Before each shift at Twin Peaks, a Hooters-like restaurant with 57 locations across the U.S., managers line up waitresses and grade them on their looks. The women get points for hair, makeup, slenderness, and the cleanliness of their uniforms: fur-lined boots, khaki hot pants, and skimpy plaid tops that accentuate their cleavage. Their job, between serving sports-bar fare with names such as “well-built sandwiches” and “smokin’ hot dishes,” is to beguile the mostly male customers, flirting to get them to empty their wallets. They may also have to fend off patrons who’ve washed down too many of the house beers, including the Dirty Blonde or the Knotty Brunette.
Twin Peaks is the most successful example of a new generation of restaurants, what people in the industry euphemistically refer to as “the attentive service sector” or, as they’re more casually known, “breastaurants.” Twin Peaks Chief Executive Officer Randy DeWitt doesn’t care much for the word, not that he’s complaining. Last year, Twin Peaks was the fastest-growing chain in the U.S., with $165 million in sales.
On a recent Friday at lunchtime, men fill almost every table at the Twin Peaks in Addison, Texas. Most of them are more preoccupied with their servers than the sports programming on the numerous flatscreen TVs. I’m dining here today with DeWitt, a tall, 56-year-old who laments his paunch. Our waitress is Courtney Freeman, a 20-year-old with platinum blond hair parted on the side. “Hell-ooo, how are you?” she greets us. “My name is Courtney. I’m your Twin Peaks girl today.”
We order two Dirty Blondes. Freeman turns to leave.
“Wait, wait. Ask the question,” DeWitt says. He explains to the waitress that I’ve never been to a Twin Peaks before.
Freeman seems confused. “OK. Why have you never been to Twin Peaks before?” she asks.
“No, not that question,” DeWitt interrupts. “So he’s ordering a beer. …”
“Oh!” Freeman says. “Do you want the man size or the girl size?”
I assure her the smaller size is fine, but she isn’t easily dissuaded. “Are you sure?” she asks, leaning in closer. “It’s a little, 10-ounce baby beer.”
DeWitt conceived of Twin Peaks in 2005 as a challenger to Hooters, the original breastaurant, which was founded in 1983 by six buddies in Clearwater, Fla. Today there are 360 Hooters in the U.S., generating $828 million in sales last year, according to data from Technomic, a food industry consultant. But what was salacious three decades ago has now become family-friendly; it’s not unusual to see children at Hooters, doodling in coloring books. And compared with the clothes at some popular teen retailers, Hooters’s white tank tops and orange shorts seem almost demure. Last year, sales at the chain were virtually flat.
That’s created opportunities for smaller competitors willing to exhibit more of the female anatomy. The largest, Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, a Tempe (Ariz.)-based chain founded in 2003, did $196 million in sales last year. Tilted Kilt has 91 restaurants across the country. Its waitresses labor in what might be described as provocative Celtic garb. “Our costumes are a short kilt and halter top and a swimsuit-type bra that goes underneath that halter-type top,” explains Ron Lynch, Tilted Kilt’s CEO. The house specialty is the Big Arse Burger.
The average Twin Peaks generates $3.6 million a year—$1 million more than the typical Tilted Kilt or Hooters. DeWitt attributes this to his menu, which is a little more ambitious than those of his rivals. Twin Peaks makes its food from scratch and serves beer at near-freezing temperatures, he says. “If you can deliver a beer in August with ice crystals on it every single time, that’s something special.”
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, says the success of Twin Peaks has more to do with the chain’s waitresses than its standard pub food. “The results at Twin Peaks are higher because of the sexual appeal of its servers,” he says. “The customers, who are almost entirely male, make their decision based on that.”
DeWitt grew up in Dallas and, after a stint in the Air Force, moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked at a real estate firm that leased space in shopping malls to chains such as Applebee’s (DIN). When his employer was sold in 1993, he went back to his hometown and started a chain of seafood restaurants called the Rockfish Grill. The eateries prospered, except for one in Lewisville, Texas. “I surveyed the area,” DeWitt says. “I realized, ‘OK, the, Macaroni Grill isn’t doing well, TGI Fridays isn’t doing what it’s used to, Bennigan’s is suffering.’ ” The exception was the local Hooters.