A recipe for ha­rass­ment?

Dal­las-based chain bucks din­ing trends in midst of #MeToo era

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By JILL COWAN Staff Writer jcowan@dal­las­news.com

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.

Restau­rant ex­pe­ri­ence

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.

‘Tone scores’

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.

Women strug­gle

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.”

Ag­ing grace­fully?

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.”

Ricky Bri­g­ante/In­side the Magic/via Flickr

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.

Ricky Bri­g­ante/In­side the Magic/via Flickr

“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.

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