Hut’s Hamburgers has been around since 1939, and the restaurant has seen a lot of changes since Mike Hutchinson bought it in 1981. Burgers have always been Hut’s DNA, from the original Dagburger to a plethora of options available today, including Longhorn beef, as well as vegetarian and gluten-free friendly picks. The 61 year old spoke to Eater about how restaurants need to appeal to the customers’ changing needs (kale withstanding), where Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan fell in love, and what makes for a really good burger (hint: It has to do with fat).
What was Austin like back then?
This down here was all car dealerships. Where Whole Foods was, Capital Chevrolet was there. It had been at that location since the early ‘40s or late ‘30s. They moved out to Motor Mile down there in probably ‘87 or ‘88, before Whole Foods was there.
Why did you buy Hut’s?
It’s just something that happened. I was 27 at the time and I wanted to get into the business. There was this reasonably established, pretty well known place even though, at the time all these windows were nicely boarded over and painted all over. It was dark and kind of a foreboding place. They had a very minimum menu, so a couple of hamburgers, chicken fried steak, kind of thing. We just expanded the menu.
What did you add to the menu?
That’s when we went to the 20 hamburgers. We pooled our previous knowledge in the restaurant business to come up with some unique items and copied some which most people do. We started to try to make it a hamburger place that specializes in hamburgers. In 1985, we were approached by a gentleman who wanted to sell us buffalo. We heard about the health benefits of buffalo versus beef, and we figured, "Why not?" Let’s have something different that not everybody else is doing at the time. That was long before anybody even talked about grassfed anything.
Why did you introduce veggie burgers?
My partner turned vegetarian, which helped. He opened my eyes to the fact that that’s the way people were going. There’s a lot of people thinking more about what they’re eating so we wanted to be able to be a place where if you have that one vegetarian in the group, you can come to Hut’s because they have veggie burgers.
What other additions did you make?
We started Longhorn beef about ten years ago. It’s got a very unique flavor to it that’s different than regular beef. It’s actually really delicious. This is the cattle that they brought in on cattle drives 150 years ago. This breed, they have an unbroken line back all that time.
We started gluten free buns a couple years ago. That’s been huge. I don’t think that way myself, but people are talking about it and asking for it. I’d want to do it so that people with Celiac's feel comfortable coming here. I was worried: How are we going to toast it? Because the toaster would be tainted by having the other buns in there. You think it’d be logical, but one of my employees said, "Why don’t we just have a different toaster?" Dedicated just for gluten free buns.
It’s very considerate.
I’ve always thought you should do it so everybody could eat. People think of us as an old stodgy hamburger place that’s been around forever. It’s not hip as some of these other places, but we’ve been thinking along the way and we try to appeal to as many people as we can.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
The customers. I’ve gotten to know a lot of them over the years. A lot of regulars. They have kids growing up now. Also meeting new people. Sometimes we get people from all over the world. I get positive response on the food. It just makes it all worthwhile.
What about your least favorite part?
Staffing is so hard now with all the restaurants that are opening up. Finding staff is really, really hard. I’ve found in recent years that I have better luck getting a kid that’s out of high school or a senior in high school going to UT or ACC. I start him hosting, and I’d just advance him within as much as possible. You have to try to keep your staff, which is hard in this business. It’s transitory. They’re college kids. They graduate and they move on.
What about the most challenging aspect?
Trying to keep your cost down. This year, the produce has been pretty good. Last year, there was the late freeze and the tomatoes that we usually pay $12 a case went for $35, $40 a case. We go through a lot of tomatoes. Things like that can happen out of the blue and really screw up your bottom line. Beef prices are edging up. I try to keep my prices affordable. Every year, I gotta reassess and change the menu prices.
How many burgers a day do you sell?
The average with beef, buffalo, Longhorn, veggie, and chicken burgers is 383 per day.
Do you have a weird or funny story to share?
I’ve got this one right here in print [he pointed to a framed magazine article on the wall]. Dennis Quaid claims that he fell in love with Meg Ryan here, believe it or not. They were in town filming a movie [D.O.A.]. I’m telling you this one because it’s in print and no one can say I’m lying. He said it in his own words that he fell in love with Meg Ryan at Hut’s in American Way. James Caan was in it, and they would come in periodically. That’s when we used to have music. [Quaid is] talking about dancing with her and they fell in love here at Hut’s. When it came out, I had to get it framed.
What’s your other favorite burger in Austin?
Top Notch. I like it because they actually use charcoal. it’s really good. It’s also independent like us.
What makes for a good burger?
It can’t be too small. I don’t like real big either. It has to be juicy. Let’s face it, the juicier the burger, there’s a little bit of fat in there. I like some toppings on mine. Some people just come in and want a plain burger, which I don’t understand.
What have you learned about the restaurant industry while working here?
I learned that if you talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. If you’re going to tell somebody to do something, whatever it is, you have to be doing it yourself. You can never take your business for granted, because it’s always changing. The climate’s changing, the competition's changing, so you have to be willing to look and try to change. Some of the trends are like having kale or something. I’m not going to do that.
How do you feel about Austin changing over the years?
It’s progress. It is bringing more people living downtown. It’s changed the whole dynamic of downtown. The thing we’re dealing with the most now is that when people leave downtown, they don’t have to come back anymore. Every part of town you go into, north, south, east, west, there’s bars and restaurants in their neighborhood, close enough that they don’t have to come back downtown. It’s kind of a curse and a blessing being around here, because when you have SXSW, it’s good, ACL is ok.
Were you busy during SXSW?
It was good, but still, things are still moving in another direction. They seem to be moving east, because that’s really blowing up over there. I talk to customers who say they come downtown only when they have to because this is hard, traffic and parking. Everything’s building up around us. It’s been interesting, watching it grow, but it’s been good. I’m not complaining. What Austin will look like ten years from now? I don’t know. It’s kind of worrisome in some ways.
Is there anything else you’d want to add?
I would just say people that are in Austin that like a place should support it. Especially with this whole "go local" thing. I think it’s really important, because this place might not be here forever, so they should enjoy it.