How Hooters is Celebrating its Women as it Marks 40 Years
Hooters turns 40 this month and it is doing so on a high note. Sales for the Atlanta-based sports bar chain were up nearly 17% from 2021 to 2022, according to Datassential, while its domestic footprint grew to over 310 restaurants and AUVs increased to over $3.1 million.
As the brand hits this milestone, it is sharpening its focus on the nearly half a million women who have worn the orange shorts throughout the past four decades. One way it is doing so is by telling stories of alumnae who forged successful careers, such as Rachelle Daglis, founder and CEO of CNGLMRT, Jessicah Pounds, VP of training and leadership development at Focus Brands, and Hannah Williams, a professor at UNLV.
This alumni spotlight wasn’t created specifically for the brand’s 40th anniversary, however, but rather in 2019 as a passion project for Chief People Officer Cheryl Kish. During her time with the brand, Kish – herself a Hooters alum – has helped facilitate these success stories as part of the I AM initiative – an acronym for Image, Attitude, Memorable – to paint a different narrative than what may be perceived by the public and Hooters customers. She’s also facilitated an annual Women in Leadership Forum, with corporate employees, franchisees and vendors, and has more clearly defined career paths for employees.
“The orange shorts do not define her,” Kish said during a recent interview. “We have had so many women go on to become whatever she wants, and we want to support and elevate that. These women attribute the ability to leverage their time with the brand to hone skills for life beyond the brand.”
The I AM initiative also focuses on empowering current Hooters employees through educational initiatives and tuition reimbursement so they can leverage their time with the company and build skills for their future. About 40% of Hooters’ operations managers are female. In Texas, about 50% of general managers are women. In totality, there are about 6,000 women in the organization, and about 4,000 men.
“Our largest internal demographic is female, so it makes sense to empower them and get them the opportunities they want,” Kish said. “There is a lot of career trajectory when that happens.”
She adds that the company has a defined career journey for all its employees, not just servers, that is linked to all levels in the organization.
“We identify competencies and skills that are needed to get to the next level, and I think that’s a big reason a very large percentage of leaders in our company came through the ranks. Even our CEO, Sal (Melilli), started with the brand as a dishwasher,” she said.
The empowerment piece is intentionally holistic and is inspired by Kish’s own experience, from server to c-suite.
“My story goes back to the late 1980s. I’ve been in this industry my whole career, from the orange shorts to operations management, to corporate. I was the first female VP promoted in the brand in the 90s and I’m proud of that because it’s a female-based concept and, rightfully so, it should have female leadership,” Kish said.
She took a pause to start a consulting practice, but rejoined Hooters four years ago. One of her first projects was creating the I AM initiative, which marinated a bit through the pandemic but “sparked a real fire” last year. The process is ongoing, and Kish said she’s now in the “story collection phase.” She eventually wants to create a platform where alums can connect for mentorship and networking opportunities.
“Even if 10% of our nearly half a million women out there join this opportunity, that is a well-established network,” she said.
As this focus evolves, Kish said there is buy-in across the organization and adds that the company, from the top down, is “extremely focused on diversity and female centricity.”
“Our culture runs deep and shame on us if we’re not being a female-centric brand,” she said. “It is our obligation and responsibility to provide those opportunities and to celebrate, elevate, educate, and empower the women of the brand.”