Shtick Happens

No wonder people crowd into Hooters. It has a pert name, firm menu, low-cut prices and a revealing window to the kitchen. We can't think of anything else necessary for success in the service industry.

Oh, yeah. There is one more thing: babes.

"Sexism runs rampant," says Glenn Hartzell, bar manager at Stolik. "But are you going to get upset about it or use it to your advantage? This is entertainment."

Men and women serve food and drinks and guide patrons to tables. Patrons refer to them casually as bartenders or servers or hosts. They are, however, actors and actresses providing a show, a diversion from the ordinary. People enter bars and restaurants, in other words, intent on forking over some cash in exchange for a spectacle: skilled presentation, elaborate service, great music, female staff with large breasts--whatever. Repeat business depends on a patron's experience; superior food or drink becomes part of the entertainment value.

Face it; if quality alone mattered, Hooters, Olive Garden, Arby's and other such places would sit deserted. If quality were the utmost consideration, Pauly Shore, Adam Sandler and the guys who performed "Best I Ever Had" would be toiling at a deserted Arby's.

Yes, the Burning Question crew is a bit jealous. And bitter.

The sexism of which Hartzell speaks exists not in the industry itself but as a lingering set of expectations noticeable in patron behavior. Female bartenders, for example, generally rake in more tip money than their male counterparts. Servers and bartenders often earn more or less depending on their exhibition of jewelry--wedding bands in particular. As ipso facto entertainers, bar and restaurant owners must bend with the whims of the crowd if they covet success.

"The crowd dictates the employees," explains Bob Sambol, owner of Bob's Steak and Chophouse. "This is not rocket science. They are trying to give us money, so let's not screw it up."

But does it really matter? Do patrons respond differently when confronted by male or female staff at a bar or restaurant?

"I think women like men waiting on them and men like women," Sambol says. "I can't explain it. I just think they feel comfortable with the opposite sex." His restaurant, by the way, staffs an all-female bartending team on many nights and quite a few female waitstaff. His patrons, conversely, tend to be male.

"Young people, old people, women, men--everybody has their preferences," says Al Biernat, owner of Al Biernat's on Oak Lawn Avenue. "That's our business."

Blue Mesa conducts periodic surveys of quality asking diners whether they encountered a manager at some point during their visit. The questionnaires reveal patrons who consistently notice male managers. If a female happens to address them, however, they often identify her as a hostess. Thus the strategy of places like Hooters or Coyote Ugly makes sense.

"It's strange," agrees Adam Salazar, bartender at Republic and several other venues, "but there are certain places where it's an advantage."

Despite the male-female ratio at Bob's, high-end restaurants rely more on preparation and service than appearance. Diners expect a certain level of sophistication at the host stand and from the servers. "Male or female doesn't matter as long as they know what they're doing," Biernat says.

Bars, on the other hand, often recruit staff specifically to balance appeal and service. "I like to see teams behind the bar," says Danny Versfelt, bartender at Al Biernat's. "Men like seeing a guy back here, but they like talking to a girl." The Burning Question crew visited several locations and found many such teams in place. At Stolik, for instance, Hartzell paired up with Mishelle Grant.

"It's a different business," Hartzell acknowledges. "My job is to be the workhorse; hers is to entertain."

Patrons respond to the composition of a bar staff. A group of females behind the bar will attract a largely male clientele, for example, not necessarily a good thing in the alcohol trade. Yet the absence of female bartenders also affects patron behavior. "There's a little bit more forgiveness factor for slow service if you're a cute female," Hartzell says.

At a certain point the desire for quality service and engaging conversation supercedes the eye-candy appeal, even in bars. "Male and female bartenders all develop their set of regulars," says Niina, a bartender at Paris Vendome. "If you're good, your customers will follow, regardless."

Still, she admits, "guys stick around longer when there's a woman behind the bar."

Our answer, then, to this week's Burning Question is an unequivocal yes...and no. Gender makes a difference for certain patrons and in certain establishments. Hooters depends on latent sexism--or misplaced libidinousness--for business, while outstanding food and exquisite service attract people to fine dining restaurants such as Nana, Abacus or Al Biernat's. Bars, meanwhile, use male and female staff to define their crowd.

Ultimately, we're all just looking for a show. Some of us prefer a more risqué performance than others.


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