The Inevitable Rise of the Gay Hooters
Posted June 23, 2018 5:46 p.m. EDT
Jay and Anita Earle were having a good time at Boxers, a gay sports bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on a recent Wednesday night. Which was a little surprising.
The Earles are a lesbian couple, so they were probably unmoved by the shirtless male bartenders. And, though competing in a trivia contest, they were leaving most of their answers blank. They also live on the Upper West Side, so this was not a quick walk home. Surely the nachos were not that good.
“It’s a nice, mellow place,” Jay said. Anita agreed: “People say it’s gay Hooters, but it’s so much better than Hooters.”
Such is the unlikely success of Boxers, which made its debut in 2010 and has become a commercial unicorn: a gay sports bar chain. From its original location on West 20th Street, it expanded into Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper East Side; there is an outpost in Philadelphia. Another Boxers is scheduled for a Labor Day opening in Washington Heights. Gym Sportsbar, which bills itself as “America’s most popular gay sports bar,” has three locations: Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and Chelsea. By sheer volume, Boxers is possibly the most popular gay bar in the city.
In the years since Boxers opened, gay New Yorkers have won the right to marry and to serve openly in the military. The Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village flash point of gay rights, was enshrined as a National Historical Landmark; an AIDS memorial was erected on Greenwich Avenue; Jason Collins played with the Brooklyn Nets as the NBA’s first openly gay player; Laverne Cox went from waitressing in Union Square to gracing the cover of Time as a transgender icon; and Ritchie Torres, a city councilman, became the Bronx’s first openly gay representative. The city’s gay pride parade is now so mainstream that last year it was televised nationally.
Yet, amid a gay renaissance of broader, nonconforming sensibilities — queer, transgender and woke — Boxers has bet on old-school, meat-market machismo. It is frequently described as “gay Hooters,” not only for its Chippendales-style seminude employees but also its menu, which feels plucked from a Midwestern airport: Cap’n Crunch French toast, cheese fries, toasted cheese ravioli, chicken tenders, and macaroni & cheese bites.
It seems to be paying off — $2 Taco Tuesdays and all.
With the Washington Heights opening, Boxers expects to pass the $10 million mark in annual sales this year, said its owners, Bob Fluet and Rob Hynds. They have requests for franchises in California, Florida, Ohio, London and Rio de Janeiro, they said, and are scouting a Chicago location. Both men still work their longtime professions: Fluet is a general contractor in New Jersey and owns an auto body shop; Hynds is a real estate agent in Connecticut. They’re both married (not to each other) and admit to being quite suburban. “I mean,” Fluet said, “I wear Hanes.”
According to Daniel Nardicio, the well-traveled gay nightlife impresario who holds parties all over the city, including at Boxers, the bar is not cutting edge but necessary. “They’re not bland, but they’re basic,” Nardicio said, referring to both the bars and its owners. “They’re kind of gay Hooters, but really they’re gay TGI Fridays. And let me say, before the pitchforks come for me, we need that. We need a comfortable space. We are entitled to everything straight people have, including our own vanilla. I’m from Cleveland. I like TGI Fridays.”
The city did not always embrace Boxers. The owners were denied their first bid at an expansion into Hell’s Kitchen, in 2011. “We thought, OK, it’s a gay neighborhood, a gay community board," Fluet said. Yet the board recommended against granting a liquor license. For the owners, it felt familiar. The day before signing the original Boxers lease, they were also rebuffed, they said, for being a gay bar. They ended up in different spots in both neighborhoods.
Historically, gay bars have been side-street hideaways, architecturally closeted warrens of secrecy. Boxers, by contrast, features huge windows frequently at corner locations.
“Most gay bars in the city are just one thing. It’s leather daddies, it’s twinks, it’s a coke den or this or that; Boxers is pretty much just everyone,” said Matt Cárdenas, a brand ambassador for Chappy, a gay dating app that stages events at bars across the city, including at Boxers. “There’s not a lot of bitchiness, and that alone sets it apart.”
Israel Gutierrez, an ESPN commentator who fondly recalled a visit to the downtown location in 2015, the year he came out, agreed: “So many gay bars try too hard. Who wants to try so hard when they go out? I just want a big place that’s not too crowded, not too loud, where I can hang out with my friends.”
Boxers currently sponsors 15 of the city’s 30-odd gay sports leagues, translating into roughly 25 individual teams sporting Boxers-branded jerseys, said Fluet. “There’s a gay yacht club!” he said. “I remember them because they asked for ginger beer and we had to special order it.”
Going against the grain of a stylish, status-conscious New York night life scene, Boxers has focused squarely on various underserved bases: blue-collar, low-key, outer-borough and uptown gays. Boxers bills itself as hosting the city’s largest black- and Latino-focused gay parties, each at about 600 people weekly, and also has run Arab- and Asian-focused parties. “It’s crazy to us that, in the 21st century, there’s still bigotry in the gay community of all places,” Fluet said. Nevertheless, the Boxers’ appeal is its bartenders. The formula for their allure cuts a cunning line between candid and crude. They are about as explicitly erotic as a cover of Men’s Fitness. They all have horror stories of lewd behavior by unruly customers. But, said Paulo Flor, a gay Brazilian bodybuilder who tends bar at the Upper East Side outpost, “There is much more good than bad.”
On a recent Monday night at the downtown flagship, Brandon McCullough, 27, an advertising associate from the Upper East Side, pointed to two bartenders: Juan Pablo Verjel, who always half-apologizes for being a Mets fan, and Thomas Consoli, a hulking 6-foot-5 aspiring state trooper. “I’ve known JP since he was a barback,” said McCullough. “Tom is like a big brother. Actually, I know his brothers. They’re shot boys here. These guys miss me when I’m gone. We’re invested in each other.” McCullough got upset when a reporter divulged weeks of Boxers reconnaissance. “Gay Hooters?” he asked. “Gay TGI Fridays? Gay Coyote Ugly? No!” He held his palms out, fingers flared and said, “You’ve got the story wrong!” He held the rebuke silently until finally his hands fell crisscross upon his heart. “It’s gay Cheers.”
As if on cue, Consoli and Verjel greeted an incoming group of customers by their names.