With all those reports of call centers heading off to India, one U.S. brand intends to tap into the subcontinent's growing prosperity. Hooters is exporting its controversial brand of home-grown sex appeal.
The Atlanta-based restaurant chain, known more for its scantily-clad female servers than its rib-sticking menu, this week announced it signed a deal to open several Indian franchise locations, though it has not said where.
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"I am looking forward to the 'recreation' of this dining atmosphere," Sunil Bedi, Managing Director of franchisee H.O.I. Pvt. Ltd., said in a statement.
Hooters has drawn attention -- and more than a little backlash -- for its trademark outfits, generally a white tank top and hip-hugging orange shorts, more often than not worn by young, attractive, often ... um, well-developed women.
"The outfits don’t change. We make some allowances for local menu," said Mike McNeil, vice president of marketing for Hooters of America . "We might have the steak sandwich, but you might also be able to get fish and rice or curried chicken or something like that."
The steak sandwich might not fly. Hindu diets specifically prohibit beef. McDonald's India, for example, offers a Chicken Maharaja Mac as well as the vegetarian McAloo Tikki Burger.
Bedi and his fellow franchisees can sort that out. They'll be in charge of hiring local waitresses (a 1997 settlement allows Hooters to keep an all-female serving staff, at least in the United States) and choose the menu, with ultimate oversight from the Atlanta headquarters. Between five and 10 Indian locations are initially planned, with the first opening next year.
Hooters' expansion is the latest sign that U.S. businesses have awoken to the potential of the Indian middle class and its growing disposable income, said Jagdip Ahluwalia, executive director of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston.
"We've got Domino's there, we've got McDonald's there, we've got all these brands out there," Ahluwalia said. "There is a window of opportunity that’s open. And if we don’t grab that opportunity, Europe will."
Hooters already has a strong global presence with some 370 restaurants, including 26 overseas locations in such places as Austria, Guatemala, Singapore and Taiwan. This is its first location in South Asia, where more modest sensibilities often prevail. But it has aggressive plans for further expansion -- including its first restaurant in China, due this fall, three restaurants in Thailand and elsewhere.
"We're going to continue to fill out Latin America," said McNeil.
Earlier this month, it also unveiled a line of Hooters potato chips (hot wing and dill pickle flavors) and announced that Las Vegas' Hotel San Remo would reopen as the Hooters Casino Hotel.
With 25,000 employees, the privately held chain proudly defends its use of sex appeal and the role of its 15,000 Hooters girls. "To Hooters, the women's rights movement is important," the company's Web site states, "because it guarantees women have the right to choose their own careers, be it a Supreme Court Justice or Hooters Girl."
U.S. locations serve beer and wine, but no hard liquor. Beer remains a popular choice among Indian drinkers, who consume nearly 80 million cases a year.
And the skimpy attire? "Hooters is not immoral," Ahluwalia said. "It’s a different way of marketing their product."
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