De Beauvoir at the breastaurant
Water Street’s Hooters has arrived in a maelstrom of controversy. But is it deserved?
By Mollie Simpson and Jack Walton
Tuesday night in Hooters. The disembodied wing of a chicken sits in a pool of its own juice. Soft porn punctuates the middle distance. A group of girls corner three men at a nearby table and start singing one of three songs we will hear over the course of this evening: the chicken wing song. It’s a hypnotic chant, almost ritualistic, and comes accompanied with the presentation of a watery jug of lager. It’s sort of like watching the presentation of a goblet of goat’s blood at the Freemason’s banquet.
It’s hard to concentrate though. The conversation has taken a turn. Five minutes ago we were discussing which local councillor would be most likely to take a date to Hooters. Now, we’re engaged in a dialogue about French existentialist philosopher, writer, social theorist, and feminist activist Simone de Beauvoir. Jack looks slightly confused, perhaps he doesn’t think de Beauvoir is an expected topic of conversation for an eatery commonly referred to as a “breastaurant”. And nor do I necessarily. Just as I wouldn’t walk into a Wetherspoons to accost fellow drinkers for a literary critique of Crime and Punishment.
But it wasn’t us who brought up de Beauvoir. It was Hooters’ firebrand manager Rachael Moss. “I am inspired by her,” Rachel says, as she stands beside our table. “She’s an outspoken smart lady. Sound familiar?”
Rachael is 42, blonde and straight-talking. Before getting into hospitality, she was a barrister for 20 years, which seems fitting: you need the tenacity of a fighter to open a Hooters in England. While an American expansion into English markets has been steadily increasing over the last few years — like the Hard Rock Cafe — others don’t seem to evoke the same ire as Hooters.
Rachael makes the case well. She refuses to entertain the oft-heard arguments that Hooters is a place designed to treat women as objects, or that the waitresses here are merely fragrant, decorative props to a kind of chauvinistic Americana ideal. “These girls are lawyers, they are students, they are mothers. They are women,” Rachael insists. “They have the right to choose. Is this not what the whole women’s movement stood for?”
Would you catch Simone de Beauvoir eating wings in a Hooters? Who's to say. Someone who you definitely wouldn’t catch in Hooters, however, is city centre councillor Nick Small.
“You wouldn’t catch me in Hooters,” Small says down the phone. Indeed, he’s been fairly critical of the venue so far, particularly the brash orange and black signage either side of the front entrance, which he said in the Echo “looks like it belongs more in Amsterdam’s Red Light District”.
The signs have been at the centre of much of the controversy over the venue’s opening. They were initially rejected by the planning committee, a decision which is going to appeal, but Hooters have gone ahead and stuck them up in the meantime anyway, angering Small. Rachael’s company, the ones currently engaged in the war with the planning committee, is called Beauvoir Developments, which leads to amazing sentences in the Echo like “Beauvoir is seeking to put up two illuminated signs on the front of the building with an awning over the front door” allowing you to imagine the feminist icon herself on a step-ladder hammering in a big double O.
It’s not only an issue of signage, though. Speaking to us, Small is fairly diplomatic. He has “personal views” but ultimately, he says, it doesn’t come down to “moral judgements”, rather practical ones. His case is that Hooters is in the wrong spot. Over on Water Street, with Castle Street nearby, you have a cluster of higher-end restaurants, like Hawksmoor.
“This is a place of high-quality venues and people won’t go there if it's full of men vertical drinking in places like Hooters,” Small adds. We ask him about the stag-do-ifiction of the city centre, if Liverpool is cheapening itself to accommodate blokes dressed in mankinis and women wielding inflatable knobs, but Small insists it's simply a matter of Hooters picking the wrong spot. There’s already Concert Square to accommodate for the roaming packs of recruitment consultants. You wouldn’t put a Peaky Blinders bar on Avenue Montaigne.
Other councillors have been less inclined to pull punches on the moral issue. When Hooters applied for a licensing application in Liverpool, Maria Toolan circulated a petition demanding the city council formally objected to the plans. “Hooters is an archaic and chauvinistic brand and this type of venue is no longer reflective of today's society,” she wrote. “It demeans and degrades women and undermines female equality.” It received a fairly measly 659 signatures.
On Twitter, Mayor Joanne Anderson chimed in, writing that “Hooters has an infamous sexually objectifying and misogynistic environment” and said that the council’s violence against women and girls strategy was “committed to rooting out this behaviour no matter where we find it.”
Only one of these comments really riles Rachael though, the one about Amsterdam. “If people are making outlandish statements and referring to my women, saying that the signs are like Amsterdam. Now what connotations does that spring up? What inference is that trying to draw? Inciteful, hatred, negative inference,” she says.
Beyond that, she’s not too fussed. “I’m not here to judge anyone’s opinion,” she says. “You can’t change a rock from being a rock, right?” Besides, it’s all been good publicity. “If I ever wanted to do an accidental marketing exercise, I thank the council,” she says. “I thank them very, very much because the British public and Liverpool have spoken.” When Hooters started advertising for jobs, they received 1,500 applications. Only 200 people were successful, which includes waitresses, supervisors, chefs and other kitchen staff like pot washes. Rachael also told us she has promised a tuition fee reimbursement programme for the girls, but didn’t expand on what this meant.
Our server is called Amy, with platinum blonde hair and white teeth. She greets us with a breezy smile, places a square napkin on the table and writes her name on it in pink biro, signing it off with a small love heart. “I’ll be your server this evening, let me know if you need anything at all,” she tells us. Her voice is staged and unnatural, but friendly nonetheless. It’s obvious from the way me and Jack are sitting awkwardly in our seats, barely making eye contact with one another, that this isn’t our usual haunt, but throughout the evening, Amy makes a conscious effort to make us feel welcome.
Most of the men here are ambiently aware of women, not outwardly gawking or vying for their attention. They skew middle-aged, casually dressed and blokeish. Only one man in tight skinny jeans and a loose black crew neck, one you know a woman must have picked out for him because it’s in such different taste to the rest of his clothing, is acting obnoxiously. He is sitting on the edge of a bright orange-upholstered booth, leaning back, his legs parted so his knee obstructs the walkway slightly. His arm drapes around the back of the seat like he’s commanding it. Each time his server walks past, a pretty girl with glossy, straight black hair, he looks up and winks to grab her attention.
She notices and stops to say hi. She takes their order and then stacks their plates, one on top of the other, and holds them against her body for support. Steak knives protrude from the edges, chicken bones swim in thin oil. Her hands are straining, but you don’t see her break her signature smile once. Why do men feel so entitled to women’s attention they can’t fathom that they might be too busy to talk to them? I wonder. Why would you wink at someone to get their attention? But truthfully, it feels condescending to get annoyed on their behalf. Aren’t they here out of choice?
There’s also been a lot of discussion over whether girls would feel comfortable with their boyfriends visiting Hooters, or whether they would break up over it. Recently, two Hooters girls posted a video on TikTok, leaning into the debate. The caption read “Us when 80% of relationships in Liverpool are on the rocks because of a restaurant,” and the video showed them posing coquettishly and lip syncing to a Taylor Swift song. It was not received well.
Whether or not they like stirring the pot, it would be hard to deny that people aren’t voting with their feet. The following week, we visit Hooters again. It’s the England vs Wales World Cup match, and every part of the restaurant is a tug of war for attention: football on screens covering every inch of the walls, singing and dancing, merchandise, chicken wings floating past on large silver platters, Hooters lager being poured into thin plastic pint glasses. It is packed to the rafters and the atmosphere is convivial, and we struggle to get a table.
Within six minutes after sitting down, me and Jack both admit we’re still uncertain of our own positions on Hooters. On one hand, it seems like a perfectly fine expression of a woman’s individual choice. No one is forcing these waitresses to be here. On the other hand, I keep thinking about the man winking at the waitress and remembering what it was like to work as a waitress in restaurants and pubs when I was a teenager: the discomfort I experienced around certain men but couldn’t explain. “It doesn’t make you uncomfortable does it, me flirting with you?” a much older man once asked me, who was sitting with his wife and sister. I was clearing their starters. I smiled diplomatically and said something nonchalant. “It’s just a bit of fun.”
Stopping to take photos relieves some of the pressure off of the girls during a busy and hectic night. We take our time to find the right angles, close ups and lighting. They are tactile and supportive with one another, affecting sultry gazes and occasionally turning goofy and unserious. I promise to send the photos to Roisin, a pretty blonde girl who wants to check them over before I publish. I email her, but she never responds.
Before I go, one of the girls tells me it’s been a hard few weeks, because of the hatred they’ve received online. Despite that, she enjoys working at Hooters, and is glowing about the people she works with. “I’ve been sexualised everywhere I’ve worked,” she tells me. “Whenever I’ve done bar work, I’ve always got attention. At least now it’s in my control.”