Interview with Tom Kaplan, CEO of Hugo’s Restaurant (Part 1)
Hugo’s Restaurant’ with several locations in Greater Los Angeles, has a reputation for serving delicious, whole food meals that are healthy for all. Anything L.A. Magazine found it unusual that a health-conscious but still a main-stream restaurant would cater also to vegetarians, vegans and even guests with food allergies. Still, I (Anything L.A. Magazine’s Editor) didn’t expect too much from an interview with Hugo’s Restaurant owner. I was pleasantly surprised: Tom Kaplan, CEO of Hugo’s Restaurant, is an eloquent and charismatic storyteller.
I obviously wanted to know about Hugo’s Restaurant’s history. After all, the restaurant is in business for 36 years. I wondered: how did it all start?
History Of Hugo’s Restaurant
(A great story of business’s evolution!)
According to Tom Kaplan, Hugo’s was originally “Hugo’s Fine Meats”, not a restaurant! Tom’s father, Terry Kaplan – who aspired to be the best at everything he was doing – ran the store with two objectives: to offer the best quality “Eastern White Veal” and to do it in the most artful and appetizing way. The latter compelled him to gradually add exquisite sauces and exotic ingredients to the selection of veal to inspire meal preparation at local restaurants and at home.
As for the inspiration, Tom Kaplan said: “My father was fond of the beautiful food store displays he saw in France during World War II.”
Tom Kaplan: “Hugo’s Fine Meats” was a very high end butcher shop specializing in veal, so it was really the who’s who of Los Angeles, Hollywood, very wealthy clientele. They were very well traveled.
Editor: You mean the presentation, displays and rich selection looked familiar to them, reminded them of the similar approach to food marketing they’d seen in Europe.
Tom Kaplan: Exactly! “Hugo’s Fine Meats” gained such a popularity that customers were flocking to it from all over L.A. (There were even orders shipped out-of-state.) The many local customers who waited for their orders to be prepared wanted to sample things while waiting -that’s why Terry Kaplan added a few tables in his store. But the customer demand called for expansion: the customers were shopping, sampling and were ready to eat Terry’s delicious culinary creations. So my father’s original idea, to have a few tables where people could taste things and have a snack while waiting for their orders, became a restaurant. That’s how it all started.
The first winter we introduced 30 types of wild, edible mushrooms. A market can’t do it alone because the food would spoil but because at this point we were already a market and a restaurant we could cook with them, make salads with them, make pastas with them and prepare dishes with them to take home.
As the move toward expansion continued, Terry Kaplan began adding new fare to his existing menu.
Tom Kaplan: There was fresh pasta made daily in full view of customers… At least on the West Coast, in Southern California, we were the first gourmet market around in the 1980’s. We were making our own pastries and all these wonderful creations: salads, chicken salads, terrines and pâtés. Then we were also importing products from France, from Italy, olive oils, 200 years old balsamic vinegar: all these wonderful, exciting products and what we were preparing in the kitchen was all from raw ingredients. We didn’t call it “whole foods”. Nobody was making it so we made it ourselves.
Editor: Did the customers appreciate your efforts? The public awareness of the impact chemicals, antibiotics, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, etc. have on our health wasn’t wide spread back then.
Tom Kaplan: Absolutely, the business started and flourished with the support of sophisticated patrons. As the growth continued, the Kaplans realized that to sustain it they’d need dedicated staff as passionate about food as they were.
Early on we promoted one of our dishwashers. Our current chef, Nabor Diaz Prado came to work for us 27 years ago. He kept watching, learning and working his way up and after 18 months or two years, this young man from Mexico took over the kitchen as a chef. We’ve had many members of the Prado family working with us in our 36 year history. We’ve never been without at least 2 -3 members of the Prado family. (Many of our long-time employees went on to establish their own successful businesses.)
Editor: It says a lot about the working environment at Hugo’s Restaurant.
Tom Kaplan: It says a lot about my dad. When Nabor – the current star chef – started to work here as a dishwasher, one of his first jobs early morning was sweeping the parking lot. And he remembers on one of his first days working here, my father calling him aside and telling him how important his job is. Customers arriving at the restaurant’s parking lot form their first impression of Hugo’s based on the cleanliness of the lot. If the lot isn’t clean, they may not return.
Editor: You never get a second chance to make the first impression.
Tom Kaplan: My dad was a very kind and compassionate person. He was also an artist. The artwork displayed in our restaurants is his.
Editor: His work is stunning; I can’t believe that he didn’t pursue a career in fine arts!
Tom Kaplan: I just found it out: he had scholarships before the war started but then he went off to fight and after the war was over – I found this out just months ago – after the war he spent almost a year and half in Biarritz, France which as I found out has a large artist community. But then when he came back, he got married to my mom, started family and had to go back to work for his father. Then he opened his own shop and continued sketching. He never stopped sketching and drawing. And he did take about five years to do art. He was very successful and sold practically every drawing and he made hundreds of them: all charcoals.
Editor: Your father’s work is absolutely amazing. He could have become a star in the art world.
Tom Kaplan: You see, his father – who came here from Russia and very poor – hated the idea of my dad becoming an artist.
Editor: It wasn’t practical enough in his eyes.
Tom Kaplan: That’s how my dad felt. But he remained an artist in everything he did. In 1980s most restaurants didn’t want to hire actors or musicians, you know. My dad wanted to hire actors, artists and musicians only because he wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people. His employees were creative and supportive of each other. My father was an original. So many people, who returned from the war, turned to drinking to deal with their traumatic experiences and aid in the readjustment to normal life. My father turned to psychology and spirituality.
Editor: It seems that your father applied the principles of art community and his sense of aesthetics to business.
Hugo’s Restaurant: Unique Approach To Food And Commitment To Sustainability (A MUST-READ for people with food allergies and vegans)
Hugo’s Restaurant near you:
8401 Santa Monica Blvd.
12851 Riverside Dr.
(at Whizin Market Square)
5046 Cornell Road
You may also enjoy Hugo’s Tacos which offers South of the Border whole food meals on a much smaller scale:
4749 Coldwater Canyon
Studio City, CA 91604