Interview with Tom Kaplan, CEO of Hugo’s Restaurant (Part 2)
Hugo’s Restaurant: Unique Approach To Food And Commitment To Sustainability
(A MUST-READ for people with food allergies and vegans)
Editor: On a different note entirely, I was surprised to learn that you’re serving pasta for breakfast.
Tom Kaplan: Yes, we do! We have a kitchen behind the Hugo’s Taco stand in Studio City that houses our pasta machine. We have a guy who is making nothing but fresh pasta all day long, at least three times a week.
Editor: I also heard that you serve fresh roasted coffee. That’s uncommon for a restaurant.
Tom Kaplan: Yes and proudly so! I personally roasted coffee for 12 years.
From the editor: I was served a cup of the fresh-roasted coffee during the interview: the coffee was FANTASTIC! I usually have a cappuccino or espresso, this “regular” coffee however was better. To my compliments, Tom responded: “Enjoy! That’s a well-roasted Brazilian coffee from a 100 years old plantation….”
Editor: It’s my understanding that Hugo’s has a special menu for people with food allergies?
Tom Kaplan: In L.A. people want to be as healthy as they can. Maybe because ours is an artistic city people are more sensitive to their bodies.
Editor: I stand corrected, we should be speaking of food sensitivities as well.
Tom Kaplan: Actually, it’s both. With the development of industrial agriculture over the last 100 years, I believe that a lot of foods have become intolerable. We are not eating meat any- more, we are eating something so far removed from the ancient grains, our bodies can’t tolerate it. Many people end up going to doctors with all kinds of ailments when it really is about going back to pure foods which is what we’re trying to do in Hugo’s Restaurant.
Editor: So, if I understand it correctly: when a group consisting of regular healthy people, a person with food allergies / sensitivities and a vegan come for a dinner to Hugo’s Restaurant, you can accommodate their diverse needs?
Tom Kaplan: Yes, that’s why Hugo’s is also a great first date restaurant! If you have an allergy to gluten or garlic, our staff knows practically every ingredient on the menu. They also have a book which they can bring to the table. The book has all the common allergens in our ingredients listed. Then we have an alert system: let’s say you’re allergic to garlic. Once you have chosen items that are garlic-free, the server will come and place a red coaster in front of you. Then they put an alert on the computer the guys in the kitchen can see. The kitchen staff double-checks that everything you get is garlic-free. (The guys are brilliant in the kitchen!) And then your special dish has a frilly toothpick put on it so the guy who brings your order to the table is aware that there is a special issue and looks for the red coaster on the table. We take food allergies very seriously.
My wife, Emily, and I are yoga practitioners and teachers. So we started to study Ayurveda and that’s how the Ayurvedic meals came about….
We were set for vegetarians quite early. But in the early nineties people started saying: “we can’t have the pasta because we’re vegan.” And we said, “What the heck is vegan?” And so they said “there is an egg in it”. “So what’s the matter with that, you don’t have kill anything to have an egg.” But they’d say “we don’t eat anything containing animal products.” So then Nabor (the Chef) and I started looking how to make pasta without eggs. And Nabor who is from Mexico said, “I remember my parents used to soak flaxseeds in water overnight and the water would become gelatinous, why don’t we try that?” We did and we started using it in our pasta. Not one customer noticed. There was no drop in quality. So then we started wondering “what about the bread that we make? Instead of butter, let’s use olive oil. We reexamined our menu and got it down to the point that vegans could have sandwiches and pasta, or things that used to be vegetarian but have now become vegan.
About 2005 – 2006 I started getting emails about gluten and I said, it’s OK: I can’t please everybody, but then that one guy came in and made an appointment to talk to me. Having talked with him, I reevaluated the menu and realized that it wouldn’t be that hard to get rid of all flour in the restaurant. So the only gluten that we now have is in our pasta and bread and in some of the pancakes. We have no flour floating around that could cause cross-contamination. Then the same care progressed into other areas.
One of the members of our menu committee was into oil-free and low sodium. So again, we started looking for healthier alternatives and Nabor – the Chef: – who’s just a genius said, “let me play with things” and yes, we found a way to eliminate oil. It was never really planned, we never decided that this is going to be this way.
Editor: So these healthy changes were sort of a natural evolution…
Tom Kaplan: You asked me earlier why we’re so successful. One of the answers is I hate being a follower. I got that from my father. I want to do everything before anyone else. I want to do it better than others. I want to blow people’s minds with food. I’m not good at music or art, but I am creative when it comes to food. I developed a way for everybody (vegan and non-vegan, with food allergies and without) to sit and enjoy a meal together. And, if I see you coming in with a child, I want to feel good knowing that your child is getting the best food possible. So we have no processed foods, we have 80 or so menu items plus specials. In a 48 hour period we make about 400 recipes and we use about 700 raw ingredients. We know what goes in into every single thing and we make sure that the ingredients are good for you.
Are you familiar with sorghum?
Editor: It’s a type of grain, isn’t it?
Tom Kaplan: Over the last two years, we’ve been looking at how much water it takes to grow rice. It takes like 200 gallons of water to grow one pound of rice. Quinoa has become so expensive in the countries it comes from, the people who live there can no longer afford it. So we started looking at what other grains are out there that are ecologically-sustainable, drought-tolerant, you know, for our climate. It’s sorghum. It is super-nutritious, so we now have it in many recipes. We are saving thousands and thousands of gallons of water by trying to switch people to sorghum. Sorghum is now in our breads and pastries. You can’t settle for mediocrity. You have to always strive to be different and better. Hugo’s is not an expensive restaurant, we are more egalitarian, we want everybody to sit and eat together no matter what their dietary restrictions / preferences.
Editor: I’m not a restaurateur, just a woman who knows how to cook. I know from first hand experience how difficult it is to accommodate dinner guests who follow varying diets. It’s difficult to eliminate certain ingredients and create different versions of meals. It’s a challenge for me. It must have been very difficult to implement on a restaurant-scale.
Tom Kaplan: Nabor loves a challenge and it’s amazing what he’s learned from his parents as the only child in Mexico. I’m still amazed because he’s been here in the US most of his life, but he keeps coming up with new things from his Mexican heritage that are just amazing. I like leading the way but I also like listening. I learned that from the women in our business, Leslie (Brenner) our PR master, and Maria (Villanueva), our general manager. My dad was a good listener. I wasn’t, but I learned. So when somebody talks to us or sends us a nasty email about something they didn’t like about the restaurant rather than get defensive like I used to, now I listen. What I’m trying to say is that if there is something we can do to be even better and make somebody happy, we’ll find a way.
Editor: Customer input can be very helpful. It often shows us the way forward. I know that you are dedicated to serving whole foods, foods without GMOs, etc. These foods are more costly than their conventional counterparts. Does it make sense from a business point of view?
Tom Kaplan: I think it’s equally balanced. I worked in many restaurants in my life. My son has worked in many kitchens. I know what other restaurants do. I know that they’re buying things pre-made. So it costs them more, but they save on labor. When you buy raw ingredients, raw ingredients are cheaper than pre-made foods, but raw ingredients require more labor. So we get our food at a little lower price than other restaurants but our labor costs are somewhat higher. We train and hire really good people. They stay with us for decades because of my dad’s philosophy. It takes a guy years to get good in our kitchen. It takes a server at least 18 months to get good at what they doing and to be able to answer customers’ questions. One of the things my dad taught me early: “treat your staff well” which is why we have such great, food-driven employees. If you treat your staff well; they’ll treat your customers well. And I have these amazing partners Rich and Leslie (Brenner) who are really supportive of my dad’s vision. They really, really get it and we all work incredibly hard to realize his vision. He instilled in us our business philosophy. How do you take the love of the original founder and pass it down the generations? I couldn’t do it. It took a team and so we developed a series of stories and questions for the staff to ask themselves every day. How to greet the lovable people and how to greet the unlovable people. How do you let go of the baggage from yesterday? If somebody wasn’t nice to you and how to treat them brand new today?
The Secret of Hugo’s Restaurant Success
(Hint: passion, teamwork and creativity are hallmarks of success)
History Of Hugo’s Restaurant
(A great story of business’s evolution!)
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