(Source: www.channelnewsasia.com)

SINGAPORE: US restaurant chain Hooters is aiming for a bigger share of the food and beverage market in Asia and to do so, it is willing to adapt to the tastes and demands of the region.

Led by Bangkok-based franchisee Destination Group, the ambitious expansion plan will see more than 30 new Hooters restaurants across Asia over the next few years. This year, it has unveiled two outlets in Singapore and one in Jakarta. This adds to the four restaurants in Thailand and one in Hong Kong, which opened in 2015.

According to Mr Neil Bailey, the president of Hooters Asia, the company will remain on an “aggressive” expansion path, given the encouraging results thus far. The new restaurants in Singapore, both opened in the first quarter of 2017, have seen good takings, with its 100-seater outlet at Marina Bay exceeding expectations.

Hooters – known for its attractive female staff who wear the uniform of tight white tank tops and skimpy orange shorts while serving chicken wings and drinks – made its foray into Asia in 1996 when another franchisee set up the first Hooters restaurant in Singapore. The outlet, which remains in Clarke Quay, underwent a revamp last year to celebrate its 20th anniversary and is the only outlet in Singapore that does not come under Destination Group.

The outlet at Fusionopolis opened for business in March. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

With skimpily clad waitresses being a core part of the restaurant chain’s image, the expansion of Hooters in largely traditional Asia faces some hurdles. To garner a bigger slice of the burgeoning Asian market, Mr Bailey told Channel NewsAsia that the American diner is willing to make adjustments.

“We are still Hooters but we recognise that if we want to be a part of the community, we have to adapt to be embraced. So, as opposed to the attitude of ‘We are here and get used to it’, we say ‘We’d like to be here. Is this acceptable?’”

At its newly unveiled outlet in Jakarta, for instance, there has been minor modifications. While it largely mimics most of the chain’s other 420 restaurants in the US and worldwide, Mr Bailey describes it as having a “family restaurant experience”.

Apart from a halal menu that offers kids’ meals and local flavours such as sambal sauce, the outlet is fitted with high chairs, booster seats and a tinted glass window that blocks the view of the bar from the main street. Uniforms of its waitresses, otherwise known as Hooters Girls, will have higher necklines, longer skirts with shorts underneath and thicker stockings.

“We want to be culturally respectful,” said Mr Bailey, adding that the management team reached out to local officials and community leaders before the outlet in Kemang opened for business.

“We sat down with members of the local governing boards and advisors of a mosque nearby. We showed them our website and said: ‘This is who we are. We know this is not acceptable so what would be acceptable?’ They gave us some suggestions and we asked for some time to work on them.”

Mr Neil Bailey, president of Hooters Asia, is leading the American restaurant chain’s ambitious expansion plan across Asia. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

For now, the new uniforms remain in the works and will be rolled out in due course.

“We are still talking and engaging with the local community. In fact, when we opened the outlet, the senior community leaders came and we had dinner together,” added Mr Bailey, who emphasised that adapting to distinct conditions of each market is a critical ingredient for success.

“Hooters of America was worried (that modifications would dilute the brand) but we didn’t have to take long to convince them. You can’t just come in with the mindset of ‘I’m here now so accept it’. It’s about adapting to your environment and knowing that you are the guest. When you recognise that, they will welcome you like any new neighbour.”

With the successful opening in Indonesia, Hooters is confident of replicating this in neighbouring market Malaysia, where it has received interest from prospective landlords.

“Since we opened in Jakarta, landlords in Kuala Lumpur have reached out to us now that we have a good business model that we can present in a respectful way,” said Mr Bailey. “We think we can be ready by early next year.”

The restaurant in Kemang, Jakarta, opened for business on Mar 24. (Photo: Hooters Asia)

Apart from Kuala Lumpur, the company has also set its sights on Taipei, Manila, Koh Samui and Phnom Penh. Among those, Mr Bailey thinks Cambodia will be the most challenging market. 

“Cambodia has a very reserved culture, even compared with Indonesia, and it is still a developing economy,” he said. “Our mid-to-high-level pricing is not a barrier in developed cities but in an emerging market, we do notice that it’s not as easy to fill the restaurant. But if we want to be a brand throughout Asia, we cannot cherry pick.”

IS HOOTERS’ RECIPE OF SEX APPEAL OUTDATED?

Hooters’ plan to increase its presence in this part of the world comes as the American diner faces souring profits and market share back home amid up-and-coming competitors such as Twin Peaks.

Since opening its first outlet in Florida in 1983, the restaurant chain has long been criticised for building its brand based on sex appeal.

When asked whether he thinks that Hooters’ concept is outdated and sexist, Mr Bailey said: “Good food and good quality service – these are at the heart of Hooters. I would like to think of us as a five-star hotel where you know what you are getting – big screens showing sports, ice-cold beer and wings.”

“The Hooters Girl is iconic. She is a professional who may be earning extra money for college or working hard to (become) a general manager. Waitresses, pretty or sexy, are professional service staff who give you a great experience.”

But one might ask what does good service have to do with skimpy uniforms?

To that, Mr Bailey replied: “The uniform has (been) altered over the last 30 years of the brand … and if you think this is dressing sexy, you might want to walk down Orchard Road on a Saturday. I think this is attractive, feminine and I don’t think this is overly sexualised in my opinion.”

In fact, all Hooters Girls are not allowed to don accessories, including earrings, bracelets and necklaces, to avoid “overly sexualising her image”. The chief of Hooters Asia also revealed that the main criteria for a Hooters Girl is a “vivacious, outgoing character” and the ability to dance. Apart from waitressing, female staff at Hooters also perform choreographed dances.

According to Mr Bailey, Hooters Girls enjoy “premium pay”, such as S$20 per hour for part-timers and free gym memberships.

Ms Kelwen Liew, 21, says she likes the “fun, lively working environment” at Hooters. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

21-year-old Kelwen Liew, who is working part time at Hooters, said she had reservations initially but the “fun, lively working environment” has since made her change her mind.

“I’ve heard people talking about how (we) are dressed skimpily but I don’t think so. We have stockings which provide some coverage and even the top is nothing too revealing for me,” the polytechnic graduate said. “To people who have a bad impression of Hooters, I would say it’s not what you think. The work environment is lively and fun, and people I’ve encountered so far treat us with a lot of respect.”

Follow See Kit on Twitter @SeeKitCNA 

More Info: www.channelnewsasia.com

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