Thursday, December 15, 2005

Denver Post Writer Experiences Hooters In Auburn... At Least We Know Directions On The Plains

This story has everything: Auburn football, hot women and good food. Here's a mid-western sports writer's take on our fine Hooters restaurant in Auburn. At least our girls can give directions...

By John Henderson
Denver Post Staff Writer
Tuscaloosa, Ala. - When you cover college football for a living, eating after games in towns just large enough for a football stadium and a Greek row can be problematic. Try finding fine dining in a town such as Auburn, Ala., where 90,000 fans storm into a town of 50,000 and are starving afterward.

A year ago, after a Georgia-Auburn game, I found myself actually waiting in line with a couple dozen people of obviously dubious taste. We had all gathered at Hooters, an American chain almost libelously referred to as a restaurant.

It's known for two things: one, waitress outfits of skintight fluorescent orange, size medium shorts (no larges allowed) with white push-up halters that could arouse the ashes of my Uncle Gene; two, the worst food on planet Earth.

My chicken sandwich could have very easily greased the entire manufacturing plant of U.S. Steel. The lettuce in my colleague's salad looked as if it had been used to wash windows. It was not worth the wait. The food would not have been worth enduring even if the waitresses were naked.

And the place was packed.

Why? During a recent return to Alabama, I decided to learn more about the mystery of Hooters. Actually, Alabama has some terrific restaurants. This assignment was based purely on journalistic research, although the idea didn't go over well with my Ivy League-feminist girlfriend.

"Hooters is family porn," she said, as she made my bed on the couch. "I have more respect for women wearing pasties than white jog bras because at least they're up front about what they're doing. They're selling sex."

I thought they were selling chicken wings. They also sell Hooters baby bibs, to catch any drooling (and not just from babies). They even sell Hooters model airplanes, depicting the Hooters fleet that can help whisk you off to the 375 Hooters locations in 46 states and 19 countries from Trinidad and Tobago to Taiwan. (Quick thought: What's a better indication that communism is losing its grip on the modern world: creeping privatization in Vietnam or Hooters of Shanghai?)

This time I was in Tuscaloosa and avoided the post-game chaos of a Saturday night for a mellow Sunday evening. I don't mean to stereotype the intellect of a Hooters girl. One may guide a spacecraft to Mars some day. However, the Hooters of Tuscaloosa has no candidates for NASA, that I could see.

As I drove around endlessly trying to find the place (not that I'm a candidate for flight school, either), I called on my cell to get directions. Not a single Hooters girl in the place could tell me where it is. I am not making this up.

They had to call the male general manager to guide me. When I walked in, a blond goddess who looked no more than 18 took my drink order and immediately sat down.

"So how is your day going?" she purred. (How was it going? I was sleep-deprived, I was feverishly hoping my cut from shaving wouldn't open up and I was about to take two years off my life by eating a Hooters burger.) I was honest.

"Not too well," I said, bucking Hooters' customer tradition by looking her in the eye. "Oh, really? What's wrong?" Wait a minute. A college sophomore who couldn't give me directions to her place of work is going to psychoanalyze my deep-seated problems of anxiety and self-loathing? Never mind. Bring me a bacon cheeseburger.

Actually, she turned out to be quite nice. She made me admire Hooters girls, not for their appearance, but for their on-the-job training in defending abject sexual harassment. I asked her what's the worst one-liner she ever received.

One guy said, "Did you know you can burn off 2,000 calories during sex?"' she said. "I said, 'Well, I guess I've burned off mine for the day." He said, 'Wanna burn off a few more?"'

He didn't get tossed out of the restaurant, but some do. Touching is not tolerated; neither is vulgarity. How their food passes the vulgar test, I'll never know.

The bread on my cheeseburger was so soggy with grease I could see the dubious beef through the bun. The tangled mass of French fries, piled so high they formed a total eclipse of the TVs, were so slick with grease they appeared to be moving.

"The food is - uh-hum - the Buffalo chicken sandwich is good and so are the chicken strips. That's about it," said Krystle Wolfram, a former Hooters girl I met when she waited on me at Tanner's sports bar in Kansas City. "The rest of it is just grease. It's guy food."

Wolfram, 24, a Hooters girl for five years in Kansas City and Myrtle Beach, S.C., revealed some Hooters secrets that probably aren't very surprising. Management requires every Hooters girl to squeeze into no bigger than medium shorts. To stay thin on lunch breaks, girls often brought in healthier food such as Subway. Are there weigh-ins?

"No," she said. "A couple girls got heavy, but they don't last long. They don't make the tips the small girls make." Which is exactly why waitresses sit down and chat. I remember this happening to me once in a bar in Bangkok.

"I only did it to the ones who tipped me good," Wolfram said. "If they tipped good the first time, and I saw their face again, I'd pull them to my section."

I doubt my waitress in Tuscaloosa will grab me by the arm when she sees me. That's OK. I won't be back.