Win Lwin, the manager of Cambodia’s first Hooters restaurant, has a problem.
He isn’t worried about location. The new branch, under construction and set to open in October, is right at the end of a neon-lit street of girlie bars that spills over at night onto Phnom Penh’s riverside.
He isn’t concerned about attracting potential customers. Street 104 draws boisterous crowds of tourists and expatriates eager for a night of companionship—or more—from the hostesses that ply their marks with beer and cocktails.
Mr. Lwin’s problem is the clothes. Specifically, it’s the bright orange hot pants and tight white tank tops adorned with Hooters’ trademark cartoon owls.
His would-be female employees don’t want to wear them.
In a neighborhood where there is no shortage of bare shoulders and thighs, but where most hostesses woo customers wearing conventionally feminine dresses or skirts, the U.S.-based chain—known to a lesser degree for its chicken wings and sports on the television—is attempting to strike out into new territory. And it’s taking a stand with hot pants.
“Some of the girls, when I showed them the uniform, said, ‘Oh, too sexy’,” Mr. Lwin said.
“One girl who came in for an interview had a skirt on—it was quite short—so I explained to her, I said, ‘Listen, the length of the pants is the same as the skirt you’ve got on. And you’ve got stockings on. Once you’ve got the stockings on it becomes very different. It doesn’t look sexy anymore,’” he said.
The young women he is interviewing—and fitting into sample uniforms for the mandatory full-body shots that are sent back to Hooters Asia headquarters in Bangkok—don’t seem convinced.
When he met with the prospective hires late last month in a hotel lobby next to the new franchise, they shuffled, fidgeted and tugged at the hems of the Hooters hot pants. Looking through the frame of his smartphone’s camera app, Mr. Lwin handed out directions like a fashion photographer: “Suck your stomach in;” “Stand up straight;” “Smile.”
Mr. Lwin has come to Phnom Penh from Thailand, where Hooters already has four locations and another three on the way. The Hooters Asia website lists another eight as “coming soon” to the Philippines, four more on the way in Malaysia and 15 on the way to countries ranging from Laos to Vietnam.
In Cambodia, one of Mr. Lwin’s toughest challenges is explaining to Hooters Girl hopefuls what exactly Hooters is—and what it isn’t. It may be opening in one of the city’s most debaucherous nightlife spots, just north of the Night Market on Sisowath Quay, but, he claims, it’s not just another girlie bar.
For one, his employees will not be expected to have sex with the customers, he explains. Secondly, he says, they will be paid a higher base wage than other women on the block, who make far more on “bar fines”—the fee paid to take a hostess home—and commissions on drink sales than in base wages.
“I’ve had to say, ‘Yeah, you don’t have to sleep with anyone,’” Mr. Lwin said. “Sometimes I have difficulty in bringing the concept of no bar fines, no sleeping around, taking care of hygiene, being fit, learning new things.”
Describing a Hooters Girl as “the girl next door” who “everyone wants to date,” Mr. Lwin says his restaurant is a departure from Street 104’s typical hostess bar culture.
Across the road at the Pickled Parrot, where a crew of female bar staff are dressed in more demure long-sleeved shirts, the manager, who declined to give his name so as not to offend his new neighbor, says Cambodia is not Thailand.
He says Hooters will have difficulty finding Cambodian women willing to wear the restaurant’s trademark short shorts and tank tops.
“He might struggle with the uniform,” he says. “It’s a very sensitive culture.”
Heidi Hoefinger, an academic who authored “Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia,” about the country’s sex and entertainment industry, is more direct in her criticism.
Mr. Lwin “is trying to differentiate and create a false hierarchy between Hooters and other local establishments—which only benefits him and not the workers,” she said in an email.
“In the women’s eyes, they’ll be doing the same work—chatting and flirting with customers while wearing revealing clothing in an attempt to sell food and drink and a smile,” she said.
Besides, “not all ‘girlie bars’ or hostess bars require women to have sex with clients,” she added.
Mr. Lwin insists there will be zero tolerance for escort-related work at Hooters.
“I don’t want to recruit a girl just because of her looks and personality; I need to make sure her principles are in the right place. Because after [her shift], if she goes out to one of the girlie bars and she works there…I make that very clear: You will be terminated.”
“The parents out there want their daughters to be working at a good place earning a good income and in a company which has these kinds of principles in place,” he said, adding that he is confident locals will start to look beyond the skimpy uniform once the restaurant is up and running.
Describing the opening of Phnom Penh’s first Hooters branch as “the globalization and corporatization of the hostess bar scene,” Ms. Hoefinger said it was another place for women to work if “it seems like a good option for them at this point in their lives.”
It’s a sentiment that was echoed a few doors down from Mr. Lwin’s under-construction establishment, where a hostess sitting in front of the Soft Spot bar said she would consider applying for a job at the franchise if she knew she would earn more money.
“I like the sound of the environment…[but] it depends on the salary,” said 27-year-old Sovantha, who declined to give her full name.
She says her current employer does not prohibit her from working at other bars, and that on some nights she can earn between $50 and $100.
“What matters the most is what the person can receive from what she does.”
(Additional reporting by Phan Soumy)