Eater contributor Holly Beretto interviews Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega on year 30 of Backstreet Cafe.
When geologist-turned restaurateur Tracy Vaught opened Backstreet Cafe 30 years ago, she was following a passion and learning as she went along. She and co-owner and husband Hugo Ortega (also owner of Hugo's) sat down with Eater to reflect on their start in the business, being together and what comes next.
Eater: You came into this business from something completely different. Tell us what happened.
Tracy Vaught: I was a geologist with Conoco. I started with them in 1980 or so, and after working in the field on oil wells, they wanted me come into the main office and make maps. They were great digs, up on the 10th floor of the offices, but it wasn't for me. I missed being outside. So, I thought, what do I want to do, what interests me? And I came up with two things: food and antiques.
What happened next?
Vaught: Everyone I talked to about opening an antique store said it was very hard to make money doing it. So, I said, ok, I'll open a little café. And one day, I was getting something altered at a tailor shop across the street, and I saw this space. It was for lease. My Uncle Jack was a pretty modern thinker and his feeling on all this was, follow your dream and I'll help you. So I leased it, and we opened in 1983.
What was it like for you?
Vaught: We were so innocent. And we got this place open way cheaper than you could ever do today. Back then, I had this simple menu of soups and sandwiches and salads, and we grew in a very organic way. I don't think you could do that anymore. We had time to grow and learn and figure things out. Today, the world moves so fast, when you open a restaurant, you don't have much time to get it together; people expect you to have it together when you open the doors.
You grew Backstreet as you added equipment. Was there a particular piece that you bought that became a game changer?
Vaught: There was. It was the grill. Can you imagine, we opened a place and we didn't even have a grill? Anyway, one of our waitresses was taking classes at the University of Houston's Conrad Hilton School, and she wrote a paper about us, recommending we buy a grill, saying that it could ramp up our business. I read it and I went out and I bought a grill, and we were able to add things to our menu. And we just kept growing and growing.
How was it that Hugo came to be a part of what you were doing?
Vaught: I was sitting on the steps outside, waiting for a friend of mine. He said he had someone he wanted me to meet. I needed a dishwasher and he had someone in mind. And he brought Hugo over.
Hugo Ortega: I thought Tracy was very pretty when I met her that day, and I shook her hand I thought, "her hand is dry," and I knew that she was a hard worker and I just knew that this was a place that would give me an opportunity and that I would be working for someone who would care for me. It was really something magical to come here.
Vaught: So, Hugo started as a dish washer and he didn't know much English. But as he learned, he worked his way up to being a busboy and a cook, and he took classes at Houston Community College's culinary program. When Hugo became a chef, that really changed things for us, and we found we were more chef-driven in terms of what we offered on the menu and how we approached food.
The two of you recently authored your second book, Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe [the first, Street food of Mexico was published in late 2011 by Bright SkyPress]. How was that experience different from the first book?
Vaught: It's much more personal to me. The first book was about a culture, about where Hugo and his brother are from. This one is about Backstreet Cafe. Our history is here, and it's a modern representation of what we are doing now. One of our customers, Kenn Stearns, did the photography and we self-published it here in Houston. I really wanted to be a part of this book from beginning to end, because it's such a personal story for me.
Ortega: The foundation that Tracy and Jack gave our restaurant has given us so many other opportunities over the years. We get to look at where they came from here.
What's next for you?
Vaught: You know, I think, if it were just me, I'd be happy just with Backstreet [she and Ortega are also the force behind Hugo's, Prego and Trevisio]. But, we have so many people on our team who have grown along with us and we wanted a place to present them with opportunities to do even more with their careers. Also, Hugo is more ambitious than I am, and he wants to do new things. That's how we came to create and operate our other entities. Up next is Caracol; the word is Spanish for snail. We'll be over in the BBVA Compass Center on Post Oak and it will focus on Mexican seafood.
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