Twin Peaks ‘breas­t­au­rant’ chain un­der #MeToo fire from within

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - By Jill Cowan

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-year-old Frisco res­i­dent. “Twin Peaks has a way of mak­ing you feel like you’re backed into a cor­ner.”

The lodge-themed chain has been ex­pand­ing rapidly, grow­ing to about 80 cor­po­rate-owned and fran­chised lo­ca­tions around the coun­try — in­clud­ing lo­ca­tions in Austin and Round Rock — since it was founded in 2005.

Its mar­ket­ing high­lights made­from-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.

What sets Twin Peaks apart, though, are the “Twin Peaks Girls” — servers who make up the “most ta­lented and best-look­ing wait­staff in ca­sual din­ing,” ac­cord­ing to Twin Peaks’ web­site.

Now, as the #MeToo move­ment forces em­ploy­ers across the world to reckon with ha­rass­ment 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 is CEO of Front Burner Res­tau­rants, de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.

In an emailed state­ment from the chain’s at­tor­ney, Clay Min­gus, Twin Peaks ex­ec­u­tives 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 ... to dis­par­age our en­tire com­pany based on un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions from a few dis­grun­tled for­mer em­ploy­ees is un­fair and ir­re­spon­si­ble,” the state­ment said.

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 to­tal who made sim­i­lar claims.

The Dal­las Morn­ing News re­viewed 27 com­plaints, the ma­jor­ity of which con­tained lit­tle de­tail but al­leged dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of sex, race and dis­abil­ity. Women also claimed they were re­tal­i­ated against for speak­ing out.

The Morn­ing 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.

The ‘tone scores’

McBride first got a job at Twin Peaks late in 2015. Once she started work­ing, she said she learned about an 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,” where the fat on their backs, stom­achs, arms and legs was eval­u­ated. “Cor­po­rate” de­manded to see pho­tos of women be­fore each shift, which McBride said of­ten came back with crit­i­cism.

Twin Peaks said in an emailed re­sponse 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.

McBride and other for­mer em­ploy­ees, how­ever, said “tone scores” seemed to be­come more im­por­tant fol­low­ing a brief pe­riod with a woman CEO, Star­lette John­son, whom the for­mer em­ploy­ees said seemed to be at the fore­front of chain-wide ef­forts to dial back some of the more overtly sex­ual el­e­ments of the job.

But when cur­rent CEO Joe Hum­mel took over in 2016, dress-up days came back — and, em­ploy­ees said, they were made to be­lieve they were manda­tory.

Anna Ja­cobs, a 21-year-old who worked at Twin Peaks in Greenville, S.C., un­til she quit a few months ago, said be­fore Hum­mel took over, there was some logic to the grad­ing sys­tem. Com­ing into work on time mat­tered, know­ing the menu mat­tered.

Af­ter­ward, none of it did, she said.

“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. “It un-mo­ti­vates you to work.”

The prob­lem for the women hop­ing to take le­gal ac­tion, said Joanna Gross­man, a pro­fes­sor at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity’s Ded­man School of Law, is that to prove sex-based dis­crim­i­na­tion, it helps to have a male work­force for com­par­i­son. But in this case, all the servers are women.

Go­ing for­ward, Gross­man said there’s room to push the law for­ward for in­dus­tries that seem to “in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize ha­rass­ment” or bake it into their busi­ness mod­els — like breas­t­au­rants or pro­fes­sional sports cheer­lead­ing squads.

But for now, she said, “noth­ing’s hap­pen­ing in the law that’s re­flec­tive of what’s hap­pen­ing in the cul­ture.”

BRIAN ELLEDGE / THE DAL­LAS MORN­ING NEWS

Pedes­tri­ans walks past the Twin Peaks restau­rant in Mock­ing Bird Sta­tion in Dal­las. The “breas­t­au­rant” chain has about 80 lo­ca­tions na­tion­wide.

ROSE BACA / THE DAL­LAS MORN­ING NEWS

Crys­tal McBride, 30, of Frisco, worked for Twin Peaks lo­ca­tions around North Texas. She is one of dozens of women who al­lege that the Dal­las­based com­pany fos­tered a toxic work en­vi­ron­ment in which women were ranked based on ar­bi­trary body eval­u­a­tions and sub­ject to ha­rass­ment from cus­tomers and bosses alike.

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