Selling the Ultimate Man Cave

by Published on
Bikinis employee Whitney Bell.
PHOTO BY JEN REEL
Bikinis employee Whitney Bell.

Xtine, the server at Bikinis Sports Bar and Grill on Sixth Street in Austin, has dark hair, a nice smile and killer abs. You can tell because she’s wearing a string bikini top, Daisy Duke cut-off shorts and cowboy boots. “Texas sexy” is how Bikinis owner and founder Doug Guller describes her outfit.

On a Saturday afternoon in August, the bar is packed with patrons watching coverage of the Summer Olympics on big-screen TVs. The scene creates cognitive dissonance: The bar is full of people cheering the accomplishments of female athletes while being served beer and fried food by women in skimpy clothing. The combination of beer, boobs, burgers and 72-inch flat-screen TVs has been marketed to guys like me—youngish, straight, and usually married guys who love a good burger and say “we” when referring to our favorite sports team—as a form of utopia. Countless commercials suggest that the marriage of sex, sports, food and alcohol is a man’s way of living the dream.

Bikinis is a perfectly pleasant place to spend an afternoon. Xtine is genuinely friendly, and there are couples and even families present. Yet there’s something uncomfortable about being here, beyond the juxtaposition of WNBA star Candace Parker and Team USA’s gold medal glory with the bikini-clad women serving drinks and food: If Bikinis is the ultimate expression of male fantasy, it’s pretty shallow.

But places like Bikinis—known as breastaurants in the media (Guller of Bikinis recently trademarked the term)—are big business in Texas right now. There are 10 Bikinis in the state and others in North Carolina and Oklahoma. In addition, there’s Twin Peaks, a ski resort-themed chain based in Lewisville; Bone Daddy’s House Of Smoke, a growing company out of Addison with five Texas locations; and the Flying Saucer, a national chain started in Fort Worth that features women in schoolgirl outfits.

The business model works.

Hooters, the first breastaurant chain, opened in Clearwater, Florida, in 1983. It went on to become an international franchise, and something of an icon. The image of busty women in bright orange short-shorts and tight white tank tops has appeared in films and television programs and spawned a magazine, a Vegas hotel and casino, and briefly, an airline.

But Hooters’ sales have declined in recent years. In August, Time magazine reported that the chain had diminished by nearly 40 restaurants and $100 million in annual revenue since 2008. But the popular appetite for a similar product hasn’t waned.

In 2006, Doug Guller moved from Washington, D.C., where he’d worked as a tech salesman, to Austin with the goal of opening a business. He’d never envisioned himself as a restaurateur, but the breastaurant business model made sense to him. Guller opened his first location off Interstate 35 that year.

“I said to myself, ‘What can I get into that’s somewhat recession-resilient?’” Guller recalls, “and booze, food, sports and sex seemed to be those things.” Inspired by Austinites’ passion for Texas football, as well as the existing Hooters model, he launched the business.

He says he currently employs 720 people and expects to have as many as 15 Bikinis locations open by the end of 2012. Guller also owns a handful of other restaurants (staffed by fully-clothed servers) in Austin, and recently purchased a ghost town near Luckenbach that he renamed “Bikinis, Texas,” where he plans to hold special events.

I ask Guller about the cultural implications of Bikinis, and how he responds to criticism of a business model that relies on putting women’s bodies on display. He’s happy to talk about it. “I’ve never really had this sort of interview,” he says. “It’s usually about the business and growth.”

His answers to my questions aren’t particularly impressive. He insists that his critics are “hypocritical” because presumably they wouldn’t criticize scantily clad women at the beach. But the fact that he’d never been asked about the role of sex in his business model is revealing.

Guller is an entrepreneur who opened a business that he thought would succeed. People talk to him about his business like he’s selling widgets. If it makes everybody money, what’s the problem with treating women’s bodies like just another product?

One thing you can say for Bikinis is that at least the uniform is functional in a certain context, like at the beach. That’s not the case at Twin Peaks, which opened in the Dallas metroplex in 2005. There are now 25 Twin Peaks restaurants nationwide, including a dozen in Texas. The servers wear khaki shorts and plaid, short-sleeve tops tied up to expose the midriff; most of the buttons are undone. It’s hard to shake the feeling that a woman wearing, essentially, lingerie is delivering your chicken wings.

Twin Peaks bills itself as “the ultimate man cave.” Televisions tuned to ESPN line the walls, and every entree on the menu, including the salads, contains meat. Beer and burgers come in “girl-sized” and “man-sized.” The servers are uniformly friendly, stopping to make conversation at every table. If a man is at a table by himself, odds are his server will pull up a chair and join him for a while.

In theory, all of this sounds good. I like sports, I like meat, and I like talking with pretty young women. But the first time I go to Twin Peaks, I’m immediately uncomfortable. My server is a woman named Alexis, and I’m not certain if it’s ruder to glance at her chest or not to glance at it. Despite the sports-bar trappings, Twin Peaks occupies a weird space between a strip club, where staring at a woman’s chest is expected, and the real world, where it’s crude.

The interaction with the server at a breastaurant is part of an economic transaction. Part of what customers pay for is the opportunity to ogle the waitress—and to have her smile in response. Her response is bought and sold, along with the cheese sticks and fried pickles.

Restaurant industry professionals Randy DeWitt and Scott Gordon founded Twin Peaks. I’m buying the experience of chatting with a pretty woman in a skimpy outfit from DeWitt and Gordon, from Doug Guller of Bikinis, and from other men who own breastaurant chains. But is the experience theirs to sell?

Whitney Bell sells that experience, too, and she isn’t complaining about exploitation. The 25-year-old Bikinis employee has been with the company for four and a half years (“That’s really long,” she explains, for her line of work) and she loves it. Initially hired as a server, Bell now spends 30 hours a week as a bartender at the chain’s North Austin location.

She responds to most of my hand-wringing questions with common-sense answers. How long did it take her to get used to the uniform? “I was in a bikini at the pool all the time. This is more clothes than I wear to the pool.” Do customers ever act inappropriately or make her uncomfortable? “I have a high tolerance for stuff like that. If it ever does bother a girl, the manager will go talk to [the customer].” Is there anything weird about wearing that uniform to work? “The only part of it that’s weird is you wearing that while other people are wearing normal clothes.”

So what’s the appeal? That answer’s obvious, too. “I make enough money to do what I want, and I only work 30 hours a week,” Bell explains. “I make more money than any of my friends who’ve graduated from college, and I take off about two and a half months a year to travel.”

Talking to someone like Bell—or Doug Guller, or Alexis at Twin Peaks, or Xtine at Bikinis—it’s easy to almost convince yourself that maybe working at a breastaurant is actually an empowering job. A 25-year-old waitress working part-time makes enough money to spend almost a quarter of the year in South America or Cabo, with the only catch being that she has to wear a uniform that she knows she looks good in? Looking at it that way, it’d be easy to justify becoming a regular. The game’s on, the food’s tasty, the drinks are cold, and the girls, who are pretty and nice, love what they do. It really is living the dream!

But thinking in those terms also reveals just how shallow that dream is. Even if you’re a member of the target breastaurant demographic, the notion that living your best life involves making a special trip to a restaurant where you’ll be flirted with by somebody pretty, eat food that’s bad for you, and sit on a bar stool for three-plus hours on Game Day is insulting.

These are all enjoyable things, but when you’re in a place built on selling them all to you at once you can’t help but think that there ought to be more to a dream than this. What about the rewards of having a conversation with someone who’s not paid to be nice to you?

The breastaurant life may offer some easy rewards, but even Whitney Bell knows it’s not indefinitely sustainable. “I might as well do this while I’m young and I can,” she says. In the meantime, she’s living well. So is her company’s owner. So are the men who own similar chains.

The men who come to breastaurants for a combination of burgers, beer, boobs, and sports, meanwhile, are buying a dream–and like all dreams, it’s illusory. And that illusion stops being fun if you’re too aware of the people responsible for the smoke and mirrors. If that dream is the best fantasy that the world has to offer to men like me, maybe we ought to try reality.

Dan Solomon lives in Austin. His work has appeared in The Onion A.V. Club, Spin and Parade.