The co-founder of Hugos on trusting your gut, finding the right partners, and the importance of enjoying yourself
I started work in a bakery when I was 13. It paid better than a paper round I’d been doing before that. Then I worked at McDonalds. Their systems, training and organisation are valuable skills. Then I worked at a pizza shop.
I was accepted to William Angliss Hotel Management in Melbourne at 17. I worked for five years through college, waiting, bar tending, and learning to be a chef, because I knew I wanted to open multiple venues. Being a chef is definitely the hardest.
I met my business partner, Daniel Vaughan, who was a chef, in a kitchen. We started catering for friends’ 21st because that’s how old we were. At 23 we decided to open a restaurant. The Lager Bar in St Kilda seated 250 and had gone broke 16 times, so we picked it up for nothing and put in $200,000 worth of renovations we did ourselves. It was a huge success. We sold it a year and a bit later. I took a year off and went surfing and to Europe. I’d never done the backpacking thing, I was always working.
We bought The Pantry in 1991, again spent around $300,000 on it, and 17 years later we still have it.
I came to Sydney and found Bondi. We didn’t know what we wanted to do, so we looked at what Bondi didn’t have. There were no white tablecloth restaurants, so that’s what we did. So it wasn’t like The Lager Bar, which had bands, or The Pantry, which was the ladies lunch scene. Hugos became a fine diner with a breakfast and lunch service too.
“On Saturday and Sunday, I roster on for four hours on the floor. That’s when you know you’re
enjoying it—when you negotiate to be on the roster.” David Evans
Hugos became a brand because we said ‘let’s find a name where we don’t have to go through this process every time’. We needed something that would suit the city or beach and work on a generic basis. The old name for Hugos in Bondi was ‘The Dog’s Diner’ and Daniel had a dog called Hugo. From then on we’ve called everything ‘Hugos’. It matches the casual but sophisticated style we wanted.
Then we looked at doing a lounge. They’d started being a trend around the world and the Hugos Lounge site came up in Kings Cross. It fits 300-400 people. Next came Hugos Bar Pizza. That was casual food rather than tablecloth. We’ve expanded Hugos Lounge to two bars. Added a level. In Melbourne we bought The Pantry property and added a deli.
I always wanted to do something in Manly. I think it’s one of the best sites in the country. Of all our businesses, it’s the flagship. We own a nightclub, but we’re restaurateurs and chefs who own a nightclub.
I don’t think we’ve ever done a business plan. We did cashflow forecasts later because the banks asked us to, but in the early days we couldn’t borrow from banks. Luckily, we’ve always got it right. It’s a gut feeling.
There are four business partners. We’ve never fought.
We’re on the same wavelength. Initially Daniel and I worked together. Then Peter came to work in the kitchen when he was a fourth-year apprentice chef. We realised he was better than the chef, so he took over. David Corsi used to be a chef too and as we expanded to Sydney he came on board and Dan stayed in Melbourne. Dave ran Hugos Bondi with Pete cheffing in both. I built up front-of-house.
Now we’re expanding Hugos Bar Pizza. We’re going to start delivering pizza. We haven’t pushed the pizza side but we should as we’ve won 20 awards. Then we may roll out to some other sites. I’ll look at 20 sites before I take one.
John Laws showed everyone how to run a restaurant. He’s not in the kitchen, and not on the floor. You enjoy it. If we chose to do insane hours the opportunity is there, but we don’t.
I never stop thinking about the business. I still work 50 hours a week. I enjoy it. On Saturday and Sunday I roster on for four hours on the floor at Manly. I enjoy that people contact on busy days. That’s when you know you’re enjoying it—when you negotiate to be on the roster.