It may be common knowledge that Hooters, the iconic wing restaurant with waitresses garbed in eye-catching attire, was founded on Gulf to Bay Boulevard in Clearwater nearly 30 years ago.
What might not be known is the idea for the imagery behind Hooters began a few miles west, on the sun-soaked sand of Clearwater Beach.
That’s where company co-founder Ed Droste and current CEO Neil Kiefer first saw Lynne Austin in a bikini contest in 1982; the pair approached the stunning young blonde and asked if she would like to be the centerpiece for their new wing joint.
“We were out boating … and we were enthralled by (Lynne’s) beauty and her charisma,” Kiefer recalled. “We asked her if she wanted to be the first employee of a restaurant that hadn’t started yet."
The rest, as they say, is history.
Thirty years after Austin agreed to represent the upstart franchise, she, Kiefer, Droste and other company officials were on hand to announce the grand opening of the newest Hooters location right in the heart of Clearwater Beach.
The building, which has three floors including a rooftop patio deck and a on the ground floor, was the brainchild of local developer and property owner Joe Kokolakis, who bought the land and encouraged Hooters to come to the beach.
“I purchased this property to assemble this whole corner,” Kokolakis explained. “I’ve been a Hooters customer for 20 or 30 years, and I thought, 'I can’t believe there hasn’t been a Hooters here.' So I called them up … and it evolved.”
Kiefer said he had been looking for a spot on the beach for a number of years, but he couldn’t decide whether to locate on north or south beach. Kokolakis’ idea, especially the striking concept for the building, drew him to north Mandalay Avenue.
Although most of the waitresses will still be wearing the iconic orange shorts, and there will always be wings on the menu, the new location is also offering some ideas and items that are unique to Clearwater Beach.
For example, the menu on the upper level, known as the Lookout, will consist of shareable items such as flatbreads, sliders and skewers. Waitresses there will wear blue shirts and black shorts, and the deck itself has a decidedly upscale feel.
But despite the different attire and glitzy new building, this Hooters still feels familiar, especially now that it’s back where it all began.
“About 28 years ago … right out there … Ed and Neil came swimming up and said, 'We’re going to do a restaurant, and we want that beach girl look',” Austin recalled as she pointed to the beach across the street.
“It’s a very cool thing to see it come full circle.”