Earls feeds the eyes and the stomach

Customers herd into a small foyer as two or three revealingly dressed, spike-heeled young women greet them with rehearsed smiles.

Customers herd into a small foyer as two or three revealingly dressed, spike-heeled young women greet them with rehearsed smiles.

An older man, part of a couple perched on a bench for the 10-minute wait for a table, ignores his wife’s attempts to engage him in a preliminary perusal of the menu.

Instead, he’s fixated on the long-legged fox jotting down the names of waiting customers on a clipboard.

 “You dropped your pen,” chimes the guy as he dives to retrieve the greeter’s ballpoint from the sculptured carpet almost before it hits the floor.

The restaurant’s wine is good quality.

The prices are certainly reasonable.

The food is satisfactory. In my experience, Earls kitchens have always had a healthy reverence for animal fat, a proclivity that seems counterintuitive to the hiring of beautiful waifs to sling the fare.

Prompted by a rumour I will not repeat to avoid potential defamation and, just on a lark, I tried for a job interview at Earls last week after reading a display advertisement aimed at “those with killer personalities.”

But when I call Earls to ask about submitting an application via e-mail, fax or courier, the woman on the other end of the phone is cagey.

“Oh, um, I’m not sure,” she says. “I don’t think our fax is even hooked up yet.”

A phone call to information provides the new listing, and, predictably, a fax goes through just fine.

Other calls produce similar reactions.

“How come you’re not able to come in?” or, “How come you can’t come in?” or, “Right away, they like to meet the people,”  or “We wouldn’t be hiring you until you got here, so,” and finally, a resigned, “Yeah, it’s fine. I just … (sigh) If you came in for an interview there’s a better likelihood that we’d be hiring you.”

Odd in a market with a labour shortage.

Why won’t Earls give me an interview over the phone?

I have been interviewed, even hired, over the phone before.

It’s because they want to see you first, silly, explains an old friend, still beautiful at 37, even more so when she was immediately welcomed into the Earls “family” (that’s what one employee called it on the company website) at a tender age.

When Krista Semmens applied in Calgary, she went to the door. Mere moments later, the sweet young thing was being interviewed and hired.

“Even at the age of 17, I think I figured that out, that that was part of it,” says Semmens, fair of face, five feet two inches tall, and, at that time, no more than 87 pounds heavy.

“I don’t remember there being an ugly person that worked at Earls, or a really fat person that worked at Earls.

“Even the kitchen staff were good-looking.”

Maybe old Earl, a composite character built of the plain-faced Buster Earl Fuller and his similarly endowed son, Stanley, started building the stable way back in 1982.

But those were more innocent times.

When she worked there in 1988, Semmens and her co-workers wore black slacks and basic, long-sleeved, white shirts buttoned to the top with neckties.

Sure, the staff partied together and flirted with one another.

“It was like a frat house kind of thing,” she recalls, evoking Earls’ website proclamation that “staff parties are out of control.”

The short film depicts revelers playing pranks on inebriated co-workers who have passed out.

Four vivacious blonde servers wear matching T-shirts, cut short and tight, iron-on lettering just above their exposed bellies bearing the slogan “blow your loan here.”

There was no mention of modeling when Semmens worked there, either.

“In all their menus, magazines and posters, they use their own staff,” says a caption above three website beauties.

“It makes us feel a part of the team.”

Hot young protégés sift through outfits, accessorize, banter and strike poses for fashion photographers in a studio to the sound of funky dance music, all the while singing the praises of Earls.

Semmens was surprised, but clicked off before the video was done, perhaps most irritated with the young male model who used his moment of fame to share with the worldwide web that his favourite movie is Zoolander.

When Semmens was at Earls, the ultimate goal was not so lofty, and decidedly less sexy.

“I think the only aspiration anybody had was movin’ up the ladder, which was the big old title of shift leader.”

She never made it.

Resisting the temptation to “earn six figures without seven years’ university,” Semmens is now an emergency room nurse, and hasn’t handled a tray in more than a decade.

 But the Fullers sure like the girls in her family.

I couldn’t even secure an interview, but, during a recent pub crawl in Calgary, Semmens’ young niece, Vicki, was offered a job, presumably based on the way her “killer personality” shone through while she sipped a cocktail with friends at Joey Tomatoes.

Joey’s, owned by Earls and run by Buster’s nephew, Jeff, invites customers to “where come-as-you-are dining gets upgraded to first class.”

Semmens advised her private-school-educated niece against it.

“You see more t and a in there than, I think, probably, in a strip club,” she says, describing the bizarre floor plan of a local Joey’s, in which tables are arranged in two rows, theatre style.

Every seat is a great vantage point to ogle the barkeep, a buxom blonde who shakes up the martinis while beautiful waitresses are bottle-necked along a kind of catwalk in front of the bar, fetching food and retrieving dirty dishes.

They are in thigh-high boots, mini-skirts and tank tops, even when it’s minus 40, says Semmens.

“It’s atrocious.

“Obviously, the experience wasn’t a positive one, as far as a work environment or what I thought would be a fit work environment for my own family member.”

Customers must disagree.

Earls and Joeys are growing concerns.

And by no means are the Fullers the first to make their staff part of the ambience, mood and scenery.

“When you’re running a restaurant, you’re selling a lot more than food,” says marketing professor Lindsay Meredith, who teaches strategy at Simon Fraser University faculty of business.

“Is the idea of hiring eye candy new? No, it’s been going around since the days of Playboy mansion, Hooters.

“Ethical? That’s a darned good question.”

Earls may have met its match in Whitehorse, says Semmens.

Perhaps consumers in the heavily unionized, labour-standard-savvy city will prove intolerant of hiring practices that leave the unattractive “vulnerable,” as fellow SFU marketing professor Colleen Dodd put it.

“Can you alienate some market segments? Sure you can,” says Meredith.

“You have to be careful when you’re playing that card. (It) can blow up in your face.

“I call that falling between the rowboats. You fail to get the one you’re after, and you alienate the one you had. Now you’ve got nothing.”

But then, Earls has alienated customers before.

In 2006, the chain thumbed its nose at families with babies by unapologetically removing all high chairs and boosters from its restaurants.

Wrote columnist Gail Johnson in the Georgia Strait, “Wonder why a restaurant that obviously has a pro-hottie hiring policy is down on breeding?”

Local Earls management denies the allegation, saying it is a coincidence that his servers are thin and pretty; that he would hire an ugly, fat woman if she was outgoing enough.

Beautiful women are more confident, thus they are more likely to be blessed with those killer personalities, says Chris Schneider on Friday morning.

“Usually the girls who put a little more effort into their look are more comfortable with how they look. They’re outgoing because they’re comfortable,” he says.