By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There are soccer moms at Hooters. There are soccer moms and their soccer kids in their soccer gear at Hooters. There are soccer dads here, too, on this Saturday night in April, but the stereotype goes that men are supposed to be here, so the soccer dads go unnoticed.
Because what's amazing about this scene are the females. They're everywhere. They're not just tending bar or taking orders; they're also drinking beer or feeding their infants or waiting for a table.
None of those waiting or seated elsewhere seem offended by the Hooters girls' attire. But other women and men in the nearby community are offended. These others, a collection of nearly 1,300 conservative Christians by some estimates, don't like the low-cut, tight-fitting tank tops. They don't like the shorts cut high on the butt. They don't like Hooters. They say it's fine in an entertainment district, but here, in southwest Arlington, not two miles from a densely residential area with 12 churches and two high schools, well, it's offensive to the community's sense of decency. They say alcohol served to young men by Hooters girls is a "volatile mix." They think the place is a breeding ground for sexual deviants.
"I think it's a crock," Carrie Minter says of the Partnership for Community Values, the neighborhood group opposed to Hooters. Minter finishes the last of her Hooters fries, steals a glance at Payton, her 8-month-old seated in a high chair at the end of the booth, and continues. "I don't think it's fair to the rest of the residents. We're more than comfortable with our children here." She looks down then returns her gaze. "I think it's embarrassing for Arlington."
For nearly three years, Hooters and the Partnership for Community Values have gone at it in the courts of Tarrant County--PCV wanting Hooters out of the area, or, failing that, its beer license pulled. To a large extent, PCV has succeeded. This Hooters at 5821 W. Interstate 20, just off of Little Road, had its second beer application denied in March. (Its first application was denied by the 2nd District Court of Appeals. The Texas Supreme Court later refused to hear the case.)
Hooters is appealing the March decision. Already it has lost. In April, a district judge ruled in favor of the denial. Still, Hooters forges on, appealing to the next court, and the next, just as it did with its first application.
Because, for Hooters, this denial is lunacy. Scott Wilkinson is the executive vice president of Texas Wings, the Hooters franchisee in Texas. The communities surrounding any Texas Hooters have never had a problem with sexual predators prowling the restaurant, he says. Nor has there ever been an increase in sexual crimes in the area surrounding a Hooters. Especially the Hooters in question. Denying the Arlington Hooters a beer license, he says, is "bullshit."
It's also legal. In the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, there is a clause that allows a judge to refuse a beer license on the grounds that granting it will offend "the general welfare, health, peace, morals, safety [or] sense of decency of the people."
PCV chose this clause as its argument against Hooters long ago. (No one from the group agreed to an interview with the Dallas Observer. Information about PCV was pieced together through court documents, newspapers and interviews with lawyers and public officials.)
In the end, that's what the whole case comes down to: the lunacy of the claim, and the legality of it.
At the initial hearing to approve Hooters' beer license in 2001, an outraged group of 30 came into the courtroom with stickers on their shirts that read, "Protect Our Children," and petitions in hand from some 1,300 people opposed to the ongoing construction of the restaurant.
Seven people spoke. Two were psychotherapists and Arlington residents. They each warned of the sexual macabre-ness of the restaurant. Said one of them, Wade Hemminger, "The danger...is that we're just adding to a tremendous amount of sexual messages that our children are getting." Hooters, he said, would create "an undue exposure in our neighborhood."
Bill Zedler, then the chairman of the community group (and now the state representative for southwest Arlington), said, "I think the major issue is you're mixing this very salacious sexual atmosphere with alcohol, and you're putting it in a residential neighborhood."
Arlington Councilman Ron Wright agreed.
It took Tarrant County Judge Tom Vandergriff until January 2002 to issue a ruling. He denied Hooters' beer license.
"There is a difference between Hooters' manner of operation and other TABC [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission] licensed establishments in the same location," he wrote. "That difference is the widespread, pervasive and management-condoned policy of using sex appeal to target a specific segment of the population to sell alcohol, food and merchandise...The local community sense of decency is contrary to the business method or manner of operation at the proposed location."
Hooters appealed. Visiting district Judge George Crowley in late February 2002 heard testimony and sided with Hooters, overturning Vandergriff's decision.
On March 13, 2002, one week after the restaurant opened, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission made it formal and granted Hooters its beer license.
But then the TABC appealed the decision. TABC officials thought Judge Vandergriff had salient points when he denied the beer license. So the TABC asked the Texas Attorney General's Office to appeal Judge Crowley's decision. The attorney general's office obliged. On June 26 the 2nd District Court of Appeals denied, once again, Hooters' beer license. Hooters again appealed. The Texas Supreme Court refused to hear the case. So Hooters applied for a second license.
"This is prima facie evidence toward Hooters' corporate arrogance," says Adam Vanek, the lawyer representing PCV for free.
Tarrant County Court at Law Judge Vince Sprinkle held the hearing to approve or deny the second license on March 12 of this year, one day after Hooters lost its first one. The session lasted eight hours. John Gessner and Steve Swander, Hooters' lawyers, said the restaurant had given back to the community (roughly $200,000 to numerous charities), stayed out of trouble (both with the TABC and the Arlington Police Department) and made the restaurant family-friendly (stop by on a Saturday, and it's like a Chuck E. Cheese).
Vanek said nothing had changed. It was still the same waitresses within the same restaurant, at the same location, in the same neighborhood.
Judge Sprinkle denied Hooters' license application. "The place and manner in which the applicant conducts its business warrants a refusal of the application based on the general welfare and morals of the people in the surrounding community, and on the public sense of decency," Sprinkle wrote. The community group with the pro bono lawyer had defeated the giant corporation. Again. "That was a big victory," Vanek says.
Despite three judges in three separate courts reaching the same conclusion, Hooters appealed.
On April 15, district Judge Jeff Walker upheld Judge Sprinkle's decision. "Nothing," he said, "indicates there's been a significant change [in the evidence]."
Gessner fumed. "In legal terms, it's a ho job," he said when asked about the ruling later that day. "I think [Walker] was lazy. I don't think he looked at the new evidence."
The new evidence is the restaurant's good behavior. For the two years it was allowed to sell beer--while the courts hemmed and hawed over Judge Crowley's decision to grant Hooters its beer license--the restaurant had no TABC violations. There were reports of crime, the Arlington police say, but nothing as serious as rape or sexual assault. And as for concerns that it corrupts youths, what about Mulligan's, the bar located less than a mile from Hooters with waitresses who dress in kind?
It's hypocrisy, Hooters spokesman Scott Wilkinson said. (Mulligan's is a bar, and the owner says one must be of age to enter.)
"The judge ruled correctly," Councilman Wright said afterward. Hooters is in a neighborhood near Martin High School, Wright points out. "I'm hoping Hooters will see the light. They can't keep coming back and taking a bite out of the same apple."
So they've found a different one. Vanek says the restaurant in southwest Arlington has applied for a hard liquor license. Gessner will neither confirm nor deny Vanek's statement.
For Vanek, for PCV, for seven of the eight Arlington City Council members who've supported the community group, continuing this battle is another show of Hooters' corporate arrogance. And its greed--beer sales make up roughly 25 percent of profits at Hooters. But for Wilkinson, fighting on is a must. There are, after all, the many letters of support.
As many as 10,000 of them signed by customers and siding with the restaurant have been dumped by Hooters officials onto the steps of City Hall and the desks of Congressman Joe Barton and state Representative Zedler. (Yet Zedler claims only a few of the letters he received contained local addresses. Hooters says otherwise. )
He filled them in. They said they come to Hooters a lot. And their morals could be corrupted much easier by satellite television or the Internet.
What the Hooters waitresses wear--that isn't bad at all. "Some people at school dress worse than that," said Taylor Shan, a sophomore.
"Some people's moms dress trashier than that," said junior Justin Holleston.
The other four started laughing.
"What? They do!" he said.