Changing the Game

Fred Sigmund, senior director of development, construction, real estate, facilities, for Hooters of America, steers the rollout of a sleek, new restaurant prototype opening across the United States that aims to strengthen the brand’s appeal among families and millennials

In 2013, when American Builders Quarterly last caught up with Fred Sigmund, senior director of development services for Hooters of America, the restaurant chain had just announced a new 30th anniversary initiative to update all of its locations. The alterations applied to everything from branding to food to store design to construction. Since then, Hooters of America—the franchisor for more than 225 Hooters restaurants around the world and owner and operator of 197 restaurants itself—has remodeled 100 stores in more than 20 states. The new look remains loyal to the roots and history of the brand while also taking cues from any number of family-friendly, casual dining establishments.

Sigmund has been largely responsible for developing the prototype for the remodeled Hooters of America locations, as well as 10 new stores poised to open in 2017. In a measured departure from earlier Hooters restaurants, the updated locations have larger windows (about 70 percent of the façade), higher ceilings, and a more open floor plan to encourage socialization among customers. Guests will still find waitresses in fitted T-shirts and orange jogging shorts serving platters of chicken wings, but the interior feels different, more subtle and—dare we say—refined. The orange dial has been turned down a few notches, and the patio is better integrated with the dining room, enlarging the restaurant and opening the space up to the outdoors.

“It’s comfortable, social, and inviting,” Sigmund says. “It does lean toward modern, but modern is not necessarily what I’m after. It’s about being comfortable, feeling good in the space, and enjoying yourself.”

As anyone in the food-and-beverage industry knows, making people feel comfortable is not easy. Over the past four years, Sigmund has done extensive market research into the casual dining industry, keeping an eye on rivals such as Quaker Steak & Lube and Chili’s, in addition to poring over customer surveys. In regard to the latter, after incorporating stainless steel strips into the remodeled bar tops of several locations, Sigmund and his development team remodeled it back to the original recycled barn wood, per the preference of longtime patrons. Similarly, on the floor and along the bar, taupe finishes prevailed over initial attempts at a flashier, multicolored palette.

While the Americana aesthetic is still on display in the extensive use of wooden materials, the touches are less rustic and more contemporary in sleekness. In place of hardwood stools and bead-board booths, for instance, there are softly padded booths that retain an element of privacy. Vinyl flooring has been swapped out for true porcelain tile. And—in a playful nod to Where’s Waldo?—a matured and more lightly touched Hootie the Owl peers up from table displays, as designed by local artists.

“We’re trying to have fun with the brand,” Sigmund says. “The brand is still Hooters; I don’t think that is any different than it has ever been. But the exposure is more comfortable. We did away with anything users felt was offensive or not their scene. It’s Hooters, but it’s not your daddy’s Hooters. We have new customers, younger people with different tastes, and we’re trying to keep up with trends, while on a base level stay true to ourselves.”

If one is envisioning a room packed with raucous spring-break revelers, the demographics of those new customers may come as a surprise.

“We do very well in areas with tourists and families,” Sigmund explains. “People can come to us, and whether they’re from the area or not, they know what to expect. We’re a mix: more than 35 percent of our guests are women, children, or men visiting with their families.”

Of course, a large portion of the customer base comprises of locals and sports fans, and the new look caters to them as well. Near the bar, which is set up as an island, the restaurant features a nine-television, 184-inch media wall, augmented by an upgraded A/V system that foregrounds an immersive sports-viewing experience.

“Hooters can be a retreat,” Sigmund says. “When a customer comes in, it might be for a business meeting or to watch a game with buddies, but either way, we want to take them away from the daily grind for a bit.”

He points out that the physical space isn’t the only element of the brand to get a facelift. An expanded kitchen with covered ventilation offers more room for a diversified menu. This includes a roster of craft beer, chicken breasts, shrimp and crab cakes, as well as wings smoked the same day they’re sold.

“We’re known for our breaded wings,” he says. “That’s a huge percentage of our sales. We felt another lower-calorie option would be a winner, and the craft beer industry is blossoming everywhere. When we build new, ground-up locations, we can now have 32 beers on draft.”

The remodeled locations have been well received. According to Sigmund, regular customers are bringing in friends and guest count is rising. Still, updating a large portion of the building stock of a company with more than 340 domestic locations in 41 states requires finesse and perseverance. Many of the locations were built more than 30 years ago when Hooters was founded in Clearwater, Florida, by six area businessmen: Lynn D. Stewart, a painting contractor; Gil DiGiannantonio, a liquor salesman; Ed Droste, a real estate executive; Billy Ranieri, a retired service-station owner; Ken Wimmer, a partner in Stewart’s painting business; and Dennis Johnson, a brick mason—the “Original Hooters Six.”

Updating the locations on a six- to seven-week schedule, all while keeping restaurants open and employees paid, is an achievement Sigmund is happy to hang his hat on.

“A lot of the hurdles came with getting this implemented at the local level,” he says. “Can the supplier keep up as fast as we want to go? Do we have the manpower to get it finished as fast as we want to?” The results to date indicate that the answer is yes.

In addition to accelerated company and franchise growth in the United States, Hooters is rapidly expanding with new restaurants on the international front. Over the next five years, the brand is positioned to open upwards of about 65 new locations outside the country. While some F&B companies adapt store designs to the countries and cultures in which they operate, Hooters’ approach is different. Sure, it might not use cypress or western red cedar on bar tops in Southeast Asia since those materials aren’t locally available, and because fire codes in some cities prohibit building with wood. But for the most part, Hooters is Hooters, whether you’re in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, or the Philippines.

“People want Americana,” Sigmund says. “That is why Hooters are successful and why we strive for franchises to build, construct, and operate in other countries to the tune of what our brand image is. If you see a Hooters, you should have that same feel and experience with the staff regardless of where you are.”