Hooters has always been known for tank top-wearing "girls." Now, faced with declining sales, it's wooing women — as customers.
The chain's waitresses are as buxom as ever but its sales have "flattened out," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at research firm Technomic. Revenue peaked in 2007 at nearly $1 billion but fell to around $850 million last year, he estimated. (The privately-held company doesn't release sales figures.) The brand recently announced an overhaul aimed at making Hooters more mainstream than man-cave, adding more salads to its menu, remodeling stores and rolling out a series of ads last week to tout the changes.
These efforts have made the brand only a little more popular, a new consumer survey shows.
(Read more: With CEO out, merchants rethink Groupon model)
A brand for men and women?
According to market research firm YouGov's BrandIndex, both men and women think slightly better of Hooters than they did prior to its overhaul, but men's impression barely squeaked into positive territory, and women's overall perception remained sharply negative. BrandIndex CEO Ted Marzilli said the small gains were encouraging for the brand, but "it's not a brand that appeals to everyone."
Hooters' PR agency declined to make a spokesperson available for comment, and messages left with the company's chief marketing officer were not returned.
The Atlanta-based chain and founder of the unfortunately termed "breastaurant" trend is trying to keep its core customer — the guy for whom the chain's signature wings are a secondary attraction to the scantily-clad wait staff — from defecting to newer competitors like Tilted Kilt or Twin Peaks, while at the same time appealing to their girlfriends or wives.
"Restaurants can increase their base if they can negate the 'veto vote' ... Women are the driving force on our everyday eating patterns," said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at research firm NPD Group. "Traditionally, when you want to appeal to more women, you're going to bring in issues that have to do with diet. It will be salads, things that are fresher."
"The food had not kept pace over time," CEO Terry Marks told Nation's Restaurant News in August. "By broadening the menu and introducing items that are better for you, we can get both new people and lapsed guests who might have outgrown our core items."
(Read more: Forget supplies, Walmart.com debuts chic, global products)
In January, Hooters debuted its first redesigned location, which the company said gives customers "a more open and brighter appearance," thanks to higher ceilings and lighter colors.
"They're moving it forward, but it's a larger brand, so in order to move the needle, it's going to take some time," Technomic's Tristano said.
"They developed a niche and by some standard were certainly successful in establishing that niche," BrandIndex CEO Marzilli said, but the chain's focus on sex appeal has some inherent limitations. "There are some women who will say it's a sexist theme or I don't like what the brand stands for.'"
Recession hits core customers
In good economic times, that might not be an issue. But the recession pummeled the casual dining sector, and Hooters' core customer, young men, have been disproportionately affected by unemployment.
"The overall casual dining space ... has been undergoing a lot of turmoil over the last four to five years," said John Gordon, principal and founder at restaurant consulting company Pacific Management Consulting Group. "Hooters had an even more difficult situation," he said, because ownership turmoil distracted management from reinvesting in and reinventing what was becoming a dated brand.
NPD data found that Americans went out to eat, on average, 74 times last year. That's the lowest number since the company began tracking it in 1984. "They're appealing to a behavior that's decreasing in this country," Balzer said.
"The question is, mathematically ... how do I keep my base while growing and attracting logical new users?" Gordon said. For Hooters' management, the answer seems to be greater inclusivity.
But Tristano questioned whether catering to women is really in the brand's best interest.
"I think they need to stay true to their brand," he said. "To try to make Hooters more female-oriented will move away from what has attracted men to the concept ... It may be as harmful to target them as it is helpful to bring them in the doors."
(Read more: A billion dollar company with no bosses)