ORLANDO, Fla. — Sandwiches with a side dish of sex appeal were on the menu when Peter Buell and Rick Paulk stopped for lunch recently at a Tilted Kilt restaurant here.
“I like the waitresses and the uniforms, obviously,” said Buell, 50, as a young woman served him wearing a short plaid skirt and matching push-up bra under a midriff-baring white shirt.
The Tilted Kilt is part of a dining sector known in the industry as “breastaurants.” The edgy eateries with scantily clad servers are rapidly expanding throughout the United States.
The allure is simple: “Being able to freely gawk and leer at young women in scanty clothing,” said Chris Muller, a hospitality professor at Boston University. “That’s no longer socially acceptable, so we institutionalize it and give it a venue.”
While the outfits are skimpier, these days “breastaurants” — such as Twin Peaks, Brick House Tavern and Tap, and Hooters — say they are offering more than titillation, with unique themes and better food.
Rapid expansion has fueled growth at these small chains, which fall into a category that market-research firm Technomic euphemistically calls “attentive service.”
Twin Peaks plans to almost double the number of locations this year to about 50. In 2012, sales doubled to $97 million. From 2010 to 2011, according to a Technomic estimate, Tilted Kilt’s sales grew 33 percent to $124 million.
The notable exception is Hooters, which first made the concept mainstream in the 1980s after opening its first restaurant in Clearwater, Fla. It had 365 restaurants in 2011, down from 400 in 2008, according to Technomic’s estimates. It has shut down restaurants as it has struggled to stay relevant. Last year, the chain said it wanted to lure in more women with new decor and more salads. Hooters executives wouldn’t comment about how that effort is going.
Twin Peaks, on the other hand, unabashedly oozes testosterone. The mountain lodge-themed chain’s logo features two slightly curvy snow-capped mountains.
It bills itself as “the ultimate man cave” that “feeds the stomach and the ego at the same time.” Busty waitresses usually dress in shorts and skimpy tops, except on special occasions when they don lingerie.
“We don’t pretend to be a brand that is going to have a super-broad appeal to families and girls’ night out,” Chief Executive Officer Randy DeWitt said.
Other companies are more subtle. Brick House’s website focuses on food, its servers in shirts with plunging necklines almost an afterthought. And at the Tilted Kilt in Orlando, manager Edward Schoenleber said women make up about 15 percent of customers now. He said he even has a children’s menu.
Sandy Luicana of Boyertown, Pa., recently ate lunch at Tilted Kilt with her husband, Don, and 23-year-old son, Nathaniel. A fan of sports bars in general, Luicana liked her lunch — “probably one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had” — and the Scottish-pub theme.
And the staff?
“I’m OK with their boobs hanging out,” she said. “They’re not flaunting them in your faces and all that. They’re being very respectful.”
Waitress Aileen Suseck, 22, said the customers are courteous and tip well. Suseck initially had some reservations about her uniform but said she finds the atmosphere fun.
The restaurants want women who entertain as much as serve.
“Twin Peaks Girls” are trained to be “super-friendly” and “complimentary towards our guests,” DeWitt said.
At Tilted Kilt, waitresses often sit down and chat with the customers. One server gave Buell a friendly side-hug on his way in.
“You become friends,” said Suseck, an actress who got a job with Tilted Kilt after graduating from the University of Tampa. “It’s not, you know, sleazy.”
But opening restaurants with a sexually charged atmosphere can lead to problems. A Chicago Tilted Kilt franchisee last year settled a harassment lawsuit filed by 19 women who worked there. The women said the restaurant’s managers and owners made demeaning comments toward them.
And while sex clearly sells, an eatery that relies on little else runs the risk of going bust. Take Java Girls, an Orlando coffeehouse featuring bikini-clad baristas. A little more than a year after opening, it is now history.
“Gimmicks don’t tend to sustain a business,” said Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant consultant with Ohio-based WD Partners.
Ker’s WingHouse, a Largo, Fla.-based wing chain known for waitresses in tank tops and athletic shorts, is conservative compared with newer competitors, Chief Executive Officer Crawford Ker said. He wants to keep it that way.
“I think some of them cross the line,” he said. “If you promote sex appeal till the cows come home and then you want to change it, like Hooters … it might be too late.”