New York City is arguably the culinary capital of the world, a place where you can find something to eat on virtually every block or around the corner thanks in no small part to the 10,000-plus delis and bodegas that somehow all manage to make an identical bacon, egg and cheese or the many pizzerias that serve up equally indistinguishable slices while claiming theirs is the best you can find in the five boroughs.
I’ve done what I can to take advantage of an overwhelmingly fast-paced food scene where the title of the hottest restaurant in town changes hands virtually every week. I occasionally get a taste of high society while adding to my incredibly modest collection of Michelin stars but primarily seek out unsung hole-in-the-walls dishing out some sneaky delicious fare (I’ll also admit to occasionally committing the grave sin of ordering Domino’s in a pizza utopia).
It’s been about five years since I found myself exploring the dining options in the vicinity of Penn Station after arriving there and discovering my weekend plans had been derailed courtesy of a canceled train.
I resisted the temptation to throw a couple of tallboys in paper bags and post up in the Amtrak lounge and suppressed the urge to visit the Sbarro that Michael Scott holds so near and dear to his heart before one particular establishment caught my eye: Hooters.
I had somehow managed to spend 25 years on this planet without stepping through the doors of any of these famously polarizing institutions. After an internal debate, my curiosity got the better of me and I entered the door gearing up for what I figured would be a solid exercise in irony.
Two hours (and two pitchers of beer) later, I begrudgingly returned to the streets of Manhattan as a changed man. The chicken wings I ordered more than met my very high standards and my waitress clearly paid close attention during the rigorous training sessions servers sit through by showcasing her impressive aptitude for making customers feel genuinely welcomed.
However, what surprised me the most was the unexpected aura of self-awareness that radiated throughout the restaurant in the form of the kitschy signs adorning the walls and the laughably voluptuous shot glasses that are engaged in a battle of absurdity with the cleavage-centric aprons for sale in the gift shop that allows anyone to live out their dream of being a Hooters Girl.
From that day on, I became a bonafide Hooters Guy and have since made every effort to budget enough time to stop by the location that has brought me so much joy whenever I’m relying on rail travel or hitting up Madison Square Garden.
Over the course of my many visits, I’ve learned there’s some truth to the preconceptions held by a sizeable chunk of the uninitiated public that bemoans the business model that made Hooters rise to prominence. There are inevitably a few of “those guys” who tend to be a tad too friendly with the waitress and there’s no denying Hooters creates an environment that’s tailormade to cater to a clientele that wants a space where guys can be dudes and you can wash down wings by crushing some cold ones with the boys in an environment where no one cares if you yell loudly because of sports.
However, it’s safe to say the world has changed ever so slightly since the first Hooters opened in 1983 and the chain has been regularly forced to figure out ways to remain relevant in a continually evolving society. Some of their previous experiments involved forays into private air travel and a Vegas casino, and now, they’re trying to get with the times in a way that doesn’t require a massive investment of capital by introducing a new item to the menu.
As you may or may not know, the common consensus among people who have devoted their career to studying the climate is that the planet is currently speeding towards its impending doom and that the disasters portrayed in The World After Tomorrow won’t seem too farfetched a few decades from now.
There is some evidence that suggests we’ve already reached a tipping point and need to start coming to terms with just how screwed we are but there’s no real downside to making a concerted effort to reduce your carbon footprint on the off chance it makes a difference.
It feels like no word has lost its meaning due to overuse over the past few years quite like “problematic (a label that Hooters has found itself hit with more than a few times). However, based on the data that’s been collected, it seems like it’s the appropriate word to use when it comes to describing the adverse impact that the production of meat has on the environment.
This has been known for quite some time but it was tough to convince the general public to wean themselves off tasty animals when the alternatives were frozen hockey pucks made of beans and tofu that sat on a throne of lies by masquerading as turkey.
A couple of companies popped up and proposed some potential alternatives at the start of the last decade but it took a few years until the Impossible Burger found mainstream success shortly before Beyond Meat found its footing in the market.
I haven’t had the chance to sample any of the plant-based “meats” that those companies produce due primarily to a lack of opportunity, and while I’ve heard good things, the only way I’ll stop eating meat is if you rip a tomahawk steak out of my cold, dead hands after I die because I got caught in a blizzard of unprecedented proportion made possible by an irreparably broken climate.
However, I’ll admit my interest was piqued when Hooters revealed it was getting into the plant-based food game by introducing a meatless alternative to the various poultry items that put them on the map in the form of Unreal Wings.
I wasn’t sure how to feel after hearing the announcement, as I’m fairly prejudiced against boneless wings on principle due to their unwillingness to admit they’re actually glorified chicken tenders and refusal to acknowledge they don’t hold a candle to their bone-in counterparts.
As a result, I headed into my formative Hooters with pretty low expectations, and while the restaurant had never let me down before, this was poised to be the ultimate test of our relationship.
I’ve always been a buffalo purist to a point where I rarely bother with ranch or blue cheese but I decided to step outside my comfort zone a bit and try the BBQ and Honey Thai Chili varieties that were also being offered because YOLO.
I then turned my attention to a muted television and watched Stephen A. Smith get extremely emotional over what was almost assuredly an inconsequential topic before realizing I’d rather look around the room and soak in the campiness on display, which I did for the next few minutes until I found myself face-to-face with my order.
Two things immediately came to my attention, as I was initially taken aback by the uniformity of each wing, which had all been fashioned to resemble what I assume the research and development team determined was the ideal flat. The breading also seemed to lack the signature craggy texture I know and love and my skepticism only increased as a result.
However, as Brad Pitt famously noted in Burn After Reading, appearances can be deceptive and I figured there was no point in delaying the moment of truth any longer.
I’d like to tell you I went into my first bite with an open mind but that would be a lie, as I was intent on channeling the spirit of the woman who runs the studio on Dance Moms and find any and every flaw that I could.
I’ve never really agreed with the adage that says you should be humble in victory because nothing tastes better than the tears of those you conquered. However, I do what I can to be gracious in defeat and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit where credit is due to the mad scientists who managed to trick my taste buds into thinking nothing was out of the ordinary.
I sampled all of the flavors just to make sure the first wing wasn’t a fluke, and after my initial evaluation was confirmed, I performed a rudimentary dissection that revealed an interior that matched the color and texture of actual chicken (it even had a noticeable grain that bared an uncanny resemblance to the structure of muscle fibers you find in a breast).
I have to commend Hooters for successfully quashing the leeriness of a diehard carnivore, and while these wings certainly have potential, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the parallels they share with a certain infomercial product that will forever live in infamy.
Bear with me here. I promise this will all make sense in a second.
It’s clear a great deal of work went into perfecting the Unreal Wings and the same can be said for the effort that was required to hone the design of the Shake Weight before it took the world by storm at the start of the last decade.
The Shake Weight may not have been able to lure in customers by highlighting its ability to counteract environmental damage but both it and the newest Hooters offering were designed to appeal to people looking for ways to marginally improve their health (the Unreal Wings have 20 percent fewer calories than the traditional variety).
However, the success of both hinges on being able to convince the customer to pay a premium to reap the potential benefits (there isn’t a dramatic difference between the price of the meatless wings and their animal-sourced brethren but it’s still worth noting).
As a result, I’m curious about who exactly Hooters is trying to court as it attempts to diversify its menu. There’s obviously a solid chunk of its core customer base that will scoff at the concept—I have a hard time believing we’re going to see John Daly wolfing them down outside of his trailer in Augusta during Masters Week—and while I’m sure there will be plenty of people who order them out of sheer curiosity, part of me can’t help but think they did such a good job imitating chicken that it could potentially discourage people from ordering them and instead opt for the cheaper meaty alternative
With that said, you can’t understate the potential benefits of providing environmentally and health-conscious diners with a genuinely delicious option. Hell, if Burger King, of all places, was able to successfully convince people to hop aboard the alternative meat train, it doesn’t seem too farfetched to think Hooters can also do what the company behind the Shake Weight did by attracting customers well beyond their target demographic (even if people buying gag gifts contributed to a hefty percentage of those sales).
Last decade, the world was witness to a brutal spree of senseless killings carried out by millennials hell-bent on slaying cherished industries and institutions and a number of sources claimed Hooters was on life support thanks in no small part to the reputation it has among people who have almost assuredly never experienced it for themselves.
As a result, the chain has been forced to tinker with its formula in an attempt to get with the ever-changing times. I can’t say I agree with the renovation efforts that have resulted in the denigration of the delightfully tacky decor at the many locations that have recently gotten a facelift nor am I a fan of the more modern (and sterile) interiors that have become increasingly ubiquitous.
With that said, I can happily give my stamp of approval to these new wings; a product that perfectly encapsulates the current state of a company faced with the challenge of reconciling an old identity with a future that forces it to reassess its defining traits.
Will Unreal Wings end up becoming the Next Big Thing? Only time will tell. However, it’s clear Hooters isn’t going down without a fight, and while many people claimed the chain was down for the count a couple of years ago, they didn’t hear no bell.