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Hug-Hes Cafe is known for its memorable name and salad

By Valerie Phillips - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 18, 2022

Valerie Phillips, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Blake Hawkins is the founder of Hug-Hes Cafe restaurants.

A pasta salad might have saved Hug-Hes Cafe, according to owner Blake Hawkins.

Six months after opening back in 1988, Hawkins’ South Ogden restaurant was struggling. Having left his job managing the popular Market Street Broiler in Salt Lake City, he was now wondering, “Why did I do this?”

But he realized the pasta trend, already big on the East and West coasts, was catching on in Utah.

“When we first opened, Utah was still a meat-and-potatoes culture,” he said. “But pasta was becoming more popular, so I began playing with it. Our smoked chicken pasta salad became our signature item, and possibly the item that saved us.”

It’s still a top-seller in the restaurant, and “It became a big part of our catering, served at weddings and all different kinds of functions,” Hawkins said.

Valerie Phillips, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Hug-Hes Cafe is known for its loaves of beer bread.

The recipe hasn’t changed in 34 years — diced smoked chicken, rotini and bow-tie pastas, kidney beans, and chopped carrots and broccoli, tossed in a sweet vinaigrette dressing.

Today, the salad is also a mainstay at the restaurant’s other five locations — Syracuse, North Ogden, Centerville, Stansbury Park and the smaller Hugs in Layton. Many patrons buy bottles of the sweet vinaigrette to take home.

Over the years, Hug-hes Cafe has maintained its “salad” reputation, offering about 10 different varieties, including the popular Summer Salad with strawberries, diced apples, craisins, feta, almonds, red onion and grilled chicken.

Beer bread, with its subtle yeasty, malty flavor, is a second signature item.

“That came on about four or five months after we opened,” Hawkins said. “We started out serving sourdough bread, but I wanted to be different.”

Valerie Phillips, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Smoked chicken pasta salad is a longtime signature item of Hug-Hes Cafe.

Hawkins, who has a business administration degree, never planned on a restaurant career. As a BYU college student, he became a bouncer at JB’s Big Boy in Provo, where he was dating one of the servers. When offered a job keeping the rowdy late-night customers in line, he saw it as a great way to see more of her. It apparently worked, as he later married Kathryn Hughes, whose last name later sparked Hug-Hes’ name.

He moved into JB’s management, then managed truck stops before managing the Market Street Broiler near the U campus. It was owned by Gastronomy Inc., a rising star in Salt Lake City’s restaurant industry at the time.

“Gastronomy is where I really learned about food at a higher level, especially fish,” Hawkins said. “But with my personality, I decided the corporate structure isn’t for me. I have a hard time with my success depending on other people, and I wanted to do my own thing.”

He also wanted a flexible schedule for family events and his children’s sports activities.

As for the quirky name, it’s not pronounced “Huggies” or “Hughes,” but “Hugg-Hess.”

Valerie Phillips, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Summer Salad at Hug-Hes Cafe is composed of greens, strawberries, diced apples, craisins, feta, almonds, red onion and grilled chicken.

It’s an inside joke on Kathryn Hughes Hawkins’ maiden name. When her father worked for the FBI in Washington, D.C., many Easterners mispronounced his last name as “Hugg-Hess,” instead of “Hughes,” with a silent G.

“When we were thinking of a name, it floated to the top,” Hawkins said. “It ended up working pretty well, because people were always curious about it.”

They opened first in a strip mall on the west side of Harrison Boulevard and later moved to the present location of 1220 E. 4800 South.

“We moved here because it had been a bank, and we wanted to have the drive-thru,” Hawkins said. “It was an eye-opener, as I didn’t realize how bad our old location was for parking. And when COVID hit, it was even more important to have a drive-thru. Now when we open a new location, we make sure there’s good parking.”

For years, Hug-Hes was a one-location cafe, until Hawkins’ son, Jordan, came home from his church mission and wanted to work in the business. He and longtime employee Nathan Richey were involved in opening a second Hug-Hes in Syracuse in 2014, followed by a North Ogden location at 505 E. 2600 North and an express, limited-menu eatery on Layton’s Main Street called “Hugs.” A Centerville Hug-Hes opened four years ago, and last November, a location opened in Stansbury Park.

Valerie Phillips, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Pan-seared salmon is a popular entree at Hug-Hes Cafe.

At age 70, Hawkins leaves the day-to-day operations to Jordan, Richey and a separate manager who oversees catering. But he’s still involved in decisions, such as whether to take the old-school classic liver and onions off the menu.

“It hasn’t been the greatest of sellers, and Jordan and Nathan wanted to get rid of it,” he said. “But people my age still come in for it. We finally took it off the regular menu last year, and now we run it as a special. I imagine that when my generation dies off, liver and onions will die, too.”

The menu has fun appetizers such as deep-fried green beans, fried pickles, fried cheese curds, beer-battered mushrooms and onion rings. Popular entrees include beer-battered fish and chips, pan-seared salmon and prime rib.

There’s a Cranpeno chicken sandwich, laced with a sauce made of cranberries and jalapeños.

“We sell a lot of them. We also have a meatless burger and a vegetable-based ‘chicken’ product,” Hawkins said. “Any pasta on the menu can be made vegetarian. We are trying to take care of as many people as we possibly can.”

The bakery case out front is filled with sweets such as the pink-frosted sugar cookies that won a Best of State title.

The post-COVID era brought current challenges of staff shortages and higher food prices. Menu prices were raised, and halibut was taken off the menu due to its expense.

“It wouldn’t fit into our price range, because I would have to sell it for $35-$40 for a meal,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I could sell enough of it to make sure it was fresh.”

He said they stay up on trends, attending food shows for potential new items.

“Then we tweak it and do our own. Lots of times we will run things as a special, and if it becomes popular, we’ll put it on the menu permanently.”


IF YOU GO

Locations: South Ogden, North Ogden, Syracuse, Centerville, Tooele, Layton (Hugs)

Contact: https://www.hughescafe.com

Prices: $10-$15 (lunch), $14-$22 (dinner)

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday. Hugs in Layton: 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday.

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