This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
We've all heard of Hooters. The restaurant where servers wear uniforms consisting of tight orange shorts and cleavage-bearing owl-emblazoned tank tops has been a cultural icon since the pub-food chain first opened back in 1983. Since then, the delightfully tacky eatery has spawned a full-on trend in the food industry—referred to colloquially as breastaurants. Many of these newer chains have latched onto Hooters' concept of hyper-sexualizing their waitresses by enacting increasingly skimpy uniform policies.
Other than Hooters, some major breastaurant chains in America include the Tilted Kilt and Twin Peaks, which features both a David Lynch reference and waitresses in minuscule, campy gear. These establishments are doing better than average sit-down joints in the US right now. Especially Twin Peaks, which was the fastest-growing chain in the US in 2013, according to Bloomberg Business.
However, the breastaurant business is not as booming in Canada. In Calgary, for example, one Tilted Kilt and two Hooters restaurants shuttered their doors this year because of a lack of customers. In a Metro News piece on the closing of these breastaurants, locals attributed the shutdowns to the fact that these kinds of places don't represent the "sex positive" culture that is developing in the city.
Some of these Canadian breastaurants have also been the target for sexual discrimination complaints. In 2004, a woman who worked at a restaurant that required her to wear a bikini top at a special event was given $6,000 to settle a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal.
Other than the sexual discrimination issues—there aren't any popular restaurant chains that require men to wear scantily clad outfits—breastaurants create an unbalanced power situation in which harassment can easily occur. These eateries, which are common locations for bachelor parties and nights out with the guys, construct environments with a sense of sexual entitlement for customers, and sometimes even male staff members. I spoke to one woman who used to work in management at a breastaurant chain in Canada and wanted to remain anonymous—let's call her Mary. She said that she had been harassed by a male superior.
"He opens the back of my dress and just kind of does an, 'Ooooh!' I'm just standing there like, What the fuck just happened?" Mary said. Though she said she considered going to the labor board over various issues with this superior, she eventually just ended up quitting to work at a regular restaurant.
It isn't just staff who engage in this kind of behavior. Mary, who previously worked at various breastaurants in Canada, explained what goes on with customer interactions.
"You'd always get the couple of girls who loved the attention. I remember we hired this new hostess... She'd let [customers] smack her ass," Mary explained. "That's great that you're fine with this, but he's going to have a couple more drinks, and someone else is going to walk by, he's going to do it, and he's going to get a beer in his face."
Another source, who we'll call Leah, said at one Canadian breastaurant where she worked, some waitresses would not wear underwear beneath their skirts and would bend over in front of customers in an effort to get more tips.
Though actual sexual contact with customers is against policy at chain breastaurants, the women I spoke to said they were encouraged to flirt with and lightly touch the shoulders of customers, and stay after their shifts to drink with them. This created a sort of power dynamic between the waitresses and customers, where many men came to treat their waitresses as modern-day serving wenches. "They just kind of come there to bully you, and you're sitting there in underwear, essentially, trying to make conversation with them," Mary said.
Additionally, maintaining the perfect physical appearance in a skimpy uniform is key for working in a breastaurant. Mary, who worked in management, said one waitress was fired for gaining 15 pounds. She had 30 days to correct the weight gain (that's half a pound a day), and when she failed, she was let go.
Besides the pressure of maintaining a certain physical appearance, some of the other waitresses at the breastaurants Mary and Leah worked at would get drunk or do drugs on the job, sometimes in an effort to deal with the environment.
"It's just like a cesspool: You get stuck just drinking and partying because that's the type of environment you're in," Leah said. "So it does obviously fuck you up as a person a little bit."
But she also said that while she was working at breastaurants (she worked at two different ones), she could make anywhere between $400 and $700 per night—essentially the only reason she was there.
After a blowup with management over wanting to put a sweater on because she was cold (she was in Canada, for fuck's sake), Leah quit on the spot. She now says she has to bust her ass waitressing at a regular sit-down restaurant to make half of what she did in tips at a near-titty bar.
Though the breastaurant trend may be fading in Canada, uniforms at sit-down restaurants across the country are still teetering on the edge of sexual discrimination. At restaurants such as Earls Kitchen and Bar and Moxie's, there are uniform requirements that differ for female and male employees: The trend is leaning toward waitresses wearing tighter, more revealing clothing.
But the setting of breastaurants is a unique one in which the sexist power dynamic between male customers and female waitstaff is magnified tenfold. Mary, who now works at a regular restaurant where she wears a tight v-neck shirt and a skirt, says that the environment is a lot better at her new job.
"The customers that come in [at my current job] are generally the financial-type crowd, and the level of respect is high," Mary says. "Regulars come in because they enjoy our personalities for the most part, as opposed to checking out our half-naked bodies."
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