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West Virginia’s last Hooters is being torn down. Locals are planning a candlelit vigil – complete with wings

In homage to the restaurant, locals are gathering one last time for chicken wings and iconic Strip Cheese Sandwiches by candlelight. Michelle Del Rey reports

Friday 23 February 2024 23:13 GMT
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<p>The residents of Charleston, West Virginia are holding a candlelit vigil ahead of the demolition of their local Hooters.</p>

The residents of Charleston, West Virginia are holding a candlelit vigil ahead of the demolition of their local Hooters.

The residents of Charleston, West Virginia, saw their local Hooters as a landmark.

It was a place where people could join together after children’s sports games and watch Ultimate Fighting Championship matches on the weekends.

So when it was announced last week that the restaurant would be demolished and replaced with a Sheetz gas station, locals decided to rally together – and pay homage with a candlelit vigil.

The event, planned for Friday night, was posted on Facebook with a graphic that read: “Rest in peace… Hooters.”

Shortly after its launch, people far and wide began coming to the page to share their favourite memories from the restaurant and pay their respects.

“Boy do I have some stories about that place from back in the late 90s,” one person wrote. Another chimed in: “I once saw a dude snort a line of black pepper on a dare at this Hooters. Rip.”

Local event planner Leonard Browning, 41, told The Independent that he got together with his friend Drew Cook to plan the vigil after news of the closure spread through the local community.

“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “We don’t have a lot here in Charleston”.

Mr Browning said he was inspired by all the recent candlelit vigils happening across the country and thought: “Let’s do one on somewhat of a funny/positive note for our local landmark.”

The restaurant was the last of the chain’s locations in the whole of West Virginia. It shut down in March 2020 on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic and never reopened.

For the past almost four years, the site has been left languishing.

Before the demolition was announced, residents had reason to hope they might get their hands on another batch of Hooters’ famous wings.

Three years ago, the chain put out the following statement on Facebook: “Hooters of Charleston has not re-opened as a result of the Covid-19. We have taken this time to make improvements to our restaurant and look forward to re-opening in the future.”

But then a year later, another update came: “There are no updates and we remain closed”.

Even then, Mr Browning said he didn’t lose faith.

“Two, three times a week, you drive through there, you see that closed sign and you’re like, ‘Man I hope somebody really pulls through and opens that back up’,” he said.

It remains unclear why the restaurant decided to shut down. The Independent reached out to Hooters for comment but did not hear back before publication.

The business wasn’t the only one to permanently leave the state’s capital due to the pandemic. Mr Browning said he saw multiple other nearby establishments shut their doors at that time, including one owned by his friend.

“A lot of the local businesses were hit very hard” he said. “And there’s just no bouncing back from 10 to 18 months of not having any business.”

The issue stretches beyond the restaurant industry. Statewide, unemployment peaked at 15.6 per cent in April 2020, with West Virginia’s coal and natural gas industries particularly suffering a steep decline.

Making matters worse, Advisorsmith, a company that sells business insurance and loans, put Charleston at the top of its fastest shrinking small cities in the US list in 2020, forcing companies to take a second look on whether to invest in the area. Economists project that West Virginia is on the rebound but the progression remains slow.

Aside from the impact on employment, the local Hooters demise will be felt in other ways.

One of the things Mr Browning said he’ll miss most is the camaraderie he experienced when he walked through the restaurant’s doors.

“Everytime you walked into that place, yes, you didn’t know half the people in there, but there were no strangers. You would make new friends,” he said.

Mr Cook, a 28-year-old post office clerk, agreed: “It was just basically like our local watering hole.”

While he said some of his memories from the establishment are blurred, he fondly recalled being in the building when West Virginia University beat the University of Texas at Austin in the last 16 seconds of a football game with a two-point conversion.

The entire restaurant went “absolutely buckwild,” Mr Cook said. Neither of the men spoke at-length about the lasting impact the famed Hooters girls had on their experiences.

“The waitresses are there”, Mr Browning simply said.

Friday’s event is scheduled to kick off at 6.30pm.

In homage to the restaurant, the organisers are making chicken wings outside with Hooters wing sauce, and will serve up a limited amount of the chain’s “Strip Cheese Sandwich” – using a copy of the Hooters recipe book Mr Browning got from a friend who used to work at the location.

“We’ll have signs and flowers and send our condolences,” Mr Browning said, adding that attendees are encouraged to bring their own candles.

Despite all the attention the vigil is getting, the two organisers said they’re most looking forward to just hanging out with their friends and having a proper sendoff to one of their favourite bars.

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