Sponsored by Forest Grove Economic Development
Home Back Issues September 2009 Sticking with tradition

Sticking with tradition

| Print |  Email
Archives - September 2009
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Tactics_01
HUBER'S
www.hubers.com
FOUNDED: 1879
EMPLOYEES: 50
HEADQUARTERS: Portland
KAHLUA BOTTLES BOUGHT IN 2008: 3,300
President James Louie (right) and VP David Louie
PHOTOS BY LEAH NASH

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.

Tactics_02
Tactics_04
Tactics_06

“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.


BEN JACKLET
 

Comments   

 
Guest
0 #1 RE: Sticking with traditionGuest 2014-01-18 02:38:32
I was just sitting here Googling around and landed on this article. Although it is over 3 years old, I'm delighted to find it and hope that James and David are still enjoying good health and prosperity. I am Lei Augusta Huber Smith, granddaughter of Huber's founder Frank Risley Huber and his wife Augusta Hildebrand Huber, and daughter of Jack and Audrey Huber. As you might recognize from the names, I am from long-time Portland-area business families and a 4th generation Oregonian. I'm proud of my family's heritage and especially proud of the legacy and continuance of Huber's Restaurant. James and David have demonstrated a commitment not often seen in local business and they are to be heartily commended. Kudos to them and all the staff at Huber's. It is my heartfelt prayer that Huber's continues long into the future.
Quote | Report to administrator
 

More Articles

Updated: Disrupting innovation

News
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
070814 thumb disputive-innovationBY LINDA BAKER  | OB EDITOR

The New Yorker recently published a sharply worded critique of “disruptive innovation,” one of the most widely cited theories in the business world today. The article raises questions about the descriptive value of disruption and innovation  — whether the terms are mere buzzwords or actually explain today's extraordinarily complex and fast changing business environment. 

Update: We caught up with Portland's Thomas Thurston, who shared his data driven take on the disruption controversy.


Read more...

Podcast: Interview with Steve Balzac

Contributed Blogs
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

082014BalzacBY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER

Tom Cox interviews Steve Balzac, author of "Organizational Psychology for Managers."


Read more...

South Waterfront's revenge

News
Thursday, July 24, 2014
MoodyAveBY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR

Remember the naysayers?  Those who called the South Waterfront aerial tram a boondoggle?  Those who rejoiced at the massive sell off of luxury condos at the John Ross and Atwater Place?


Read more...

Private liberal arts education: superior outcomes, competitive price

Contributed Blogs
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
0826 thumb collegemoneyBY DEBRA RINGOLD | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Why has six years become an acceptable investment in public undergraduate education that over-promises and underperforms?


Read more...

Attack of the Robin Sages

Contributed Blogs
Monday, July 07, 2014
070714 thumb linkedinfakesBY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER

Named after the 2010 experiment by Thomas Ryan, "Robin Sages" are fake social media profiles designed to encourage linking and divulging valuable information.


Read more...

Podcast: Interview with Pete Friedes

Contributed Blogs
Wednesday, August 27, 2014

082714-thumb friedesbookTom Cox interviews Pete Friedes, author of "The 2R Manager," about becoming a Best Boss.


Read more...

Community colleges and sustainability

Contributed Blogs
Thursday, July 31, 2014
sustainabilityBY MARY SPILDE | OB GUEST CONTRIBUTOR

Faced with the aftermath of the “great recession,” increasing concern about the environment and dwindling family wage jobs, we have some very important choices to make about our future.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS