Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gay Hooters

Boxers PHL, the Gayborhood's answer to Hooters, has found success uncharacteristic of a city with a rigid stance against corporate chains. Sure, Boxers only has three locations - two in New York and one in Philadelphia - but unlike other small, regional chains, Boxers feels and behaves corporate. 

Philadelphia's gay community is far from small, but it's centralized and connected. From the Gayborhood's coffee shops to its bars and restaurants, Philadelphia's gay owned and operated businesses are places run by familiar faces. When the Westbury was forced to close following a fire at the Parker Hotel, many of its employees were offered shifts at other bars and restaurants in the neighborhood.

These businesses compete where they can, but first and foremost they serve the city's gay community. 

So it's not surprising that many were perplexed to see few to no familiar faces operating Boxers when it opened last fall. These weren't the bartenders and waiters we've come to know in this tight community. Were they beef shipped in from New York? Were they straight men cast for their bodies? 

Probably a little of both. 

What's most unusual is that it seems to be working. The bar is wildly popular with men and women. Has Philadelphia reached the tipping point in its Disneyfication that locals consider the Chili's of gay bars entertainment?

The worst part is, it's actually a really fun place and I can't explain why. Like the episode of Always Sunny where they gang visits Sudz, wanting to hate it, I found myself intoxicated by its cliche corporate antics. Even when you know it's fake, the scripted revelry taking place behind the bar at Boxers is a refreshing departure from the often cranky or unfriendly staff of our local pubs.

Flair works. The flirtatious winks and smiles from the Adonises reenacting cheesy scenes from Cocktail are as genuine as those from the girls pushing buffalo wings at Hooters, but smiling employees make smiling customers. 

Have Philadelphians grown tired of excusing curmudgeonly service as uniquely local charm, or has the city found enough New Philadelphians who don't remember a place that survived on the status quo, finally demanding and appreciating more. 

Perhaps our local bars will take a page or two from Boxers' success and why it works. It's a shame that a corporate chain - however small - has to lead the way, but chains succeed and multiply because they deliver consistency and know their markets. 

But Boxers hasn't been immune to its own missteps. A recent calendar campaign - exactly what you think it looks like - is currently raising funds for a noble charity that assists homeless LGBT youth, but only those in New York City. Likely a shortsighted error and part of a growing company's growing pains, it implies that the company hasn't embraced its neighborhood, but rather graced it with its presence. And it isn't the first time it's done so. Branding it "Boxers PHL" from day one brands it with the implication that we should be so lucky to have a gay bar from somewhere other than "PHL."

While our local pubs could perhaps learn a thing or two from why businesses like Boxers thrive, Boxers could stand to learn why bars like Woody's, Tavern on Camac, and Venture Inn have been around for so long. People like consistency, but they love loyalty. And Philadelphians, whether native or new, love this city too much to tolerate a business that continues to labor under the impression that our city is second-best, even to New York.

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