SOUTH PORTLAND — Their “costumes,” featuring red plaid mini-kilts and push-up bras with contrasting white sleeves, are less revealing than some outfits worn by New England Patriots cheerleaders.
Still, the racy image of a “Kilt Girl,” emblazoned on a temporary sign outside the new Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery at 200 Gorham Road, prompted one passer-by to call city officials and complain that it was “pornographic,” said Tex Haeuser, planning and development director.
The owners, Dave and Joy DuBois of Durham, were instructed to remove the banner because they didn’t have a permit for it. The couple did get a permit for the nondescript permanent sign that’s on the building, formerly Newick’s Lobster House, which closed last May.
After months of renovations, “casting calls,” “auditions” and training sessions, the first Maine franchise of the somewhat controversial Tilted Kilt national chain is scheduled to open Monday near the Maine Mall.
While some people view the so-called “breastaurant” business model as offensive or at least sexist because it objectifies women, those involved in the local Tilted Kilt franchise downplay the controversy and welcome the attention.
“I really like the outfits,” said Aly York, 20, a server/entertainer who lives in York. “I think it’s all about confidence. From a young age, I’ve always been proud of my body. I don’t think you need to be ashamed.”
There’s no doubt that Tilted Kilt’s notoriety will discomfort some potential patrons as much as it entices others, said Michael Stevenson, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Maine who specializes in human sexuality.
“The company must believe there is a market for this enterprise here,” Stevenson said. “There are folks who find this sort of enterprise offensive, and that’s not exclusively women, though I would expect women to be more vocal about it. Then there are people who are willing to pay money to eat and drink in that atmosphere.”
The owners hope to attract a fair number of the latter. The DuBoises emphasize the pub’s Scottish-themed decor, quality food and beverages, and family-friendly atmosphere.
“We have a 10-year-old son, so we’d never be involved in something that wasn’t family-friendly,” Joy DuBois said. “(The costumes are) part of what a Tilted Kilt is, but you have to look beyond that. It’s much more.”
WOMEN PLAYING A ROLE
One of 110 Tilted Kilts across the United States, the South Portland franchise has 58 large-screen televisions set to sports channels and 40 draft beers, including 15 brewed in Maine. It has seating for 225 patrons and will employ about 70 people, including kitchen staff.
The DuBoises, who own seven Little Caesars Pizza franchises across Maine, pursued a Tilted Kilt franchise because they wanted to operate a full-service, sit-down restaurant, Dave DuBois said.
The couple visited a few Tilted Kilts, including one in Nashua, New Hampshire, before signing on to a franchise, undaunted by reports of disputes in other communities about the company’s hiring practices and operations.
The prospect of a Hooters franchise – where servers also wear scanty outfits – opening in downtown Portland in 2006 prompted the City Council to pass an ordinance designed to block national chains, although it was repealed within months. The nearest Hooters is in Saugus, Massachusetts.
The Tilted Kilt website tells prospective female employees that franchise hiring practices “focus on enthusiasm, personal appearance and personality.” Franchises hold “auditions” for Kilt Girls, a trademarked name, and managers “evaluate” applicants for the Kilt Girl “role.”
“Imagine trying to land a role in a Hollywood movie or sexy fitness calendar,” the website advises. “You want to look and act your best! These auditions are just the same. To land the role, you gotta play it up, girl! Grab your favorite outfit, glam up your hair and make-up and visit a franchise location today. … You may end up being the next calendar cover girl!”
Asked if her franchise would hire an unattractive woman to be a Kilt Girl, Joy DuBois said her managers emphasize enthusiasm and personality over looks, but they are seeking women who can play the “role.” Staff members are encouraged to socialize with patrons in a friendly way, even sitting next to them if a seat is available, she said.
A CAREER CHOICE FOR SOME
DuBois and Tilted Kilt employees noted that women can advance to management positions, including Kilt Girl trainers who help to establish new franchises. The kitchen manager at the South Portland franchise is Amy Meuchel, a Navy veteran from Standish who attended Southern Maine Community College and has an associate degree in culinary arts.
Tilted Kilt pubs also hire Kilt Guys, who “are HOT too!” according to the website, though they wear knee-length black kilts and T-shirts. They “take care of the girls” as bartenders and busboys. “If you are the strong silent type or the chatty charmer,” the website says, “franchise management teams want to meet you too!”
Daren Hotham, a Gorham resident who attended a friends and family training session on Friday, noted that no one is forced to work at or patronize a Tilted Kilt.
“The girls are making the choice to do this,” Hotham said. “As long as patrons treat them with respect, I think it’s fine.”
Tilted Kilt employees often work part time to put themselves through college or juggle a few jobs to make ends meet. York, the server/entertainer, is doing both.
She is studying business and marketing at York County Community College, and said she hopes to work about 20 hours a week at Tilted Kilt, in addition to her jobs as a server at DiMillo’s Restaurant in Portland – where she said her uniform is much more conservative – and as an intern with the Portland Pirates hockey organization.
Regarding those who are troubled by her Tilted Kilt costume, York said she believes they have a conservative mindset rather than an enlightened one.
“It’s our choice,” she said. “I’m not worried about it.”