THE SPRINGFIELD REPUBLICAN - Housing, Hooters in Transition

March 19, 2008

Posted by Bill Peters
Photo by Bill Peters: 60 Congress Street, which housed every man's
need for four years: women, beer, wings, and tacos next door

In a slowing economy, auctioneers are a lot busier; Hooters Girls, maybe not as much as you'd think.

And with that, the City of Springfield and commoditized cleavage, both battling transition and decline, parted ways. In a grey suit, mint-green tie and running sneakers, Justin Manning, President and CFO of JJ Manning Auctioneers and fresh off a torn Achilles, called the bids for Springfield's Hooters building to some twenty-five attendees from a raised platform behind rows of stacked chairs inside the former space of the Double Door Mexican Grill. The place was cold. One pair of double doors had been tied shut by the handles with a blue USB cable. An oversized sombrero still hung over the bar. The martini list was still written on a vertical, rectangular chalkboard. There were two half-full wine bottles with stoppers and an open bottle of grenadine on the bar counter. And 60 Congress St. - a four-floor Hooters palace on the outside, a one-floor Hooters and the Double Door Mexican Grill on the inside - was sold today for $787,500, furniture included.

"I don't believe our client knew the volume of sombreros and the other things that were here," Manning said before the auction.

On one hand, the implications are obvious: real estate is hurting. On another, maybe mainstream, sexually-charged popular culture has simply caught up to and neutralized Hooters's sex appeal.

The Auction

The bidding took little more than five minutes. CEO Jerry Manning counted three total people who actually bid, but the competition boiled down to two unlavishly dressed men - one leaning against the bar counter in army-green pants, a black jacket, and black low-top sneakers; another sitting at a round, elevated table, legs dangling, all khaki, and a baseball hat that looked like a truck ran over it. They spoke little and gestured minimally, a flick of the wrist to up the bid.

When the bid climbed to $775K, that's when the gamesmanship began. In our video, the man in the black jacket, on the right, looks tempted to go up to $800K, but lets the $800K call run for a while, lets his competition buckle (watch the squirming and face-pinkening on the left) before Manning chops down the bid to the final $787,5.

Finally, Justin asked the man in khaki if he could go any higher. The man turned to his colleagues, also wearing khaki. "No," he said. I think I saw him literally hang his head in defeat.

The winning bidder declined to be interviewed. Justin escorted the man out of the building, and Jerry declined to identify him. Either way, the unidentified high bidder has a month to close the sale. Add on the $65,000 in back taxes the building owes, and renovations, that's a million-plus project.

We were disappointed not to see top hats, coattails, mustache-twisting, or a caped stranger with an eyeglass who bid a gasp-inducing $42 billion from the back of the crowd. Auctions have been used since 500 B.C., and they're a more astronomically-huge business now than ever.

"We're busy because of the economic climate," Jerry Manning said. "We're doing a lot of work for builders and developers, closing out subdivisions and condo complexes and apartment buildings. [...] Investors are out of the marketplace. I'm pretty sure this guy's an end user," he said about the winning bidder.

Established in 1976, JJ Manning has successfully conducted 13,000 auctions and sold over $3 billion to homeowners and corporations alike over that period of time. Among those properties were Bradford College in Haverill, and Susan B. Anthony's birthplace in Adams. In an uncertain homebuyers market, more homeowners have solicited the help of auctioneers to do what auctions have always meant to do - force buyers to show their hand, and get things sold more quickly. In 2007, according to JJ Manning's website, $58.5 billion in real estate was sold via live auction.

"There's always fewer bidders than there were in, say, 2004," Jerry Manning told reporters. "If we did this in 2004 there would've been a mob here, all waving checks, trying to buy this, because the economy was rolling along. Now it's iffy. Money is hard to come by. So they're stepping out, they're not sure what values are there. So they'll go to the sidelines and wait and see and try to determine when it hits bottom, and then jump in."

Most auctioneers try to expedite that process as much as possible. For the Hooters building alone, JJ Manning's website has a PDF document of the building's essential environmental data. Those compiled documents - also available in stacks on the bar counter today - reach 570 pages in length, and are quite wonderful in their boringness. The report contains information on practically all property neighboring the Hooters building and their respective topographical relationships, along with moments of unintentional funniness: "No pits, ponds or lagoons were observed on the subject property during the site reconnaissance" one environmental assessment reads; a more vaguely poetic account states that: "The ground surface at the site slopes gently downward to the [sic] soutwest." A copy of a service statement from the Springfield Water Department lists the building as "Hooter's Cafe."

But what's even weirder is the experience of reading through such a report, its atomically-precise charting of seemingly all human and geological history and its immense convergence into the building's construction. There's a rundown of the lot's history: both Hooters and Double Door closed abruptly in 2006. Before Hooters in 2002, the building was the Spaghetti Warehouse, built in 1993; before that, it was a laundry facility, dating back to 1913; before that, it was the James Marra Stone Yard in 1886. There's 500-year flood-zone data from FEMA. Dating back before even that, the report's assessment of the rocks on the lot states that: "The geology of the site is noted as the Stratified Sequence of the Triassic Series of the Mesozoic Era."

Photo by Bill Peters: The Double Door Mexican Grill, which still had most of its furniture and glassware

The Rising or Falling Hooters Empire

An era or two later, Hooters now sponsors their own NGA golf tour. They have their own calendar and magazine. They had their own hotel and casino resort and airline service. The chain was started in Clearwater, Florida in 1983 by six guys who had a vision of a restaurant where ogling waitresses was socially acceptable. Now, they're setting up restaurants in Scotland. There's a Hooters in Singapore; there was almost one in Dubai.

Hooters pulled in nearly $1 billion last year. But, as today's auction and broader trends show, even cleavage doesn't necessarily sell itself. Hooters Air - which launched in 2003 and whose service staff utilized both Hooters Girls and traditional flight attendants - was grounded in 2006. With the exception of a few flagship restaurants, the Hooters founders sold their franchise rights to the Atlanta-based Hooters of America in 1997, which owns 433 Hooters restaurants in 28 countries. As reported last week in the St. Petersburg Times, the founders, probably eyeing retirement, sold their remaining 22 restaurants to Chanticleer Holdings in North Carolina for $55 million. Earlier this week, the sale of the Hooters Vegas Hotel and Casino was finalized for over $225 million. The buyer, according to the Dallas News, plans to remodel the 727-room facility and "rebrand the resort to court the high-end visitor, rather than the perceived lower-demographic Hooters crowd."

Where many customers and restaurant chains are going high-end and boutique, Hooters has always championed the low end. That might be its biggest problem. Ruby Tuesday's went from being a B-grade Applebee's to impersonating aficionado appeal. Applebee's and Chili's have always been just below middlebrow. Burger King's ad campaign is urbane via absurdity. Even McDonald's opened its first feng-shui location in California. According to a 2003 Fortune article, 70% of Hooters' business comes, obviously, from 25-54 year-old males.

But unlike recession-proof strip clubs, Hooters tries to be both racy and wholesome - the swimsuit community carwash. That's a shaky combination, which the Hooters employee handbook makes all too eerily apparent. Hooters Girl uniform policies are exacting and fetishistic, as if the uniform was focus-grouped by a thorough sampling of perverts, alt-newsgroups, and fundamentalists and precisely averaged out accordingly. Take, for instance, their policy on shirts and shorts:

The Hooters Girl uniform shirt is a choice of a tank top tucked into the Hooters Girl shorts (NO MIDRIFF IS TO SHOW) and the shirt must meet the Hooters Girl shorts. No portion of the bra is to show. A white or nude-colored bra must be worn. Shirts are not to be cut or altered, faded or have any stains or tears. [...] All shorts must be sized to fit, NO BAGGINESS.
Only approved Hooters Girl shorts are to be worn, sized to fit, and should NOT BE SO TIGHT THAT THE BUTTOCKS SHOW.

The pantyhose policy? Also weird:

Pantyhose are a required part of the uniform and are to be worn anytime the Hooters Girl uniform is worn. [...] The only color to be worn is Suntan. You may go a shade darker if your skin color is darker than the Suntan pantyhose color. You may not wear a shade lighter than Suntan.
That's not just bad corporate-training prose either. An account from Fortune describes the boilerplating of the Hooters Girl uniform:

The cofounders maintained that they, as licensors, must approve all aspects of each Hooters. Brooks disagreed. So they would fight over things like tank tops. In the early 90's, the Six agreed it was time to abandon the bare midriff look and tuck in the Hooters Girls' tops. First, they had a hard time getting franchisees to agree with the navel blockade. Then Brooks offered his franchisees an alternative to the traditional tank top: Lycra. The Six were appalled: they considered the material too form-fitting and the tone all wrong. As Hooters, Inc president Neil Kiefer puts it, "When the shirt gets too tight and the boobs are hanging out, mama and the kids aren't coming in."
Maybe then, it was already over. With online porn available whenever gratification is needed, cable and advertising desensitizing viewers to any sexual imagery, and with cuts getting lower and narrower on clothing racks even in JC Penney, that Richard-Simmons-ish Hooters Girl attire might not have the same allure to customers as it did in Clearwater twenty-five years ago.

Hooters might still be doing well and may continue to do so. But they're entering an entirely new, 100% corporate phase. The sex appeal will still draw, but theirs has long been surpassed by that of mainstream pop culture. They've become another fast-food sitdown. When we left the building, a pear-shaped guy with a beard, a cigar, a hooded sweatshirt and three-quarters of his teeth asked us if the building was sold.

"Hope they put in another bar so I can lose more money," he said.

In a sluggish economy, a building didn't just get auctioned off today, a vision of white tank tops, hiked-up orange shorts, and chicken wings coated with a cayenne-vinegar silt did too.