Today MTV has loosed upon the world Big Tips Texas, a faux-reality show about the buxom waitresses of Lewisville’s Southern-stripper-themed restaurant, Redneck Heaven. Judging from the promos, the fourteen-episode arc will focus primarily on drinking, cussing, screwing, and fighting, with frequent subplots involving betrayal, name-calling, applying to Harvard, and other cable-friendly degradations of contemporary Gomorrah. It could be worse.
It makes perfect sense to choose Texas as the show’s locale. Our state has recently become a sort of corporate headquarters for breast-n-something themed eateries, due in large part to the state’s rising breastauranteur, Doug Guller. While others in his very specific line of food-service prefer to play footsie with innuendos, Guller would much rather skip the foreplay. “Bikinis” is his restaurant. And in it there is nary an allusion to the Marshall Islands or atomic bombs. As if to bring home the point, this spring Guller applied for—and was granted—a trademark on the ubiquitous portmanteau, “breastaurant.” Legally speaking, Bikinis really is the “World’s only breastaurant.” And in his quest for continued breastaurant domination, Guller bought a “town” this year, renamed it Bikinis, Texas, and is banking on the idea that an actual Redneck Heaven can arise just beyond the city limits of Fredericksburg.
The idea that a heterosexual male would pass up an easy opportunity to attend the grand opening of a town explicitly dedicated to breasts and beer is ludicrous. Of course I went. After an hour and half of driving in the July heat, at the end of a snaky, narrow country road just off U.S. 290, I found a place where determined travelers would be welcomed with cold libations, a bikini contest, and a glimpse of the world-famous beauty—such as she is—Carmen Electra, the inaugural inductee into the Bikinis Bust of Fame. The cost of entering paradise, without proper credentials, was $40.
Carmen’s presence in town was unmistakable. Her white limo was parked between a small cemetery and the “town” of Bikinis, a 1.67-acre plot of land once known as Bankersmith (though that point is debatable). Beyond that lay a field where a fawn was seen bounding toward the cover of trees and a pristine hillside. Before Guller purchased the land, a move that garnered the attention of the media—and, unsurprisingly, the ire of his new neighbors—there was only an abandoned general store on the country property.
But Guller remodeled the humble shack into a saloon, built a gazebo-like porch extending out the back to accommodate the lingerie pageant and quickly raised a barn-style concert hall for the inaugural musical act, Jerry Jeff Walker. With the infrastructure complete and the newly arrived citizenry, Bikinis seemed to be simultaneously hosting a stripper convention, music festival, bike rally and—by proximity to civilization—a Boy Scout jamboree. Blues standards were the noise ordinance, and bra-clad women operated a beer stall. Whatta boomtown.
It had a mayor to match, too. Guller, declared to be one of Austin’s “most eligible bachelors” by Austin Monthly, introduced himself to me by saying “Dude, why are you buying?” before proffering three drink tickets. A fit man flanked by a smartly dressed woman, Guller wore a cowboy hat over his bald head, a nice watch, and a red shirt that read “BFD: Bikinis Fire Department” with an official looking emblem. Except for strutting purposely through the town, Guller looked like another a chill dude waiting for a bikini contest to commence.
By the time the competition started, about two hundred people had packed into Bikinis’ city limits. The six contestants were very pretty. And pretty naked. Suddenly captivated, the crowding men deposited their beers and leveled camera phones like trumpeters at a coronation. One took an extreme closeup. He bonded momentarily with a stranger who admired the photo’s angle and asked to be sent a copy, immediately, via text. Even the camera-less women seemed to be enjoying themselves. There were no losers. Particularly since no winner was ever officially announced.
Then Guller mounted the stage with Carmen, a smile super-glued to her face. Whatta pro. Like her cut-off jean shorts, Carmen was shockingly tiny in real life, wearing a Texas-inspired outfit: boots, a hat, the straw components of which were forced into a cowboyish shape, and a vaguely western shirt tied above her pierced belly button. She looked like one of the Bikinis bartenders, though perhaps better rested. Cameras were once again hoisted, this time frantically, as Carmen unveiled her Bust-of-Fame, a bronzed cast of her chest. After her brief appearance onstage, fans who purchased wristbands had the chance to meet the Baywatch star inside the saloon. Roughly eighty people paid more than $60 for the privilege. This included one conspicuous older gentleman, a Bikinis regular/photography hobbyist wearing a homemade shirt featuring eleven iron-on images of Carmen Electra and a fanny pack. Guller stood by, clearly pleased, as someone who understands the scope of his own success and knows there’s more to come.
“I think you have to be pretty light-hearted getting into the type of restaurant with a sports bar and grill and having, you know, bikini-clad waiters,” said Guller, who is refreshingly upfront about his business. In 2012, revenue from the Bikinis empire totaled more than $20 million. Doug opened his first Bikinis five years ago in Austin, and now there are twelve in Texas, one in Oklahoma, and one in North Carolina. Teen-friendly titty bars, in general, are a boom industry. During the Great Recession (2008 to 2012), the Big Five—among them Dallas-based Twin Peaks and Bikinis—increased both the number of respective locations and total sales, according to the food industry research and consulting group, Technomics.
This expansion took place during a time when casual dining restaurants suffered big losses, and people warned of the “ death of the American chain restaurant .” Bennigans, Fuddruckers, Friendly’s—and numerous other chains with names suggesting mandatory joie de vivre—all suffered or shuttered.
When eaters finally did venture out again, all chains were competing for the limited market share. The gimmicky breastaurants upped their game, focusing on improved menus and desirable customer service unrelated to the surface area of cleavage. Perhaps obsessively so. When I emailed Kristen Jones Colby, a spokesperson for Twin Peaks, about the distinction between a quality restaurant and a quality breastaurant, she responded, “We definitely don’t consider ourselves a ‘breastaurant,’ but a high-quality casual restaurant.” With twice as many locations as Bikinis spread across nineteen states, the mountaineer-themed restaurant has done well for itself. According to Colby, even if the “signature assets” were removed, “we would still have a successful concept that guests would love.”
If this seems like a dangerous claim, it’s not only because Twin Peaks without the “scenic views” would be reduced to a desert dunescape of bald men. It’s dangerous because Hooters has been attempting to do just that by de-emphasizing its own assets and rebranding itself as more family friendly (which, apparently, means more televisions). Results have not been promising. Hooters has seen more than $1 million in sales lost, 48 locations closed, and a four-percent drop in revenue. To be fair, Hooters was already beginning to sag. The primary reason, said Technomics analyst Darren Tristano, is that Hooters—with 365 outlets worldwide—stretched itself too thin, allowing service and vibe to slack.
“The restaurant industry isn’t growing, it’s stealing shares from one another,” said Tristano, who is, by dint of citation, the country’s foremost breastaurant expert. (Seriously. No reputable article about the niche market is written without first seeking Tristano’s comments for the record.)
Tristano noted Hooters has started seeking turf historically ruled by places like Applebee’s, one of the family friendly chains to survive the recession. With Hooters trying to muscle in on this territory, the younger boobs-and-beer crowd has been driven to places like Bikinis and Twin Peaks. It’s all part of the food-chain chain.
And these restaurants are all too happy to capture that audience. “It’s Darwin’s theory,” said Guller, who, like the other breastaurant insiders, emphasized the importance of service. No amount of cleavage can make up for warm beer and cold women. But Guller has evolved his plan by diversifying his interests. His parent company, ATX Brands, has acquired a variety of establishments in recent years, each one targeting specific “experiences.” As he said, “Hey, you want craft beer, go to Chicago House. You want Tex-Mex, go to Pelons. You want a tequila bar, go to 508.” And if you want bikini-clad women serving beer in the middle of nowhere, there’s now an entire town just for that.
Which is what distinguishes Guller from the pack of businesses grabbing for boob profits. A schtick like buying a town dedicated to the revealing swimwear and the women who love it is a testament to Guller’s unparalleled media prowess and marketing savvy. So was successfully applying for the “breastaurant” trademark while the competitors distanced themselves from the phrase. Their loss. (Actually, Tristano sounded slightly bemused at Guller’s ability to have pulled off the breastaurant™ victory, considering Tristano himself was “probably the first person quoted as using that term if you were to research it.”)
Guller will clearly stop at nothing. He’s even attempted to rewrite bikini history. The town’s grand opening on July 13 was advertised as a coinciding with “National Bikini Day,” never mind that the bikinis invention and celebration occurred the week before, on July 5.
And Guller spares no expense when it comes to expanding his empire. Internet estimates, for example, say a Carmen Electra appearance costs about $20,000. Then there’s the bikini contest. Guller plans to turn it into a big event with a “rifle or shotgun contest … different things the girls are going to be doing.” It’ll be like Fear Factor or Wipeout, he said. And it’ll blow Twin Peaks’ All-Star Bikini Contest out of the water. Maybe literally, if explosives are involved. And another item on Guller’s agenda is to buy the rights to Miss Bikini USA, formerly owned by Hawaiian Tropic. What’s next? A weekly waitress giveaway?
The only question now is how big Guller’s empire will get before it begins to fall. History is nothing but predictable. In the cutthroat world of breastaurants, it’s difficult to continuously satisfy even the most loyal patrons. After the pageant and Carmen’s appearance, the town emptied steadily. Even the older Bikinis regular/photography hobbyist with his Carmen Electra t-shirt and fanny pack was ready to leave. Like Guller, the gentleman didn’t skirt around the issues. He much prefers Hooter’s fare and in his assessment of the new town, one felt the strong sense of disappointment.
“I thought I was going to come to a small city,” he said, “not one building.”
Give it time. These things aren’t built in a day.