“I’ve never been to a Hooters” she said as she was scrolling through her phone looking for restaurants nearby as we were a couple hours out from our destination.
We talked for a few minutes about what to expect, what they look like on the inside, what their branding is and then, just like that, we arrived at about 8:55pm on a Sunday.
She was grinning from ear to ear as she wanted an experience she could talk about. The parking lot was fairly empty and dark, but we could see TVs on the inside and a few tables full of people as we walked towards the door.
We opened the door and walked about 3 steps before stopping as the hostess was behind a little makeshift station where she was putting together a couple of take-out orders.
We stood there for about 2 minutes before the hostess turned and called for Michelle. One of the two ladies standing there speaks up and says it was her and then the other lady says “No, I’m Michelle and I’ve been waiting a lot longer than you” as she quickly made her point and worked her way right into the conversation. A quick look at the to-go orders and it’s revealed that they’re both Michelle. Everything gets resolved and both are out of the way at the 5 minute mark from when we walked in.
“Just the two of you?” she asks. I say “yes ma’am” and she’s off towards a table about 20 feet away where she then turns around and presents her hand out in a way that offers us the table. No other words are exchanged and she’s on her way back to her station.
I note the time as I always do.
We’re now sitting at a table with no menus, no idea who our server would be, no directions and no idea what’s going on around us. We look around the room and take in the sights (not what you’d think). One server is sitting down at a table with 2 guys. Another server is off in the back corner that’s not very well lit talking one on one with another guy. 3 tables have dirty dishes on them and no one sitting nor cleaning them. The music is very low. A table of 7 is sitting next to us with dirty dishes all over their table and waiting impatiently to leave.
I also point out that it’s odd for a Hooters to have nothing on the walls. Having been to probably 15 different Hooters in my lifetime and having grown up within 3 miles of the original Hooters in Clearwater, FL, this is odd to me.
5 minutes in and my daughter is getting annoyed. We haven’t seen anyone, nor seen any menus. The hostess is at the front, on her phone texting a mile a minute. My daughter tells me she’ll be right back as she sees a menu on one of the tables that hadn’t been cleared yet.
Now, for the next 5 minutes we’re going through their confusing menu. Tons of options to “simplify” and “please” everyone. This is a shame because, frankly, they had a good product. Heck, I’ve talked up the wings, curly fries and beer and that’s all she wanted (minus the beer, I think).
At 10 minutes in, I’m now mildly annoyed as we’ve not seen anyone yet. I mean, we’re one of 3 tables of people in the whole place. It shouldn’t be difficult to spot us. I walk to the hostess stand and explain how long we’ve been there and waiting, and she’s surprised (awareness might not be her strongest asset). She says our server will be with us momentarily.
A minute later the lady in the picture shows up and is nothing but apologetic. I explained the situation, in full, and that it was my daughter’s first time there. She knows it’s not off to a good start, but she’s ready to make it right.
We talk through the wings and fries thing and get the order underway with water instead of beer (boo!). We’re now back in business, and ready to move forward.
15 minutes later her wings and fries arrive and she lights right up again. I tell her to be careful as they’re hot. As such, I reach over to grab one of the fries and I’m once again puzzled. Curly fries that had clearly been made at some point in the past and then used to fulfill our order.
Cold. Lifeless. Fries.
I reach over and feel the wings and they’re warm, but not hot like I’d expect. I’m less than amused now.
I see our server and politely say things have just taken a bit of a downturn. She asks why and about 15 seconds later I convince her to try one of the fries. Immediately, her face changes from positive and upbeat to that of a potential serial killer.
She explains how this happens all the time to her and how frustrating it is to find a good cook staff. She tells me she’s going to go give them a piece of her mind and get us some new fries.
Knowing how kitchens work and the off-chance that the staff isn’t thrilled by this situation, I’m less than optimistic to give them a chance to touch our food again and say “no, I think it’s best to not to bother them with this.” She says “oh, no, they’re gonna’ hear from me and you’ll get what you ordered”. I asked how long this has been happening and why it’s not changing. Then, I said, and it’s not just the food, why are all these things happening here?
“Y’all have an image to uphold and branding that should be a part of your every moment” I said. “Who’s running this place?”
She points to a gentleman over in the corner of the kitchen. “He is. He’s the GM”.
“Excellent… could you please ask him to come introduce himself?”. I explain to her that I’m not mad, but rather, I want to share some thoughts.
He comes over and is a bit defensive. I tell him he has nothing to worry about and introduce him to my daughter and tell the backstory. Then, I explained my every moment of being in his restaurant. He tells me he’s been the GM since January and has been trying to make it all make sense.
My feedback and thoughts over the next 20 minutes make us instant friends. I talked about the importance of first impressions, of being greeted, of communication. We talked about lifetime value of customers and how quickly you can lose one with the wrong people as your frontline folks. We talked about every touchpoint and interaction and how it all is part of the experience. We talked about the importance of making people feel welcome and proving them an atmosphere that invites them in and keeps them entertained. We talked about what the Hooters brand was built on and how this wasn’t it, whatsoever.
What he did next was surprising.
Not only did he regurgitate all that I pointed out, he said it really made an impact on him. He explained how much he needed someone like me to point it out and to make sense of the importance. He comped her meal and told my daughter that he’d love for her to come back another time and get a better experience. He gave me his phone number and told me to contact him before coming and that he’d personally update me on all the changes he’d make as a result of our conversation.
Well done, Hooters man.
And, to our server, she was merely caught in the middle. Working for a system that was failing all around her and doing her best to keep her head above water. She represented the brand well and wanted what was best for all her customers. And, my daughter loved her nails and asked if she could get a picture with them.
You see, when most people think of branding, they think of colors and logos. Branding is the core essence of your existence. It’s what your brand represents. It’s what your brand conveys. It’s the imagination your brand ignites. It’s the experience and feelings and atmosphere. It’s the floors, tables, dust, and lighting. It’s the menu & word choices, the food, the speed, and the smile that comes with it. It’s the bathrooms and the soap and the garbage and the type of toilet paper. It’s the system that works to remind you that you’re there for a reason. It’s what gets you to talk about it over and over and over.
Colors and logos are merely an opening to a door that, when open, make someone feel like they’re part of your team and you’re part of theirs. And, whatever you do, don’t just have a fancy logo and think it ends there.
And now she’s been to a Hooters and she definitely had an experience she could talk about.
So did I.
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