A recipe for harassment?
Dallas-based chain bucks dining trends in midst of #MeToo era
Crystal McBride didn’t mind wearing a crop top and shorts to work.
She wasn’t bothered by flirty banter with customers — she’s practiced at deflecting comments with a playful “Oh, I haven’t heard that one before” or an exaggerated eye roll — and she enjoyed the hustle for tips.
But McBride, who until recently worked at Twin Peaks locations around North Texas, did mind what she and other former employees of the Dallas-based “breastaurant” chain described in interviews and documents as a toxic work environment, where women employees were routinely pitted against one another, ranked based on arbitrary “tone scores” — evaluations of their bodies — and subjected to verbal harassment from customers and bosses alike.
“It’s taxing — it’s exhausting,” said McBride, a 30-yearold Frisco resident whose slight frame and colorful sneakers belie a simmering tenacity. “Twin Peaks has a way of making you feel like you’re backed into a corner.”
The lodge-themed chain has been singled out in recent years for bucking industry trends that have spelled pain for national casual restaurant chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s. It’s been expanding rapidly, growing to about 80 corporate-owned and franchised locations around the country since it was founded in 2005.
Its marketing highlights made-from-scratch bar food, big and omnipresent TVs —
the location at Dallas’ Mockingbird Station even has them in individual booths — and beer served at 29 degrees in frosty mugs.
‘Twin Peaks Girls’
What sets Twin Peaks apart, though, are the “Twin Peaks Girls” — servers who make up the “best-looking waitstaff in casual dining,” according to Twin Peaks’ website.
Now, as the #MeToo movement forces employers around the world to reckon with the harassment that women often face on the job, claims like McBride’s raise questions about whether the very notion of a breastaurant can survive the seismic shift.
Can such businesses adapt? Can they address concerns of the women whose work and bodies form the foundation of their success?
Twin Peaks executives, including founder Randy DeWitt, who occupies a prominent place in the Dallas-Fort Worth restaurant scene as CEO of Front Burner Restaurants, declined to be interviewed. Front Burner is behind many of the region’s trendy dining concepts, including Sixty Vines, Velvet Taco and Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar.
In an emailed statement, the chain’s attorney, Clay Mingus, denied wrongdoing.
“Twin Peaks does not tolerate sexual harassment and we have strict policies and training programs in place to ensure every employee is treated fairly and with respect,” the statement said. “We have successfully been delivering great food and hospitality for many years, and to disparage our entire company based on unsubstantiated allegations from a few disgruntled former employees is unfair and irresponsible.”
McBride is among more than two dozen women who have filed discrimination complaints against Twin Peaks with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Chicago-based attorney Tamara Holder said she’s representing about 50 women who made similar claims, but some fell outside the 300-day statute of limitations for bringing their complaints before the federal administrative body. reviewed 27 complaints. The majority contained little detail — for legal strategy reasons, Holder said — but they alleged discrimination on the basis of sex, race and disability. Women also said they were retaliated against for speaking out.
The News spoke with five former employees, three “Twin Peaks Girls,” one female manager and one male manager. Their stories paint a picture of a workplace rife with favoritism and abuse. The environment, the workers said, wore them down, eroding their sense of self day by day. Even if they made money, the emotional cost became too high.
McBride first got a job at Twin Peaks late in 2015 after working a range of restaurant gigs, from serving at a momand-pop sushi joint to decorating cakes at a mall Paradise Bakery. She’d even worked at similar restaurants before: Hooters and the Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery in Frisco, until it closed. Hooters, especially, she’d liked.
But as early as the hiring process, Twin Peaks felt different. For one thing, she was told to purchase much of her own uniform. Then, she had to buy bling, makeup and hair products aimed at making her look like, as managers instructed her, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. She learned to wing her eyeliner and apply false eyelashes and bought a dazzling belt.
By the time she worked her first shift, McBride estimates, she’d spent about $300. That number would climb to the thousands over the course of her time at Twin Peaks — the cost of themed lingerie, bikinis and boots.
Another unusual part of the Twin Peaks experience: preshift rankings, which determined when and where in the restaurant servers would be able to work, which affected how much money they could make. The women were awarded “tone scores,” based on the fat on their backs, stomachs, arms and legs.
McBride and other women said the scores felt subjective.
“Corporate” demanded to see photos of women before each shift, and McBride said the photos often resulted in criticism.
“They’d say this girl doesn’t have the right jewelry on, this girl doesn’t have enough makeup on, this girl’s hair’s too flat, she needs more volume to her hair,” she recalled. “And then the manager comes back out and says, ‘Your lipstick — it doesn’t look like you have any lipstick on … and corporate would like you to put on something brighter.’”
In emailed responses to a detailed list of questions from
Twin Peaks said that while “we recognize that the concept may not be for everyone, the essence of Twin Peaks is based in large part on female sex appeal and maintenance of certain image guidelines related to costume, makeup, hair, nails and tone.” Performance, too, factors into the rankings.
The company said servers are made aware of the guidelines when they sign on to work at Twin Peaks, and they’re “regularly re-emphasized over the course of employment.”
The pre-shift photos of women are part of broader efforts to “facilitate the execution of high performing and consistent shifts,” efforts that also included taking photos of menu items.
McBride and other former employees, however, said “tone scores” seemed to become more important following a brief period with a woman CEO, Starlette Johnson. The former employees said she seemed to be at the forefront of chainwide efforts to dial back some of the more overtly sexual elements of the “Twin Peaks Girls” job.
Then current CEO Joe Hummel, as the head of Twin Peaks’ largest franchisee, took over the whole chain in 2016, dress-up days came back — and, employees said, they were made to believe they were mandatory.
Susan Winfield, a former manager who trained in Dallas before opening Twin Peaks’ Orland Park, Ill., location, said that when she recruited women, she didn’t tell them about dress-up days because she thought the idea was on its way out.
“[Johnson] seemed like she was about changing the culture, making it more conservative, making it not so raunchy,” she said. “When she left, it went fullblown, ‘The less, the better.’ ”
At one point, women at her restaurant were ticketed by police for indecent exposure, according to multiple former employees and one of the EEOC complaints.
The company said executives put the costume parties on hold in late 2015 to “assess their relevance” to the brand.
“After receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from both employees and customers alike, we re-instituted costume parties system-wide in October 2016,” the company said.
The company said that dress-up days are not required and that both individual locations and servers can opt out.
Johnson, the former CEO, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Winfield said she was unfairly fired when she complained about managers “sleeping with staff and doing drugs with each other.”
Twin Peaks denied retaliatory action.
Anna Jacobs, a 21-year-old who worked at Twin Peaks in Greenville, S.C., until she quit a few months ago, said that before Hummel took over, there was some logic to the grading system. Coming in to work on time mattered, knowing the menu mattered.
“I had always been at the top. I have a good work ethic. But once I had to talk about my weight, I was always at the bottom,” Jacobs said.
The reason she gained weight? She had a baby.
The company said it follows federal family and medical leave requirements.
Holder, the attorney representing former employees, said Twin Peaks’ corporate leaders made the restaurants the hostile work environment they are.
“The women of Twin Peaks are in purgatory — they’re not strippers, they’re not in a respected service industry,” she said. “So they are victims of abuse at the highest corporate level and the lowest customer level.”
‘All about looks’
So how much of that is inherent in the breastaurant business and how much of that is Twin Peaks allegedly treating its employees badly?
That’s up for some debate. Stefanie K. Johnson, an associate business professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who co-wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review about sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, said it’s theoretically possible for a such a restaurant to exist without rampant toxicity.
“The rules just need to be put in place, like what language is acceptable and the line for contact,” she said in an email. “Admittedly, it would be tough to tell customers that they can’t leer at women, but otherwise there should be guidelines.”
Johnson said such policies are best when they start from the top.
“If the CEO says, ‘This is what we are going to do,’ people will listen,” she said. “But even without that, the enforcement of HR policies is a good start.”
Hooters, the original breastaurant, founded in 1983, has hardly been immune from controversy over the years. Its executives said they’ve worked hard to make reporting sexual harassment easy.
While McBride said she had trouble getting a response through the harassment reporting channels made available to her, Twin Peaks said in its emailed responses that the company maintains an “ethics/ complaint phone number and a web-based submission process, both of which allow a complaining party to remain anonymous if they so choose.”
In the past year, the company said, it has received about 10 complaints specifically relating to harassment across the corporate-owned 30 restaurants, where a total of 2,500 people work.
Still, some say none of that solves breastaurants’ most fundamental problems.
A recent study published in the
found higher levels of anxiety and eating disorders among women who worked in what are known as sexually objectifying restaurant environments.
Sarah Blaylock, the first former Twin Peaks employee to contact Holder, the lawyer, said she continues to struggle with body image issues and stress stemming from her time at the restaurant.
Asked whether it would be possible for Twin Peaks to operate in a way that wasn’t damaging to women, she responded: “Absolutely not.”
“I feel like it’s all manipulation,” Blaylock said. “It’s all about looks.”
The future of breastaurants may be at risk for a much more mundane reason: changing consumer preferences.
“It’s hard to age gracefully,” said Robert Byrne, an expert with restaurant data firm Technomic.
Twin Peaks seems to have a winning formula, for now.
Technomic estimated that the brand’s sales increased by about 9 percent last year, Byrne said, and it went from 79 to 80 stores from 2016 to 2017.
“This is clearly above that casual dining growth that we’re seeing for overall,” he said. “It’s not hard to find stories that have a little bit of, shall we say, a bleak view of what’s going on in that category.”
But he said it’s tough to pinpoint what’s working.
Twin Peaks outperformed sports bars as a category, which grew by 3.9 percent, compared with 1.3 percent for casual dining overall, according to Technomic data.
Lingerie vs. food
So does its edge lie in the fact that Twin Peaks is upping the ante by requiring women to wear lingerie, or is it the betterthan-average food and variety of booze, both popular among coveted millennial diners?
Byrne said it could be a combination of those factors, especially as Hooters loses the cheeky shock value that once set it apart.
“Think about the traditional white tank top … that, once upon a time, was quite suggestive,” Byrne said. “Not so much anymore.”
In a 2014 interview with Bloomberg, founder DeWitt — who has since given up the reins of Twin Peaks to focus on Front Burner concepts — said he saw an opportunity because “Hooters just wasn’t racy enough.”
Technomic data showed Hooters’ sales declined 2 percent from 2016 to 2017, and its store count remained flat. But Carl Sweat, Hooters of America’s chief marketing officer, disputed that and said the chain’s total revenue growth would be in the “high single digits” this year.
Byrne said Hooters has been navigating a change into a more family-friendly establishment. (Sweat said Hooters serves millions of kids’ meals.) And even if that’s less novel, it may still be a smart move.
Millennials are aging, Byrne said.
“Millennials who are parents of kids use food service more than any other group,” he said. “My wife and I are not taking our 2-year-old, our 4-year-old to [Twin Peaks] . ... Hooters realized this. You’ve got to grow up at some point.”
And the generation of consumers that’s filling in behind millennials is growing up in a world where unapologetic sexism feels passé. So building your brand on those ideals could be a turn-off, Byrne said.
“Think about what’s going on in terms of popular conceptions of beauty — how that’s changed and now there’s a demand for beauty in all of its different, wonderful, sizes, shapes and colors,” he said.
See it for what it is
By early this year, McBride said, relentless scrutiny of her appearance, unchecked harassment from customers and drama among staff members were making her dread going to work.
She said she ended up getting fired — two hours after sending an email to her colleagues with information about filing an EEOC complaint and contact information for Holder. This followed what she said were months of repeated complaints to management about the ranking system and other unsafe working conditions.
Twin Peaks attorney Mingus wouldn’t comment on her firing.
In spite of everything, initially McBride didn’t think the breastaurant industry was beyond saving.
But she changed her mind after leaving the service industry completely. Now, she does data entry for a freight company.
“When I was a little girl, I loved going to Hooters — the girls were fun, bubbly, like the baby sitter you wanted to go to when your parents would go to a movie,” McBride said. “Now, that childhood idolization I had of those young girls, I can see it for what it actually is.”
McBride now sees breastaurants as places where young women are groomed to accept roles where they’re treated as sex objects.
“I’ll tell you, my daughter won’t work for one,” she said. “Ever.”
The Twin Peaks chain, founded in 2005, has about 80 locations around the country. More than two dozen women have filed discrimination complaints against Twin Peaks with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“The women of Twin Peaks are in purgatory — they’re not strippers, they’re not in a respected service industry. So they are victims of abuse at the highest corporate level and the lowest customer level,” says Chicago-based attorney Tamara Holder.