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, Texas, 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.
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.
They are, the site says, “the beautiful faces that represent the brand and the reason our customers consistently come back for more.”
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.
In an emailed statement from the chain’s attorney, Clay Mingus, 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,” it 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 total who made similar claims, but some fell outside the 300-day statute of limitations to bring their complaints before the federal administrative body.
The Dallas Morning News reviewed 27 complaints, the majority of which contained little detail — Holder said for legal strategy reasons — but alleged discrimination on the basis of sex, race and disability. Women also claimed 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 toll became too high a cost.
The Twin Peaks experience
McBride first got a job at Twin Peaks late in 2015 after working a range of restaurant gigs, from serving at a mom and 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.
Once McBride started working, she quickly learned about an unusual part of the Twin Peaks experience: Pre-shift rankings, which determined when and where in the restaurant servers would be able to work, which, of course, affected how much money they could make.
In particular, one component of the grading system stood out. The women were awarded “tone scores,” where the fat on their backs, stomachs, arms and legs was evaluated. She and other women said the scores felt subjective.
“Corporate” demanded to see photos of women before each shift, which McBride said often came back with criticism.
Twin Peaks said in emailed responses to a detailed list of questions 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” 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, whom the former employees said 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.
But when current CEO Joe Hummel, who 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, Illinois, location, said 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 full blown, ‘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 reinstituted costume parties systemwide in October 2016,” the company said.
Winfield said that after months of mismanagement, she was unfairly fired when she complained about managers “sleeping with staff and doing drugs with each other.”
Twin Peaks denied any retaliatory action.
Anna Jacobs, a 21-year-old who worked at Twin Peaks in Greenville, South Carolina, 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 unmotivates you to work.”
The reason she gained weight? She had a baby.
Claims of discrimination
Holder, the attorney, 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.”
The problem for the women hoping to take legal action, said Joanna Grossman, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law and an expert on workplace gender issues, is that in order to prove sex-based discrimination, it helps to have a male workforce for comparison.
But in this case, all the servers are women.
“You have to be able to show a way in which the women here are being treated worse than men,” she said.
She said that there could be some legal recourse for women who have been harassed on the job at Twin Peaks, if, say, they wanted to argue that by requiring them to wear lingerie, managers are basically encouraging customers to harass the women.
Or, she said, the women could argue that the reason they’re being asked to dress and behave the way they are is because they’re women — that sexist stereotypes are dictating their terms of employment.
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.”
Instead, what the Twin Peaks servers are describing may be just a lousy employer.
‘All about looks’
So how much of that is inherent in the breastaurant business and how much of that is just 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 breastaurant 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.”
While Hooters, the original breastaurant founded in 1983, has hardly been immune from controversy over the years, executives with Hooters of America said they’ve worked hard to make reporting sexual harassment easy. The company runs 207 of the chain’s roughly 430 restaurants around the world.
“We have been very proactive in this space long before #MeToo became a thing,” said Claudia Levitas, Hooters’ executive vice president of administration and chief legal officer. “From day one, they are told and our employees know we consider their safety of the utmost importance.”
The company set up a hotline to report harassment, with women call-takers if that’s what an employee prefers. They can also report harassment to the company’s human resources department or a regional manager, Levitas said, to avoid asking workers to report harassment to direct supervisors.
Managers have authority to boot customers who make “Hooters girls” uncomfortable — either on a one-time basis or for life.
Levitas said sexual harassment reporting tools and hours of online and in-person training go hand in hand with the brand’s broader effort to make sure “Hooters girls” feel like they are not only “appreciated for being the hardworking young women they are,” but that their usefulness isn’t defined solely by their appearance.
The company, she said, has given out more than $3.5 million in tuition reimbursement for “Hooters girls” and many get promoted to management within the company.
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 Psychology of Women Quarterly 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 Chicago-based Holder, 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.
Twin Peaks seems to have a winning formula, for now.
Technomic estimated 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.
But the generation of consumers that’s filling in behind millennials is growing up in a world where unapologetic sexism and rigid beauty standards feel passe. So building your brand on those ideals could be a turn-off, Byrne said.
McBride 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.
In spite of everything, initially, McBride didn’t think the breastaurant industry was beyond saving.
Hooters had been a favorite job, yes, because the money was good, but also because McBride said she felt safe there and she was able to provide the kind of attentive customer service she’d looked forward to when she’d go to Hooters with her family as a kid.
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.”