Why won't Hooters play in Peoria?

by John Ring

Mary Gabel's rise in the restaurant business is typical of many in this wildly successful, capitalistic society of ours.

She started as a waitress at a restaurant in July 1995.

''My husband and I came here for dinner one night,'' said Mary ''and I thought it would be a fun place to work at.''

So Mary applied for and received a position as a waitress.

And now, just four and a half years later, Mary Gabel manages that same restaurant.

Great story, right?

It should be -- unless you're a member of the National Organization of Women.

You see, Mary Gabel manages the Hooters Restaurant in Davenport.

That's right. Mary Gabel was a Hooters girl.

The All-American cheerleader, the surfer girl who lives next door. The waitress with a vivacious, outgoing personality who always has a prom-like appearance.

Hooters has been in the news recently because the City Council of Peoria -- doing their best imitation of the City Council of Galesburg -- was aghast that this nationwide restaurant chain wanted to expand and build a restaurant in their fair city. Worse, the Peoria-based Hooters would be a part of a highly-visible rejuvenation project of the riverfront in Peoria called Riverfront Village.

No way, the Council said. This project was to be based on family entertainment. It's too visible.

Never mind that Big Al's sits just a few blocks away. Or that one of the worst red-light districts in Illinois sits close by as well.

And it didn't matter that Hooters was willing to sign a 40-year lease.

On top of that, Hooters opened a restaurant Super Bowl Sunday in Bloomington and a few loud protesters -- mostly from the aforementioned NOW group -- picketed.

''We acknowledge that we're politically incorrect,'' said Hooters spokesperson Mike McNeil, ''but we're not planning on making any changes. We like being the way we are.''

McNeil said that Hooters is used to such protests. ''We've always had them. But we realize that the same First Amendment that gives us the right to do business also protects their freedom of speech. We respect their rights as individuals to express themselves.''

''We're not a family restaurant but rather a neighborhood restaurant,'' said Gabel. ''This is a casual place where you can come in and relax. You can have a sandwich and a beer.You can watch a football game or play trivia games. We even have special sections here for kids. There's an area where they can play with hula hoops and we have small cars they play in. Our girls even pull them around in them.''

McNeil also stated that Hooters has donated over $6 million to charities since 1992 to an assortment of groups -- from the Muscular Dystrophy Association to shelters for battered women.

''We raise money locally through car washes, golf tournaments and charity events involving our racing circuit,'' said McNeil.

Why are some folks scared of Hooters?

The NOW forces say that waitresses are exploited because they wear halter tops and shorts. It's too revealing. Too sexy.

Some council members in Peoria are offended by that. Peoria Mayor Bud Grieves is a born again Christian who agrees.

The biggest misconception about Hooters?

''The biggest is that we're topless,'' said Jenny Reisdorph, a waitress at the Hooters in Davenport. ''It's hard to believe how many people think that.''

Jenny's a 19-year-old who's working her way through college. In many ways, she typifies a Hooters waitress. Lots of them work and go to school. Others are single Moms. ''Most of our girls are either going to Augustana, St. Ambrose or Black Hawk College,'' said Gabel.

True, Hooters girls dress skimpily.

''Any place you go to eat, you'd like your waiter or waitress to be nice and presentable,'' said Gabel. ''You don't want them to look like they just fell out of bed.''

Hooter's in Davenport has 50 employees. It's been open since February 1995 and does a great business.

''Saturday and Monday nights are our busiest times,'' said Reisdorph. ''Sunday afternoons are pretty hectic as well. But I enjoy working here. I love sports, I love the Mallards. It's a great atmosphere.''

Jenny Reisdorph -- who was my waitress when I visited -- plans on going to school in Lincoln, Neb. next year.

''There's a Hooters in Lincoln,'' said Jenny, ''so that's where I'll be working.''

McNeil and Hooters are not giving up the site in Peoria. ''We consider downtown Peoria a very viable site for us. In any new market, there's misconceptions about us. We basically just try to correct the information that's being put out about us.''

Mike Wisdom is the director of the Riverfront Village project in Peoria. The Village is located at the foot of Main Street, right on the Illinois River.

''Right now Damon's is open and is doing very well,'' said Wisdom. ''Joe's Crab Shack is due to open this month. We were hoping to have Hooters locate here to give us three national restaurants in the area but right now the case is in court.''

Wisdom said that with the new 120,000 square feet Recreational Complex opening up just two blocks to the north and a proposed brand-new Peoria Chiefs baseball park three blocks away, Peoria's long dormant riverfront would come alive.

''Everyone likes the water, to be by it,'' said Wisdom. ''For years, the lots have been empty on Peoria's riverfront but we think that Riverfront Village will draw a lot of crowds here.''

Sounds like a great plan to me. But there's just one problem -- the City Council.

And the good citizens of Galesburg should know all about that.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online April 8, 2000

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