Local campaign, is a non-profit effort launched in July to promote the benefits of homegrown businesses. The campaign has not opposed specific chain or franchise businesses. [Disclosure: This reporter is an active member of the group organizing and promoting the Portland Buy Local campaign.]
National franchise stores already have a significant, and growing, presence in downtown Portland. A Quizno’s sub shop opened earlier this summer in Monument Square. Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway and D’Angelo’s sub shops are currently operating on Congress Street.
City Councilor Will Gorham said he’s concerned about the prospect of another alcohol-serving establishment on Congress Street. Gorham represents the East End, the portion of downtown that includes The Stadium, and the Old Port. He also chairs a city task force set up to find ways to address problems posed by drunken crowds in the Old Port.
“I don’t want to recreate another Wharf Street along Congress Street,” said Gorham. As for Hooters, Gorham said, “There are good chain restaurants,” and noted he once ate at a Hooters in Orlando, Florida.
Jan Beitzer, director of Portland’s Downtown District (a quasi-municipal organization that promotes downtown businesses) said that “although having a franchise choose downtown Portland is a tribute to its economic vitality, we are disappointed that a franchise of this image is coming into the Arts District.
“Their image, obviously, is to sell sex as a reason to go to a restaurant,” Beitzer added. “It’s an image we would have preferred to avoid.” [Portland’s Downtown District has also been active in the Portland Buy Local campaign.]
Harris said he knew Hooters would cause some controversy, but believes the economic benefits it will bring will be positive for Portland.
Construction will begin within the next 30 days, and the restaurant could be open by the end of the year, Harris said. He said it will create 70 to 80 new jobs and “bring thousands of people” to a downtown area that needs more business and foot traffic.
Harris also defended the chain’s image and policies. “You can go to any sports bar and the girls wear less” than Hooters’ waitresses, he said. “It’s not a seedy type of thing. [Hooters] brings in a high-end clientele.” That clientele is “definitely male-oriented,” he acknowledged, but women also patronize Hooters.
“I’m sure there will be a handful of people who will be hesitant in
the beginning,” Harris wrote in an e-mail announcing the franchise deal, “but I know once they see that this is nothing more than a restaurant, there is nothing rude or illegal going on,” they will be assuaged. He further noted that Hooters does not serve hard liquor, just beer and wine.
According to its Web site, Hooters has over 435 locations in 46 states and 20 countries. The site states that 30 percent of its management and corporate-office employees are women. Several lawsuits alleging gender discrimination have been filed against the company, according to press reports, but the suits were either settled out of court or dropped by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.