Blake Hawkins and his wife, Katherine, started Hug-Hes Cafe about 30 years ago, but six months into their struggling business venture, Hawkins could only think, “You idiot, why did you do this?” Fast forward to today, and now Hawkins owns 5 successful Hug-Hes restaurants from North Ogden to their newest location in Centerville.
“I’ve been in this industry for 47 years. I worked for some corporations and companies throughout that time and just decided that I didn’t like people telling me what to do,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t want my success to depend on someone else, so I took what I’d learned and spent the next two years scouting auctions for used or refurbished restaurant equipment.” Then, Hug-Hes Cafe opened their first location by McKay-Dee Hospital in the Harrison Depot area. About 6 years ago, they moved to their current location on Harrison Blvd.
While their restaurant started a bit rocky, it was after Hawkins invented his famous smoked chicken pasta salad, raspberry vinaigrette and beer bread that business took off. “Back then, 30 years ago, pasta wasn’t popular in Utah. On the coasts it was, but Utah was definitely a meat and potatoes culture,” he remembered. “We started getting introduced to other things, pasta being one. So I needed to come up with a pasta salad, and I played around with some recipes and made a special dressing for it. We started doing really well.”
Though his creation started Hug-Hes’s upward growth, Hawkins does not have a culinary background. He went to school for Business Administration with an emphasis in finance and started his restaurant career as a bouncer for the night crowd at JB’s Big Boy in Provo. But his extensive restaurant experience means he knows exactly what goes into making a menu for a new restaurant. “Use the minimal amount of ingredients as possible because you can maintain freshness in your food and design your menu to use different items in different ways. You learn the price points and what it takes to price out raw products for your menu item,” he said.
Right now, Hawkins is working on his exit strategy, planning to leave day-to-day operations to his son, Jordan, as well as long-time employee Nathan Richie. But experience speaks volumes, and his advice to those wanting to start their own business is simple: “If you have a passion for a certain industry, get involved with that industry first. You can’t make a good decision if you don’t know what it’s about. It could take a sacrifice to do that, you might make more money doing something else. But if it’s your passion, try it out first.”
As for what’s behind the name, that’s a pretty funny story. “The name comes from my wife’s maiden name, Hughes. Her father was in the FBI Washington in D.C. like 70 years ago, and the Easterners would see Hughes and see the ‘G,’ so they’d pronounce it Hug-Hes. We probably had 100 different names, but that floated right to the top.”