With a Wink and a Nudge, ‘breastaurants’ Consider Milwaukee

October 17, 2013

b99111943z.1_20131010160657_000_gj52ren1.2-0Milwaukee could soon get a taste of the new breed of “breastaurants” that have emerged to challenge Hooters in the beer-and-babes dining category.

A Texas-based group has signed an agreement to open two Twin Peaks (get it?) restaurants in the area, and has been actively scouting locations.

Eyeing Milwaukee as well is Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, which also dresses its waitresses in skimpy, cleavage-emphasizing outfits, but with a Celtic theme rather than Twin Peaks’ mountain-lodge look.

Both chains are relatively small. But they’ve been expanding by providing a fresh approach to a restaurant industry segment long dominated by Hooters.

“There are definitely opportunities for growth and, certainly, demand,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at food industry research firm Technomic Inc. “So I think we’re going to expect three to five years of continued growth, and that’s partially because there are a lot of markets like Milwaukee that don’t have these restaurants.”

Furthest along in Milwaukee is Twin Peaks, which developer David Schmille touts as “kind of the Cadillac” of the segment. Schmille, a Dallas-area resident, operates Fish City Grill restaurants in Texas and Arkansas, and is a former top executive with the Romano’s Macaroni Grill chain.

“I’ve already been up there a few times,” he said of Milwaukee. “We’ve got one opportunity that we’re looking at right now. We like the Mayfair mall, Brookfield mall corridors.”

“We’re hoping to have something in the market by next year,” he said.

Focus on skin

Based in Dallas, Twin Peaks has grown from seven restaurants in 2008 to 44 now. The chain touts its “made from scratch” cooking, and longtime restaurant industry consultant Malcolm Knapp gives Twin Peaks high marks for its food.

Ample servings of skin, though, seasoned with suggestive wordplay — “well built sandwiches,” “smokin’ hot dishes,” “scenic views” — are essential ingredients in the marketing recipe.

But forget the double-entendres. The first sentence of the chain’s franchise disclosure document — required to be provided to potential franchise buyers — makes the business model clear:

“You will establish and operate a lodge-themed, full service restaurant with a full bar featuring the ‘TWIN PEAKS’ Girls, who are attractive women dressed in theme-related uniforms that enhance the sex appeal of the women,” the document begins.

Swap Twin Peaks’ deep-cleavage plaid tops and short shorts for Tilted Kilt’s deep-cleavage tartan bras and mini-kilts, and the waitresses at the two chains look pretty similar.

But Tempe, Ariz.-based Tilted Kilt doesn’t seem to favor Twin Peaks’ wink-wink marketing approach. Kilt president Ron Lynch doesn’t even want his places called “breastaurants” — and not simply because yet another chain, Bikinis Bar and Grill, trademarked the word last year.

Lynch’s view, according to a Tilted Kilt spokeswoman: “He thinks that term demeans and objectifies his employees.”

Among Tilted Kilt’s 85 locations — up from 14 in 2008 — are restaurants in Green Bay and Oshkosh, and a third that opened this year in Kenosha, in a former Old Country Buffet.

“We’ve been in pretty steady growth even with the down economy,” said Paul DiBenedetto, who heads a group that holds Tilted Kilt development rights for Wisconsin and seven other states.

DiBenedetto’s group doesn’t yet have a franchisee for the Milwaukee area, which puts Tilted Kilt a step behind Twin Peaks and Schmille, who already has connected with a local real estate broker and is searching for space.

Waitresses as performers

At the moment, the nearest Twin Peaks is in Wheeling, Ill., a northwest suburb of Chicago. The company-owned restaurant opened in March and is huge — 450 seats, 64 TV screens as large as 80 inches, and 110 employees.

Among them are 55 “Twin Peaks Girls,” who might address customers as “sweetie” and “honey” or sit down beside them to chat. It’s all part of their instruction in what one waitress described as the restaurant’s Three S’s: Sit, Schmooze, Sell.

“They’re considered performers,” general manager Ignazio Colella said. “We hire them on as performers.”

As Colella explained it, the girls are encouraged to “flirt without intent…have a couple playful innuendos.”

Said waitress Kelli Koch, a 19-year-old community college student who hopes to become a paramedic, “I can sit down with you. I can talk with you. I can mess around with you, play with you a little bit.”

But no touching.

“When guys touch us, it absolutely is not tolerated,” she said.

She acknowledges being “a little shy” at first about showing herself in the skimpy Twin Peaks costume. Now it’s merely the uniform she wears at work — at a place where she regularly earns $100 a shift in tips alone.

“We look at it as nothing but a job,” she said. “I am going to school, I’m making car payments, I’m making credit card payments…. We’re just normal teenage girls who are trying to make good money to get ourselves set up.”

Colella takes pride in Twin Peaks’ food, but said there’s no shortage of decent restaurants with lots of TVs showing sports.

“But when you throw in great-looking girls who have a great attitude, who are going to give you an experience…it sets you apart,” he said.

Limits to strategy

The breastaurant strategy, though, has limits.

Hooters of America is a case in point. The Atlanta-based chain finished last year with 417 restaurants, down from 455 at the end of 2010, according to the firm’s franchise disclosure document. Among locations that closed was one in Greenfield.

Overall sales fell by about 7% over the same period, Technomic estimates.

Hooters pioneered the segment but has “been on stasis for about 10 years,” said Knapp, creator of the Knapp-Track count of monthly restaurant sales and traffic. “They just weren’t growing and they had internal fights…and they weren’t responding to changes.”

Now, new management under an ownership group that took over in 2011 is “working on making it more relevant again,” Knapp said. “The T-shirts never went out of relevancy, but the food really wasn’t what it should have been.”

And while Tilted Kilt has expanded overall, several outlets also have closed over the last few years, including locations in Madison and Stevens Point.

An issue all of the chains face is the limited appeal of the testosterone-drenched atmosphere to one very large demographic group — women.

Schmille said about 90% of Twin Peaks’ customers are men. The lunch crowd at the Chicago-area restaurant last Thursday bore that out: five women among roughly 100 men.

Later that afternoon in Kenosha, a 30-ish woman hesitated at the door of the Tilted Kilt, with its stained-glass likenesses of the chain’s waitresses.

“Oh God,” she said, “please don’t tell me that’s how they’re dressed in there.”

“C’mon,” said her male companion. “We were here for football.”

In they went.