(USA TODAY) - Hooters may have finally figured out a way to lure Mom in the door: Give her free food.
For one day, at least.
The chain famous for its waitresses in sexy uniforms has long struggled to attract female customers - particularly mothers. But this Mother's Day, it hopes to lure mothers nationwide by offering free entrees - worth up to $10 - for mothers who bring a kid along and buy any drink.
Many restaurant chains have Mother's Day come-ons - with restrictions - this year, like small cups of yogurt at TCBY; free slices of pie at O'Charley's and Shoney's; and free truffles at McCormick & Schmick's. But very few are giving away the whole meal.
For Hooters, which is desperately trying to improve its food, its look and its image, the move illustrates what a 30-year-old chain must do that has fallen so far. Although Hooters has offered free wings on special occasions like Mother's Day before, this is the chain's first freebie offer on a breadth of entrees. This also is the first year the chain has sold entree salads - which it also hopes will attract some women.
One restaurant industry consultant who thinks that Hooters is demeaning to women finds the promotion to be pathetic.
"It's like offering Weight Watchers customers a free meal with dessert at The Cheesecake Factory," says consultant Linda Lipsky. "There are enough calories in most of their desserts for 50% or more of your daily allowance. Giving it free doesn't make it any better."
At age 30 - ancient in the restaurant business - Hooters is out to reinvent itself as something oh-so-slightly less likely to make you - or your significant other - blush.
But Hooters' marketing chief says the chain just wants women to see the that Hooters is not the big, bad wolf of dining.
"It's not as diabolical as you think," says Dave Henninger, chief marketing officer. "We know you don't think of Hooters as a typical place to take Mom, but we want to make it more appealing for Mom to come in." Hooters' five new entree salads, all priced under $10, are one attempt by the chain to appeal more to women, he says.
That's not been easy, although the chain has made some progress with women. Two years ago, just one in four of its customers were female, but last year, after the chain began to change its menu, that number improved to about one in three, he says.
Last Mother's Day, the chain gave away free chicken wings to about 15,000 mothers. This year, it expects to give away upwards of 20,000 entrees to moms, says Henninger.
But some skeptics think that Hooters has a long way to go before it has any genuine appeal to women. "For a woman to walk into a place called Hooters," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, "that new Cobb salad had better be awfully good."