In the dim light of Tallywackers, a waiter named Gabe strips off his clingy red tank top with practiced ease and stands between two furry-faced men. They’ve stopped by this Dallas venue – marketed as a Hooters for women, but located in Oak Lawn, an upscale area known by locals as the Gayborhood – for lunch with a view. Flashing a broad smile and flirting a little, Gabe, 21, puts an arm around each guy and mugs into a camera. The two men smile sheepishly and cling to Gabe’s smooth torso.
With the picture snapped, Gabe eases his way out of the man sandwich. “Come back soon,” he says, flinging his tank top over one shoulder.
“We’ll be back this weekend,” one of the men answers, and then the two of them push through the door and head out to the parking lot, glancing over their shoulders for one last glance at Gabe.
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On a Friday afternoon, Tallywackers is a little slow, but the crowd – slightly more male than female – is growing steadily. Chatter rises above thumping pop music; waiters in Tallywackers’ signature red tank tops and boxer briefs carry trays full of happy hour specials. Patrons are encouraged to ask their server about his “abb-itizers” or try a specialty “cock-tail.” Hot dogs have a full section on the menu.
Opened in May 2015, the first of a planned chain, Tallywackers has been called both a “reverse Hooters” and a gay bar, targeting aficionados of “guy candy.” The venue’s strange name comes from 1982’s classic raunch-comedy Porky’s and is fittingly also a euphemism for penis.
The restaurant-bar is a novel addition to the Dallas area. It has been called a “chestaurant” in a sea of “breastaurants” – the city has more than a dozen Hooters, nine Twin Peaks locations, a risqué joint called Redneck Heaven and a sports bar “with a view” called Bikini’s. Waitresses at Bone Daddy’s serve Texas barbecue in crop tops and short-shorts. At Tilted Kilt, cutesy pub girls wear plaid push-up bras.
At Tallywackers, the fare is burgers and beefcake. On one side of the large venue is a bar, where a Beyoncé video plays on a screen overhead; the other side holds a restaurant with garish paintings on the walls, a smattering of booths and tables and a stage that’s sometimes used for drag shows. An ATM is located conveniently near the front door; it dispenses singles. The pocket-sized host stands at a podium, available to take pictures at a moment’s notice.
Most of the booths along the walls are full. There’s a table full of rowdy plus-sized ladies and a pair of tourists from Chicago. A handful of single guys sit at the bar, ordering beers while eyeing the bartender’s pecs.
Gabe visits his tables, collecting menus and making small talk. He is 5-foot-11 with a rock-hard stomach, bulging leg muscles, close-cropped dark hair and a toothy smile. His state championship cross-country ring glitters on one hand. A tiny silver running shoe dangles on a chain around his neck.
After winning the state cross-country finals his senior year of high school, Gabe went to Southern Arkansas University on a full athletic scholarship, but a misunderstanding with his coach brought him home after just one semester. Around the same time, his girlfriend became pregnant.
Now he supports his two-year-old daughter by delivering food and beverages in his underwear – an Amy Schumer skit come to life.
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Gabe lives with his parents in a modest one-story house in Tarrant County, a bastion of religion and Republicanism near Fort Worth. Gabe’s father grew up poor in Mexico; he often played soccer barefoot for lack of decent shoes. Now he’s a diesel mechanic who works in oil-rich Midland. Gabe’s mother is an independent business manager for Amway. She’s also a Zumba enthusiast; until recently, Gabe was her class instructor at the local health club.
With a child on the way, Gabe took whatever jobs he could find. He waited tables at Chili’s and worked behind the counter at Chicken Express, a Southern fast-food chain. Once Gabe’s daughter was born, his girlfriend and the baby moved into his room with him to save money. Though he was living at home and working up to 60 hours a week, the bills kept mounting and the quarters felt cramped.
Searching the web for a higher-paying job, Gabe saw a Tallywackers ad on Facebook. The photos of shirtless pretty boys hoisting trays of martinis made him do a double-take. “I didn’t think it was serious at first,” he remembers. “But I had a day off, so I figured I might as well give it a try.”
Though Gabe says he’s the shy type, his Instagram is full of closeups of his glistening abs and videos of him running shirtless in slow motion. “I’m always in short-shorts; I’m always shirtless anyway,” he said. “I thought, ‘This will be perfect.’”
He drove forty minutes from Fort Worth in his 2004 Ford Focus for the interview. When he got to Tallywackers – he didn’t know what the term meant at the time – he was dismayed to find a room full of “Arnold Schwarzenegger-types.”
“It was extremely intimidating,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Okay, maybe this isn’t the place for me.’”
But Gabe got a call-back almost immediately; he was among about 30 men selected from more than 200 applicants. When Gabe expressed his surprise, Tallywackers owner Rodney Duke told him that the restaurant was seeking a variety of good-looking guys – men of every type to cater to different tastes.
Gabe was excited to get the job, but he worried about how he was going to explain the fine line between “sexy waiter” and “male stripper” to his parents. His father was already disappointed that he was waiting tables instead of going to college and pursuing running, which he’d been doing since elementary school.
“I avoided telling them for the whole first month,” Gabe says. “I just told them I was going to the chiropractor.”
It wasn’t long, however, before his mother, browsing Facebook one day, came upon a picture of her son, shirtless and in boxer briefs, posing with smiling patrons at Tallywackers.
That night, she confronted him.
“She was like, ‘What are those pictures? Were you at a party, or a club or something?’ She hoped I was just showing off.” He did his best to explain his new gig and assure her that it was legit.
That same week, Tallywackers was featured in a brief segment on Telemundo, the Spanish-language TV network. Gabe was included in the footage, which seemed great until he realized it was likely his Spanish-speaking aunts and uncles would see their shirtless, not-so-camera-shy nephew and call his father to find out the scoop. Panicked, Gabe asked his manager if he could go to the back of the restaurant and make a quick call. Taking a deep breath, he phoned his dad and told him about the job.
There was a pause, and then laughter.
“Hey, at least you’re making good money!”
* * *
Soft-spoken and articulate, Gabe has a sweet positivity, an endearing innocence that’s both genuine and profitable. Customers respond to his boy-next-door appeal, but his life as a sex object can be complicated at times, especially because in-house rules for customer contact in the new venue are still evolving. While hugging patrons is permitted, as is close contact for photos – “We want them to feel like they’re family,” Gabe says – drunk patrons have, at times, become a little “handsy.” A few customers have been removed after groping waiters. “We’re still at a restaurant,” Gabe says in his aw-shucks manner, “not a dance club.”
Gabe says he has learned over the months of his employment how to navigate the tricky boundaries. “I’ve gotten asked to do a few lap dances, and we did them at first, but then we had to draw the line. Lately, I’ve had bachelorette parties where they’re like, ‘Can we give you a lap dance?’” The answer is yes – with a catch. “I tell them, ‘I can’t touch you,’” he says. He makes sure to keep his arms raised overhead so everyone can see his hands at all times.
Clearly, it’s not all business – like the Saturday night near closing time when the DJ put on some Mexican dance music and Gabe pulled one of his customers to her feet and hit the floor. “We just started going at it,” he remembers, laughing. The rest of the table jumped up to join in, and before he knew it, everybody in the restaurant was dancing.
And on a recent night, a group of women called Gabe over to the bar. One of the women pointed to a stack of cash. “It’s all for you,” she said flirtatiously, introducing him to her friend, the birthday girl. “They went crazy and started throwing the money at me,” Gabe recalls. “I just started laughing. It was awesome. They made it rain on me.”
Owner Rodney Duke, who comes to work fully clothed, says his waiters generally like the attention. “Whether it’s from gay men or women, it makes them feel very ‘king of the castle,’” he says, before turning back to the muscular blond he’s interviewing for a job. (Part of the application process requires hopefuls to parade around the restaurant in the signature tank top and short-shorts.) “He’s an underwear model,” Duke confides. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the men who work at Tallywackers as muscle-bound Ken dolls. Gabe says that for him, it’s “just another job,” albeit one with better tips than his last waiting gig, at a Tex-Mex cantina. When asked about any extracurricular activities, Gabe, who has broken up with his daughter’s mom, lays down the company policy: Servers are not allowed to hook up with customers. “Yeah, I get numbers, but that’s not what it’s about,” he says.
When pressed, it’s clear Gabe has mixed feelings about his work. He hints that some of his more religious family members, and even some old friends, judge his job unfavorably. “It does feel weird,” he says. “Sometimes it makes me feel low about myself and what others think of me. But I try to be as professional as I can.”
Turnover is high at places like Tallywackers and since the reporting of this story, in fact, Gabe has moved on from his position at Tallywackers. On the subject, an anonymous blogger who goes by Adventures of a Hooters Girl writes: “No one expects it to be as hard as it really is. There are a lot of tests to take, and you have so much shadowing to do.” Another writes, “The turnover rate at Hooters is high, even by restaurant standards, but there is always a long list of girls who are eager to fill their places. Everyone is completely expendable.”
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Tara Nieuwesteeg is a Dallas-based book editor and freelance writer.