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|Thursday, August 20, 2009|
James Louie, the dapper, soft-spoken, wisecracking president of Huber’s, is fond of pointing out that two of the most commonly repeated proverbs instructing people on how to succeed in business contradict one another.
The first saying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” is a beloved favorite for speculators and entrepreneurs. Louie prefers the second parable: “Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Louie’s golden goose is his family’s venerable restaurant and bar. Ask him what has changed here over the past 100 years, and he ponders the question as a melancholic clarinet melody mixes with the murmur of the late-afternoon bar crowd. Eventually he points out a booth built out to fit larger parties, a portion of a wall taken down to highlight some gorgeous woodwork and the missing counter where his great uncle used to carve turkey in the 1920s, moved back into an expanded kitchen hidden from view. That’s about it. Ask him what he’d like to see change over the next 100 years and his answer comes more quickly: nothing.
Huber’s survived Prohibition by serving speakeasy Manhattans in coffee cups to a nucleus of regulars that included Portland’s chief of police. The place has outlasted the Great Depression, two World Wars and several bouts with double-digit unemployment. Amid all of the booms and busts, very little has changed at Huber’s. And the 63-year-old Louie intends to keep it that way. There is no arugula on his menu. The man does not tweet.
“Sometimes the best game plan is to stick with what you know,” he says.
This is not to say that Louie is lazy. He has been working long hours and late nights for decades, always immaculately dressed. For a long stretch he used to wear a suit for the first half of the day and then change into a tuxedo for his shift concocting Spanish Coffees, for which he would light the match with one hand and ignite the perfect rope of fire with the flair of an illusionist.
James and his brother, David, 57, who serves as vice president, manage a staff of 50 people between the restaurant and the catering business. Their family’s connection to Huber’s dates back to great-uncle Jim Louie, who snuck into Portland in 1881 as a stowaway aboard a windjammer from Canton, found work at the tavern and gradually gained enough respect and capital to become part owner. The Louie family gained full ownership of the business in 1952.
Rather than remake the business to emphasize their Chinese-American heritage, the Louies have embraced the traditions that came with the place, and built on them. They’re happy to show off the 100-year-old ship’s clock above the bar, the pewter wine bucket at the end of the bar, the stylish spittoon now serving as a tip jar, the stained-glass ceilings overhead. The Manhattan in a coffee cup evolved into a Spanish coffee after James saw a bar in Milwaukie doing a thriving business lighting drinks on fire.
Great-uncle Louie’s traditional duty of nourishing regulars with turkey sandwiches morphed into a vow to serve Thanksgiving turkey dinners 365 days a year. Years of greeting customers by name while seating them led to an email newsletter list of 2,000 names, although James still prefers to greet customers the old-fashioned way, formally and in person. He estimates he can name at least 1,000 customers on sight.
Other Oregon restaurateurs such as Bill McCormick of McCormick & Schmick’s and Guss Dussin of the Old Spaghetti Factory have built multimillion-dollar empires from Manhattan to LA. Many others have attempted similar expansions and lost everything. The Louies resisted the urge to move into Happy Valley (nothing ventured, nothing lost), and they owe no money beyond their monthly lease payments. Revenues are holding steady at about $2 million per year. The last time they borrowed money to expand the restaurant, they were able to pay back a $500,000 loan within five years.
The next trick will be figuring how to keep the business in the family. James Louie’s sons have expressed no interest in taking over. But his 2½-year old granddaughter, Brianna, is “fascinated with everything,” he says. She’s also reaching that age where parables about golden eggs start to make sense.
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