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What It Takes to Work Here: Hooters

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Surprise! There's something that's progressive about the restaurant company: How it trains its "Girls."

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What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Hooters restaurants? I'll give you a hint: It's not hot wings. That's right, you guessed it...technology!

The "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined" restaurant chain that shamelessly uses its waitresses', well, hooters to peddle its mediocre, overpriced fare is actually a surprisingly technology-forward company in terms of training. Using no less a model than the US military (its high-tech computer-training simulator allows soldiers to practice virtual combat), Hooters sought a virtual training experience to prepare its own personnel for the food-service battlefield. For a global corporation operating in over 30 countries, a virtual space accessible to all employees would not only streamline training practices, but save the company a bundle in travel costs.

So, in 2003, when the online world Second Life was launched, Hooters was first in line among the most hardcore gamers to test its virtual waters. As Hooters' VP of Training and Development Kat Cole explained, "It's always been a part of our strategy to use whatever is new out there that our emerging employees, the emerging generation, whatever ways they're communicating -- to make sure we're speaking that language."

A virtual Hooters was built complete with avatar restaurant workers. The initial goal was to build virtual customer-service scenarios to which managers had to react. "It was fantastic in theory," said Cole. But the problem with being an early adopter to technology is that the operating systems are often buggy. In the case of the Hooters virtual world, the avatars' arms would spontaneously fall off, making mangled amputees out of the Hooters Girls. Sometimes half of the restaurant would disappear or the program would slow to a snail's pace or the screen would freeze. After six months of suffering through the various tech glitches, Cole finally heeded the law of diminishing returns and closed the doors of its first and only virtual Hooters.

Currently, the restaurant uses the social-networking software Yammer as an online training tool. The inexpensive and relevant service allows Hooters employees to post questions, ideas, documents, and share best practices. To Cole, the power of the service lies in its mobility. "It's real-time training and real-time cross-company networking without [incurring] flying expenses that can be done from anywhere in the world," she says.

Cole predicts the future of virtual business training will be with Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox Project Natal, the motion- and voice-recognition system due for release by this Christmas. This time she'll wait until the technology's been out in the wild for some time before making an investment.

Now for the real first thing that comes to mind about Hooters. No, not the fried onion tanglers. The "nearly world famous" Hooters Girls. They are, after all, the "cornerstone of the Hooters concept" and comprise 68% of Hooters' 25,000-person workforce. Oh, and they have big boobs.

The training of a Hooters Girl is painfully specific, from achieving and maintaining the Hooters Look to embodying the "girl next door" attitude to entertaining the guests.

You needn't have ever visited a Hooters to know exactly what the waitress uniforms look like. Those tight white tank tops and shiny orange short shorts have been etched into our collective pop-culture consciousness. But it's the Gestapo-like specificity of the outfit (that cannot be changed or altered in any way) that has escaped most of us. The Hooters Employee Handbook mandates that the tank top may not be midriff-bearing and must always be tucked into the approved Orange Hooters Girl Shorts (sorry, no Cleveland Browns apparel substitutes) which "are to be worn, sized to fit, and should NOT BE SO TIGHT THAT THE BUTTOCKS SHOW." Either a white or nude bra must be worn and no portion of it may be visible. Pantyhose are required at all times and the color is exclusively "suntan."

Until very recently, waitresses were required to purchase and continually replace their own uniforms. Now the company pays the tab. One Hooters Girl (name withheld), who has worked at a New York location for several years, says she's happy that the the significant cost burden has been lifted from her bra-strap-concealed shoulders. As she explains to Minyanville, the uniform frequently gets soiled by grease and wing sauce. The pantyhose alone have to be replaced every couple days. A small rip in the hose will get a Hooters Girl pulled off the floor by a manager where she's forced to replace them on the spot. "At $3 a pair, the costs really start to add up," says the waitress.

But the uniform only scratches the surface in terms of the consistent "clean, healthy, natural, and vibrant" image Hooters Girls are expected to uphold. "You're on stage. You're told to always be camera-ready," the waitress continues. That means only styled hair using the "best, not the cheapest" products and that must be cut every six to eight weeks. No ponytails and for god's sake "NEVER come to work with wet hair!" Highlights are only permitted if complimentary to the original hair color. "Drastically different highlighted tones or colors in your hair isn't attractive or permitted as part of the Hooters Girl Image."

Hooters doesn't equivocate on its requirement for the "All-American Cheerleader/Surfer-Girl-Next-Door" image. The restaurant takes your picture when you start and it's part of your contract to maintain the precise look for which you're hired.

While Hooters offers a detailed makeup regimen, the restaurant only actually requires lipstick and mascara, although be careful with the application since "clumpy lashes are a no-no!" Blush is certainly encouraged since forgetting it "will leave you looking lifeless!" If a Hooters Girl needs freshening up, she can count on her manager to take her off the floor to brush her hair or apply more makeup. Health and fitness are also emphasized and the restaurant even provides workout tips and a calorie-burning breakdown for various physical activities.

Above all, the foundation of the Hooters Girl Look is carefully sculpted wholesomeness.

Adopting the friendly, bubbly, Hooters Girl attitude and personality is another key part of job training. Videos teach Hooters Girls they must never appear standoffish or cross their arms, and that they must always wear a smile. A restaurant rule dictates that Hooters Girls have to be smiling anytime they're on the floor, no matter where they're walking. To appear more personable, they're forbidden to refer to themselves as servers. When greeting a table, the line is: "I'm gonna be your Hooters Girl."

Adhering to the restaurant's motto "the more Hooters Girls, the better," multiple Hooters Girls visit each table. Food isn't carried on trays but brought out on separate plates served by individual Hooters Girls. They also run each other's drinks and are, of course, always encouraged to talk to other servers' tables. The restaurant maximizes Hooters Girl-customer interaction with games like Wingo (Hooters version of ice-breaker bingo) that charges the servers to find customers who match the traits on their Wingo cards. Then there's straight-up entertainment in which Hooters Girls hula hoop, do splits, break out into song, and perform the infamous Hooters rodeo bar stool trick.

Upon accepting employment, each Hooters Girl must sign a waiver acknowledging that "the Hooters concept is based on sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace." So it's the unwelcome workplace sexual harassment that's forbidden according to company policy.

While it appears to be a fine line, especially with signs like the one found in the Manhattan restaurant reading "Hooters Girls operated by flattery," the "Girl" Minyanville spoke to hasn't had trouble straddling it. She loves her job, considers her coworkers her family, and praises the (all male) management. She particularly enjoys the benefit of participating in various charitable events sponsored by Hooters in the community.

Working at Hooters must be a "hoot," I mean, why else would they have an owl as a mascot?
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