Attorney John B. Gessner's current client is a lot different than Arby's, Golden Corral and Boston Market, three restaurants he previously represented. Their workers do not wear tight tank tops and short orange shorts.
Gessner is the general counsel and corporate secretary for Dallas-based Texas Wings Inc., the Texas franchisee of the Hooters restaurant chain. Hooters is known for its chicken wings and cold beer but is famous for its attractive, provocatively attired waitresses. Gessner, who joined Texas Wings in 2003 after 19 years of private practice, handles conventional restaurant legal issues for Hooters, such as employment law matters, but also more idiosyncratic legal issues particular to the chain.
For example, Gessner must navigate local government politics and bureaucracy to prevent the chain's critics, who deem the restaurant immoral or exploitative of women, from impeding Texas Wings' expansion plans.
Under Gessner's management, Texas Wings recently persevered in a hard-fought six-year battle to obtain a liquor license for its South Arlington restaurant, which opened in 2002. A group called the Partnership for Community Values opposed the restaurant's application for an alcoholic beverage license, arguing that the restaurant went against the local community's "sense of decency" and was too close to a high school and residential areas, according to facts set forth in Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission v. Twenty Wings Ltd., et al., a 2003 2nd Court of Appeals opinion. Twenty Wings is an entity owned by Texas Wings.
Texas Wings also weathered similar opposition in Waco. In 2005, 60 Waco-area pastors signed a letter urging the city of Waco to block construction of a new Hooters restaurant, lambasting Hooters' purported reliance on "sexual innuendo and exploitation of women," according to a Jan. 25, 2006, Associated Press story.
Despite the protest, a county judge found no grounds to deny the license and granted it in 2005, according to an Aug. 5, 2005, story in the Waco Tribune-Herald. The company's Waco location has been successful since opening its doors in 2006, Gessner says. "If you're in compliance with the law, it's hard to stop someone who wants to open a business," he says.
Attorneys who work with Gessner credit him with successfully managing a legal response to the two controversies. "John kept his eye on the legal points," says David Keltner, a partner in Kelly Hart & Hallman in Fort Worth, who represented Texas Wings in the company's second appeal of the Arlington dispute to the 2nd Court of Appeals. "I'm impressed with his civility and professionalism as much as anybody I've been around in a long time."
Gessner says that he spends about 15 percent of his time on real estate matters and 15 percent of his time on alcohol license issues. He notes that Texas Wings expanded "30 percent over the last year" and is the fastest growing franchisee in the Hooters chain.
Rather than lease property, Texas Wings buys the property for its restaurants and serves as general contractor in building the restaurants, he says. While Texas Wings has no problems buying property for its restaurants, Gessner says, obtaining building permits, alcohol licenses and other approvals from local governments can be troublesome when parties morally opposed to Hooters become involved, such as in the South Arlington dispute.
The South Arlington case went before four trial-type hearings in front of administrative law, county and state district judges. The case also went up to the 2nd Court of Appeals twice before the deadline for additional appeals ran out and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission issued the restaurant a liquor license in 2007, according to the 2nd Court's opinions and attorneys involved in the case.
State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, founder of the Partnership for Community Values who testified in favor of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's denial of an alcoholic beverage license to the Arlington location in a 2001 trial court hearing, did not return two calls for comment before press time.
Texas Wings says that it weathered the dispute by giving out an estimated $1.2 million in free beer for several years during the license dispute -- a practice that Gessner says does not violate alcohol-control laws. Each guest got two free beers, Gessner says. "That made the restaurant very popular," says Steven H. Swander, a Fort Worth solo who handles alcohol-license issues for Texas Wings.
Although the Arlington and Waco disputes could make it appear that Texas Wings courts controversy, Gessner says that the opposite is true. He says he practices careful community relations when Texas Wings seeks to expand to a new city or neighborhood. His method: "Start early, be polite, communicate and contact elected officials to see if it's a good fit."
His political strategy of educating local officials about Hooters helps head off trouble down the road, Gessner says. "I try to generate good feelings for Hooters instead of bad feelings," he says. "A lot of people believe we are adult entertainment when we are not."
Nonetheless, Gessner says that Texas Wings' Waco victory leads him to believe that his company could open a restaurant in nearly any Texas city. "There are some more conservative places than Waco, but not many," he says.
Gessner also oversees Texas Wings' government relations, or lobbying, activities and is on the board of directors for Texas Wings' political action committee TWI PAC, as well as the Texas Restaurant Association PAC.
In recent years, Texas Wings has become politically involved, Gessner says, mainly because Zedler has introduced bills in the Texas House of Representatives that Texas Wings feels is unfavorable to its business. "He's made Hooters a crusade, so we've made stopping Bill Zedler a crusade," Gessner says.
Online legislative records show that in 2005, Zedler introduced H.B. 2515, a bill that would have made it illegal for a restaurant to give away free alcohol -- as Hooters did in Arlington -- if its application for an alcohol permit is denied. In 2007, Zedler introduced H.B. 1466, a bill that Gessner says would have broadened the definition of sexually oriented businesses so that Hooters restaurants would become such a business.
Both times, Gessner and two Austin lobbyists that Texas Wings has on retainer went to Austin to lobby against the bills. Gessner takes credit for defeating the bills in committee, making legal challenges unnecessary, he says.
Texas Wings has hired lobbyists Cissy Ellis of Schlueter Group and Harold Oliver of Texas Capitol Consulting Group.
Oliver, a nonpracticing attorney, is a former legislative aide for the late Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio. "John's a sharp guy," Oliver says. With Gessner's grasp of law and business, and his political acumen, "we're able to move through treacherous waters and calm waters," Oliver says.
Gessner says that lawmakers in Austin were initially dubious of Hooters' lobbying efforts but started to "warm up" after learning of Texas Wings' employee tuition reimbursement program as well as the economic effect of the franchisee's 45 locations in terms of jobs and taxes paid.
The biggest chunk of Gessner's time, 40 percent, is spent handling employment law litigation, he says.
When Gessner started at Hooters in 2003, he says Hooters had a "more than average" number of sexual harassment claims. But through improved education and training of employees, Gessner says, "we've cut down our issues quite a bit."
The company offers sexual harassment training to new managers, Gessner says, and later puts them through a "boot camp" after approximately six months on the job. The three-day boot camp features classes taught by Gessner and other company officials, videos, games and role playing.
Texas Wings tries to make such training enjoyable to hold the attention of its young employees, Gessner says. "We all dress in camouflage," he says. "Hooters is about fun."
Gessner says 85 percent to 90 percent of Texas Wings' employees are women aged 18 to 24, many of whom are working at Hooters as their first job. Texas Wings' young workforce, he says, creates a ripe environment for potential sexual harassment complaints, including same-sex harassment.
The key to reducing sexual harassment complaints, Gessner says, is to educate employees by raising awareness of what constitutes offensive conduct and reminding managers to find the time to listen to their employees. "If you don't listen, you can't resolve any problems," he says.
To defend itself from potential sexual harassment claims, the company takes a hard line in forbidding relationships between managers and employees. Gessner says he has fired a manager for dating a waitress that reported to him, even though the relationship was consensual.
Among customers, Gessner admits, the uniforms may create a "sexually charged" atmosphere. But Texas Wings, Gessner says, does not allow patrons to mistreat its workers and ejects patrons who cause problems.
"Any time you work with the public you're going to have people step over the line," he says. "We try to back our girls up."
Gessner does not think waitresses' skimpy outfits at Hooters lead to sexual harassment among employees. "The uniforms are somewhat tame compared to how young people dress today," says Gessner, who notes that Hooters waitresses do not bare their midriffs.
Other practice areas in which Gessner practices include commercial law, Employee Retirement Income Security Act law, nonsubscriber workers' compensation law and corporate governance law.
Gessner also has some quasi-legal and nonlegal duties, such as banning patrons who have become a nuisance from Texas Wings' property. Some of them take their banishment from Hooters hard. "I've had actual grown men crying on the phone," he says.
He also had to order Hooters employees not to participate in the mischief of a radio deejay, who used on-duty Hooters waitresses to play an on-air game of "musical men," as opposed to musical chairs. "Some people think just because it's Hooters that everything goes," he says.
Born in Navasota, Texas, Gessner grew up near College Station. He received his undergraduate degree in 1981 from the University of St. Thomas, where he majored in prelegal studies and political science. He received his law degree from Tulane Law School in 1984.
Even though there were no attorneys in his family, Gessner says that he always wanted to be a lawyer, perhaps because he watched "Perry Mason" a lot growing up. "Right after cowboy and fireman came lawyer," he says of his childhood career ambitions.
Gessner says that he enjoyed the debate team in high school and still debates with friends, arguing one side of an issue and then switching sides to argue the opposite position. "I'd argue anything at the top of a hat," he says. "I still do."
His hobbies include raising horses, hunting and fishing. He is married and has a 16-year-old daughter.
Before joining Hooters, Gessner, now 48, was an attorney in private practice for more than 20 years. He was president of Gessner & Flores, a commercial and employment litigation boutique, where he served as outside counsel for several restaurants.
Gessner says that he developed his restaurant law niche when he practiced at Hamilton & Hartsfield, a Dallas firm that specializes in commercial law. Gessner, vice president and shareholder in that firm from 1994 to 1997, says he developed restaurant industry clients there, because another shareholder was a former assistant general counsel for TGI Friday's.
Gessner says that he loved being a litigator but joined Hooters because he wanted a new challenge. "I felt this would stretch my knowledge and cause me to learn new things," he says.
Gessner says he is now in demand as a public speaker at hospitality conventions and meetings, perhaps because people are curious about Hooters. Texas Wings, Gessner says, has been in business for 20 years. The chain owns 45 restaurants in Texas and plans to open more soon.
Gessner says that he is Texas Wings' sole attorney, and while he is busy, he can handle the work without a deputy.
He says that he likes to maintain long-term relationships with Texas Wings' outside counsel and talks with each outside attorney at least weekly. Generally, Gessner says that he wants to see what his outside attorneys file before they file it. He also negotiates billing rates before the rendering of services.
Outside attorneys who work for Texas Wings praise Gessner's legal knowledge and ease in the courtroom. "He knows the law backward and forward," Keltner says.
Swander calls Gessner "tenacious and smart." Gessner's background as a litigator, Swander says, is unusual for a corporate counsel. "He knows the ins and outs of the courthouse," Swander says. "It's very easy to discuss legal issues with him."
Keltner says that Gessner knows how to accept bad news, unlike some corporate counsel, and always has a realistic view of the strengths of his company's and its opponents' legal positions. "He's got the lawyer's ability to see the other side," Keltner says.
Outside attorneys say that Gessner does not merely hand off cases to them.
"John allows me a lot of freedom but at the same time is very involved," says Robert D. Ramage, a Dallas member Dykema Gossett who handles litigation for Texas Wings. "He's very active in all cases, whether in litigation or not."
Gessner, Ramage says, helps prepare briefs and motions, and goes to court with Ramage when a Texas Wings case is being heard. "I fully expect when I walk into court, John Gessner is going to be right beside me," Ramage says.
Gessner provides "limitless" value to Texas Wings, says Mike Herrick, executive vice president of Texas Wings. "We depend on John to solve problems," says Herrick, who praises Gessner's work in navigating the alcohol permitting process for Texas Wings' restaurants as well as spearheading the company's lobbying efforts.
Gessner says that he loves his job and that it invigorates him. "I'm not burning out at all," he says. "I wake up in the morning, and I'm eager to go to work, because I don't know what my next challenge is."