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September 12, 2012

As sales drop, Hooters tries to catch women's eyes, too

ATLANTA — Hooters, the chicken-wing chain known for waitresses in tight orange shorts, wants to make it easier for guys to drop by. That means paying a little more attention to their wives and girlfriends.

Walk into almost any Hooters and it's easy to see why some women might be creeped out. Wall-to-wall dark wood. Posters of bikinied Hooters girls. Titillated guys downing pitchers of beer and making cracks like: "They have great wings."

When Chief Executive Officer Terry Marks was hired last year to make over the chain, he found women also were steering clear because the menu was stale, the restaurants were dated and the food was overpriced. Marks wants to remove the Hooters stigma so men aren't embarrassed to put the chain on an expense account and women aren't as quick to veto a meal there.

"Face it, females are 51 percent of the population," said John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group in San Diego. "They've enjoyed more employment growth and you can't ignore them."

Make no mistake. Hooters is still mostly for guys, who make up two-thirds of the chain's customers. Marks insists Hooters will be every bit as sexy as always and that the iconic uniforms are there to stay. Instead, he's freshening up the menu, creating a night scene and bringing more light into the restaurants to make it clear there is nothing to be ashamed of.

"There's an opportunity to broaden the net without putting wool sweaters on the Hooters girls," Marks said in his office in Atlanta. "Everything we do should appeal more to women, but nothing we will do will turn men off."

— — —

There's reason to look for a happy balance. After Hooters' U.S. revenue peaked in 2007 at $960 million, the recession took a toll, pushing down sales every year since, according to Technomic. Revenue dropped 3.4 percent to $858 million last year, while U.S. full-service restaurant revenue increased 1.8 percent, data from the Chicago-based researcher show.

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