Something to hoot about

Jerusalem Post, Metro; May 16, 2008

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For most people, the Hooters restaurant chain immediately conjures up images of all-American blondes with ample cleavage carrying pitchers of beer and chicken wings, or rambunctious men cheering on sports teams. Point in case, the Hooters company Web site characterizes Hooters as “a neighborhood place, not a typical family restaurant,” with 68 percent of its clientele male, mostly between age 25 to 54. But it seems that the Israeli franchise owners have re-fashioned the local Hooters as an atypical family restaurant – in more ways than one.

Ofer Ahiraz, a gray-haired 48-year-old, wears a finely-pressed white button-down shirt and flashes a warm, all-around-good-guy smile. He and his wife Ilana live with their three children, ages 17 to 22, in Givatayim. They opened the Hooters franchise last November, putting Israel on the list of over 40 nations that have imported the American icon. Ilana, also 48, is not a waitress, although her admiration for the Hooters girls is clear – especially since the Ahirazes’ daughter, Gal, works as head waitress and trainer. Like any good Jewish parents, the Ahirazes sent their eldest daughter to college – at Hooters University in Atlanta, Georgia, where Gal studied for three months to learn the principles behind the Hooters mystique.

Ofer and Ilana Ahiraz first fell in love with the chain on a visit to the United States 13 years ago. The atmosphere, food and beer, they say, brought them back to Hooters on subsequent visits to the US. “Today, from what I see in the US, it caters to families, kids – we have a kids menu,” says Ofer. “In the US, they have biker night – that doesn’t exist in Israel.” Ofer and Ilana both left their careers (he worked as a communications specialist, she was a nurse for 25 years) to bring their Hooters dream to Israel.

While liberal Tel Aviv might seem like a natural home for the busty restaurant concept, the couple took a chance, opening premises in the relatively new Yachin industrial zone in Netanya. The name “Poleg, Netanya” is printed on the waitresses’ low-cut Hooters tank tops, right underneath the chain’s owl logo. Hooters of America, Inc. acknowledges that many people consider “hooters” slang for “breasts,” but its Web site claims that Hooters “uses an owl theme… to allow debate.”

The Ahirazes have adapted the chain’s food and atmosphere to suit Israeli tastes and mentalities. They replaced Hooters’ crab, pork and oyster dishes with more salads and grilled meats, but they still serve up world-famous Hooters chicken wings, along with Philly steak and chicken burgers. Wings are made with the time-tested Hooters buttery-vinaigrette hot sauce and come in five levels of spiciness. A roll of paper towels is wisely placed on each table so diners can wipe the butter off their hands and mouths after gorging on the crispy wings. The decor suits the first part of the restaurant’s slogan, “delightfully tacky,” although with its clean lines and hi- techy overtones, the Israeli Hooters comes across as pretty refined for a Hooters joint. A bright Hooters sign flashes flamboyantly outside and passers-by can ogle the restaurant owl-eyed through the plate-glass windows.

When Metro visited, the restaurant was about three-quarters full by 11 p.m. with groups of young, spiky-haired men; a few couples; a birthday party of some 30 people; a group of amateur race-car drivers for whom a late dinner at Hooters is a weekly ritual; and a group of rowdy American guys (the kind one would expect to find at a US Hooters) who sat in an orange booth underneath a sign that read “Caution: Blondes Thinking.” Some men had their eyes on the Maccabi game, broadcast on monitors positioned throughout the restaurant, while rock music played at a level that couldn’t compete with the Americans’ “yee-hahs.”

Of course, Hooters waitresses strutted back and forth in their trademark sneakers and tight lycra tops and tiny orange shorts over nude tights – outfits that have been bemoaned as objectifying women, but which Ilana Ahiraz shrugs off as “active wear.”

“I don’t see anything anti-feminist,” says the soft-spoken Ilana, with lack of outward enthusiasm that might get a Hooters girl fired on the spot. But her daughter, Gal, offers up a little more bubbly-ness.

“It’s not a customer, it’s a guest,” says the cute, down-to-earth Hooters Gal.
Both she and her mother say the main criteria in waitress recruits are “the smile and good work ethic.” Gal warmly remembers her parents bringing back Hooters T-shirts and memorabilia from their trips to the US, and she wholeheartedly approves of their ambition.

Most of the waitresses working boasted an Israeli “girl next door” look – long, dark, hair and brown eyes. Not all of their measurements lived up to those of the picture-perfect Hooters calendar girls. Could hiring waitresses with imperfect waistlines be a purposeful tactic to reduce the guilt women will no doubt feel upon eating the fattening wings?

Waitress Sivan, 20, who was working her first shift, was intrigued by the prospect of becoming a Hooters girl. “I just got out of the army and I decided to go to Hooters,” Sivan told Metro, adding that she saw work as a Hooters girl as “something different” from being a waitress.

When a country-tinged rock song came on, the waitresses broke out into a square dance, which was a real hoot. It looked more like the hora, and the Hooters girls giggled self-consciously throughout. But the group of Americans, who got a front-seat view from their booth, clearly enjoyed the performance. “They need to do that more with more women,” said Norman, a medical student at Ben-Gurion University’s program for overseas students, who was celebrating his birthday. He and his friends had been planning the trip from Beersheba to Hooters for three months.

But looks, said Norman, are not everything. “It’s not a strip club. They’re attractive, friendly. She cut the wings for me and licked her fingers after – what more do you want?” His wife, by the way, is a Hooters fan, and she approved of the outing.

Netanya resident David Barak, a well-known hip-hop choreographer, sat quietly eating wings and drinking beer. “It’ll never be a real guy’s place,” he commented, adding that the fleshy atmosphere wasn’t “pure enough.”

Barak declined to comment on the dancing, but said that an American Hooters girl who came to Israel to train the Israeli waitresses had admitted to him that the Israeli branch could never be a “real Hooters.”

But how do you know whose Hooters are real and whose aren’t? Metro might have to go to Hooters U to find the answer to that one.

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