Hooters of America LLC was founded in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983 by former University of Illinois football player Lynn Stewart and five friends — in company lore, the “Original Six.”
Today, Hooters and its franchisees operate 430 sports bars and restaurants in 28 countries. The chain is perhaps best known for its owl logo and “Hooter Girls” — young waitresses dressed in distinctive shorts and tank tops. “Trained to excel in customer service,” the company says on its website, “they provide the energy, charisma and engaging conversation that keep guests coming back.”
Hooters restaurants employ 10,000 people; headquarters now are in Atlanta. In 2011, the private company was purchased by a consortium led by Chanticleer Holdings Inc. Terry Marks is chief executive officer.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
General counsel Claudia Levitas is responsible for all legal matters including negotiation and preparation of franchise documents, litigation management, labor and employment issues, and regulatory compliance.
Her department, comprising two attorneys, one paralegal and two administrative assistants, takes care of domestic and international franchising work; oversees litigation; deals with inquiries from the U.S. Department of Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; reviews contracts; and handles liquor, business and other licensing for company-owned restaurants.
Regarding outside counsel, Hooters mostly relies on Atlanta-based firms: Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson for employment matters; Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs for general litigation; Hill, Kertscher & Wharton for trademark; and Rutherford & Christie for personal injury defense. DLA Piper handles the company’s franchise work. These relationships go back for years, she said. “I trust their legal work and I know the lawyers well.”
Levitas’ operation is too small and busy to allow pro bono projects, she said, but the company invests in charity work, much of it aimed at breast cancer. As for diversity, she noted that Rutherford & Christie is women-owned.
Relations with franchisees are mostly good, Levitas said. “We understand our franchisees’ challenges because we operate so many company stores of our own. Many of the franchisees have been part of our system a long time and are a great source of ideas and inspiration.” Moreover, the company confers with them regularly. “For example, we have quarterly business council and food committee meetings that provide a great forum to share ideas and opinions. We also meet with all of our franchisees (domestic and international) annually at our International Swimsuit Pageant.” She referred to a contest for employees that the company stages every year.
Abroad, “certain markets have different tax laws and other rules affecting franchising, so I rely on the expertise of outside counsel for those issues,” Levitas said. “The main challenge for our international locations is sourcing of products. While they can source food and beverage ingredients locally, the apparel and souvenirs that are sold in stores generally need to be sourced from the U.S., and shipping of these items is expensive.”
LABOR, HEALTH CARE
“Historically, our biggest labor and employment issues have been wage-and-hour matters,” Levitas said. “Which, by their nature, involve a very complex set of rules. We always followed the laws as a company but reinforcing best practices within the field is an ongoing challenge.”
With the new corporate ownership have come improved and more consistent controls and policies, she said.
Other than that, “the source of many of my frustrations is the government, which sometimes puts unnecessary impediments in the way of small businesses like ours,” Levitas said.
“By way of illustration, we are trying to figure out how we will work with the new health care laws and the myriad of related regulations. Obviously, we are not alone in this struggle, and we are learning from both our peers and outside professionals. The current health care system is far from perfect, but it is workable and largely predictable. There are so many unknowns with the new laws. Figuring out how to best implement them into our system will be a major challenge.”
“When I started at Hooters, I was pleased to learn just how few sexual-harassment issues we have in our system,” Levitas said. She attributed that to thorough training and “a strict zero-tolerance policy” for abuse. “The safety and well-being of our employees is of the utmost concern, and we immediately investigate and take appropriate action when an issue is brought to our attention.”
She acknowledged that “in social settings, I do on occasion get a raised eyebrow or two when I mention that I am general counsel for Hooters. This is almost exclusively from people who have never visited our restaurants. Once I have the opportunity to explain what Hooters is really about, I tend to win them over from their initial perceptions.”
As for the employees themselves, “any stigma associated with being a Hooters Girl is really very dated,” she said. “Young women today see working at Hooters as a smart way to begin their careers. As a matter of fact, the other attorney on my staff worked her way through undergraduate and law school while working at Hooters.”
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Levitas was chief administrative officer and general counsel for Huddle House Inc., an Atlanta-based restaurant chain, from 1995 until 2011, when she joined Hooters. Earlier, she was an associate at Ginsburg, Feldman and Bress in Washington. She is a 1990 graduate of George Washington University Law School. She earned her undergraduate degree in political science from Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., in 1987.
Levitas is married to Kevin Levitas, a fellow attorney and an executive in the family-owned Hill Manufacturing Co. in Atlanta; he served as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2010. They have been married for 18 years and have two children — Michael, 15, and Allison, 13 — and two dogs.
Her day-to-day “hobbies,” Levitas said, mostly involve chasing her kids around on the weekends or evenings with their sporting activities (her son plays soccer and her daughter plays soccer and softball). She volunteers when she is able at her children’s school.
Levitas loves to ski and goes a couple of times per year. Other than that, she “loves to shoot (just targets, never animals). I work out regularly but not sure I’d call that a hobby — more like a necessity as I age.”
LAST BOOK AND MOVIE
The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, and Les Mis érables (“it was excellent,” she said).