Local flavours, higher necklines and longer shorts: Hooters adapts to Asian tastes

SINGAPORE: US restaurant chain Hooters is aiming for a bigger share of the food and beverage market in Asia and to do so, it is willing to adapt to the tastes and demands of the region.

Led by Bangkok-based franchisee Destination Group, the ambitious expansion plan will see more than 30 new Hooters restaurants across Asia over the next few years. This year, it has unveiled two outlets in Singapore and one in Jakarta. This adds to the four restaurants in Thailand and one in Hong Kong, which opened in 2015.

According to Mr Neil Bailey, the president of Hooters Asia, the company will remain on an “aggressive” expansion path, given the encouraging results thus far. The new restaurants in Singapore, which opened in the first quarter of 2017, have seen good takings, with its 100-seater outlet at Marina Bay exceeding expectations.

Hooters – known for its attractive female staff who wear the uniform of tight white tank tops and skimpy orange shorts while serving chicken wings and drinks – made its foray into Asia in 1996 when another franchisee set up the first Hooters restaurant in Singapore.

The outlet, which remains in Clarke Quay, underwent a revamp last year to celebrate its 20th anniversary and is the only outlet in Singapore that does not come under Destination Group.

The outlet at Fusionopolis opened for business in March. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

With skimpily clad waitresses being a core part of the restaurant chain’s image, the expansion of Hooters in largely traditional Asia faces some hurdles. To garner a bigger slice of the burgeoning Asian market, Mr Bailey told Channel NewsAsia that the American diner is willing to make adjustments.

“We are still Hooters but we recognise that if we want to be a part of the community, we have to adapt to be embraced. So, as opposed to the attitude of ‘We are here and get used to it’, we say ‘We’d like to be here. Is this acceptable?’”

At its newly unveiled outlet in Jakarta, for instance, there have been minor modifications. While it largely mimics most of the chain’s other 420 restaurants in the US and worldwide, Mr Bailey describes it as having a “family restaurant experience”.

Apart from a halal menu that offers kids’ meals and local flavours such as sambal sauce, the outlet is fitted with high chairs, booster seats and a tinted glass window that blocks the view of the bar from the main street. Uniforms of its waitresses, otherwise known as Hooters Girls, will have higher necklines, longer skirts with shorts underneath and thicker stockings.

“We want to be culturally respectful,” said Mr Bailey, adding that the management team reached out to local officials and community leaders before the outlet in Kemang opened for business.

“We sat down with members of the local governing boards and advisers of a mosque nearby. We showed them our website and said: ‘This is who we are. We know this is not acceptable so what would be acceptable?’ They gave us some suggestions and we asked for some time to work on them.”

Mr Neil Bailey, president of Hooters Asia, is leading the American restaurant chain’s ambitious expansion plan across Asia. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

For now, the new uniforms remain in the works and will be rolled out in due course.

“We are still talking and engaging with the local community. In fact, when we opened the outlet, the senior community leaders came and we had dinner together,” added Mr Bailey, who emphasised that adapting to distinct conditions of each market is a critical ingredient for success.

“Hooters of America was worried (that modifications would dilute the brand) but we didn’t have to take long to convince them. You can’t just come in with the mindset of ‘I’m here now so accept it’. It’s about adapting to your environment and knowing that you are the guest. When you recognise that, they will welcome you like any new neighbour.”

With the successful opening in Indonesia, Hooters is confident of replicating this in neighbouring market Malaysia, where it has received interest from prospective landlords.

“Since we opened in Jakarta, landlords in Kuala Lumpur have reached out to us now that we have a good business model that we can present in a respectful way,” said Mr Bailey. “We think we can be ready by early next year.”

The restaurant in Kemang, Jakarta, opened for business on Mar 24. (Photo: Hooters Asia)

Apart from Kuala Lumpur, the company has also set its sights on Taipei, Manila, Koh Samui and Phnom Penh. Among those, Mr Bailey thinks Cambodia will be the most challenging market. 

“Cambodia has a very reserved culture, even compared with Indonesia, and it is still a developing economy,” he said. “Our mid- to high-level pricing is not a barrier in developed cities but in an emerging market, we do notice that it’s not as easy to fill the restaurant. But if we want to be a brand throughout Asia, we cannot cherry pick.”

IS HOOTERS’ RECIPE OF SEX APPEAL OUTDATED?

Hooters’ plan to increase its presence in this part of the world comes as the American diner faces souring profits and market share back home amid up-and-coming competitors such as Twin Peaks.

Since opening its first outlet in Florida in 1983, the restaurant chain has long been criticised for building its brand based on sex appeal.

When asked whether he thinks that Hooters’ concept is outdated and sexist, Mr Bailey said: “Good food and good quality service – these are at the heart of Hooters. I would like to think of us as a five-star hotel where you know what you are getting – big screens showing sports, ice-cold beer and wings.”

“The Hooters Girl is iconic. She is a professional who may be earning extra money for college or working hard to (become) a general manager. Waitresses, pretty or sexy, are professional service staff who give you a great experience.”

But one might ask what does good service have to do with skimpy uniforms?

To that, Mr Bailey replied: “The uniform has (been) altered over the last 30 years of the brand … and if you think this is dressing sexy, you might want to walk down Orchard Road on a Saturday. I think this is attractive, feminine and I don’t think this is overly sexualised in my opinion.”

In fact, all Hooters Girls are not allowed to don accessories, including earrings, bracelets and necklaces, to avoid “overly sexualising her image”. The chief of Hooters Asia also revealed that the main criteria for a Hooters Girl is a “vivacious, outgoing character” and the ability to dance. Apart from waitressing, female staff at Hooters also perform choreographed dances.

According to Mr Bailey, Hooters Girls enjoy “premium pay”, such as S$ 20 per hour for part timers and free gym memberships.

Ms Kelwen Liew, 21, says she likes the “fun, lively working environment” at Hooters. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

Twenty-one-year-old Kelwen Liew, who is working part time at Hooters, said she had reservations initially but the “fun, lively working environment” has since made her change her mind.

“I’ve heard people talking about how (we) are dressed skimpily but I don’t think so. We have stockings which provide some coverage and even the top is nothing too revealing for me,” the polytechnic graduate said. “To people who have a bad impression of Hooters, I would say it’s not what you think. The work environment is lively and fun, and people I’ve encountered so far treat us with a lot of respect.”

Follow See Kit on Twitter @SeeKitCNA 

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Singapore economy logs 2.5% growth in Q1, higher than expectations

SINGAPORE: For the first quarter of 2017, Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by 2.5 per cent compared to the same period a year ago, advance estimates from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) showed on Thursday (Apr 13).

That is higher than the median forecast of 2.4 per cent in a Reuters poll but marks a pullback from the previous quarter’s 2.9 per cent growth.

On a quarter-on-quarter, seasonally adjusted annualised basis, the economy shrank 1.9 per cent during the January to March period, coming in line with expectations. While the annualised GDP reading is a stark reversal from the stellar 12.3 per cent rebound last quarter, economists said it is not a cause for worry.

“The quarter-on-quarter figure tends to be very volatile. A mild pullback shouldn’t be a surprise given the manufacturing surge last quarter,” said Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin, referring to the strong turnaround in factory output towards the end of 2016 which provided a surprise lift to the overall economy.

For the first three months of 2017, Singapore’s manufacturing sector contracted 6.6 per cent on a quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted annualised basis, reversing from the 39.8 per cent surge in the previous quarter.

On a year-on-year basis, the sector moderated from growth of 11.5 per cent to 6.6 per cent, which according to Dr Chua is still a “very healthy reading”.

In other sectors, construction continued to underperform by shrinking 1.1 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter, extending the 2.8 per cent decline in the previous quarter on the back of a slowdown in private sector construction activities. On a quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted annualised basis, the sector expanded by 5.4 per cent, accelerating from the 0.8 per cent growth in the preceding quarter.

The services producing industries grew 1.5 per cent on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter, improving from growth of 1.0 per cent in the previous quarter. However, on a quarter-on-quarter basis, the sector shrank at an annualised rate of 2.2 per cent after expanding 8.4 per cent in the last quarter.

Such mixed figures show that the local services sector, which accounts for about two-thirds of the economy, continues to “punch below its weight”, said Mizuho Bank’s senior economist Vishnu Varathan.

“Anything related to the property or banking sector is not in high gear and with these uncertain (components), any recovery is not going to come as quickly as what we’ve seen in the manufacturing sector,” he told Channel NewsAsia. “Services will remain a lingering drag.”

MTI will release the revised GDP data for the first quarter, including performance by sectors, sources of growth, inflation, employment and productivity, in its Economic Survey of Singapore in May.

The advance GDP estimates are computed largely from data in the first two months of the quarter – in this case, January and February. They are intended as an early indication of GDP growth in the quarter and are subject to revision when more comprehensive data becomes available.

Private sector economists had forecast Singapore’s first-quarter GDP to be 2.6 per cent, according to the latest quarterly survey by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in March. For the full year, economists raised their GDP forecast to 2.3 per cent – a sharp hike from the previous estimation of 1.5 per cent.

That marks a pick-up from the 2.0 per cent growth recorded in 2016, and would be in the upper half of the Government’s official 2017 GDP forecast range of 1 to 3 per cent.

Noting the growth figures, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore’s economy “did quite well in Q1” and that the “outlook is encouraging”.

In a Facebook post on Thursday evening, Mr Lee added that he met labour movement leaders during the week to find out “how things are in their different industries”. 

“They spoke about the challenges they are facing, the changes they foresee, and how they are helping workers cope,” he wrote.

Mr Lee added that he will talk about Singapore’s economy and job situation at the upcoming May Day Rally. 

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Stocks, dollar edge higher ahead of Trump-Xi meeting

NEW YORK: Global equity markets and the dollar edged higher on Thursday, helped by fresh data showing a tighter U.S. labor market, as investors stayed cautious before the first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

Key stock indexes in Europe and on Wall Street climbed but a gauge of global equities was little changed, with gains offset by a decline in emerging markets .

The dollar index extended gains after data showed new applications last week for U.S. unemployment benefits recorded their biggest drop in nearly two years.

Last week’s jobless claims data, however, has little bearing on the March employment report due out on Friday. Claims rose during the survey week for nonfarm payrolls last month, suggesting some moderation in the pace of job growth.

“The market will be very remiss to do anything too sharp at this point, given that we have payrolls coming up,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, an interest rate strategist at TD Securities in New York.

The dollar index rose 0.15 percent, with the euro down 0.18 percent to US$ 1.0643. The Japanese yen weakened 0.21 percent versus the greenback at 110.93 per dollar.

Trump faces pressure to deliver trade concessions with China for some of his most fervent supporters and to prevent a crisis with North Korea from spiraling out of control. However, White House officials have set expectations low for the meeting.

The market’s main concern is that Trump and Xi may not see eye-to-eye on most things and that traders will infer this from their body language, said Thierry Albert Wizman, global interest rates and currencies strategist, at Macquarie Group in New York.

“Rather than a lack of agreement, however, the greater risk is a lack of deep engagement,” he said.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 51.75 points, or 0.25 percent, to 20,699.9. The S&P 500 gained 5.89 points, or 0.25 percent, to 2,358.84 and the Nasdaq Composite added 12.22 points, or 0.21 percent, to 5,876.69.

The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index closed up 0.16 percent to 1,499.94, while MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe fell 0.06 percent.

Oil prices rose nearly 1 percent, on track for a fourth straight day of gains, but analysts warned record high U.S. inventories could derail the rally.

U.S. crude rose 55 cents to settle at US$ 51.70 a barrel and Brent settled up 53 cents at US$ 54.89.

U.S. Energy Department data show crude inventories at record levels, leading some analysts to say speculative buying is starting to reach dangerous levels from a technical perspective.

“It’s hard to justify the move on the on back of fundamentals,” said Robert Yawger, director in energy futures at Mizuho.

U.S. Treasury yields fell slightly ahead of the U.S. jobs report on Friday.

Benchmark 10-year Treasury notes were last up 2/32 in price to yield 2.3480 percent.

U.S. gold futures gained 0.39 percent to US$ 1,253.40 an ounce. Copper lost 0.29 percent to US$ 5,878.00 a tonne.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)

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