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Tasting Success

Craig Hofman

Craig Hofman - Photo by David J Nelson

Plate of barbecue, corn and fruit

Mouth-watering perfection may seem like an impossible dream to some entrepreneurs, but not to 1973 alumnus Craig Hofman and his Hof’s Hut and Lucille’s Smokehouse BBQ restaurants.

He was born on the day in 1951 when the original Hof’s Hut opened. Since then, Hofman has groomed a restaurant chain founded in the 20th century that still grows in the 21st, with the 16th Lucille’s ready to open this year in Valencia, Calif.

Lucille’s won the Orange County Register’s Best of Orange County Best BBQ restaurant from 2003 through 2010 and the Daily Breeze named it the South Bay’s Best BBQ for five years.

Hof’s began with Harold Hofman and his beach burger stand in the 1940s. This was the “in” spot on the sand at 5th Place in Long Beach, with 15-cent Hofburgers and 10-cent cheese dogs. In 1947, Harold married Donna and the couple launched the first Hof’s Hut in Belmont Shore a few years later. Then along came Craig.

“My mother, who was waiting tables during opening day, gave birth to me later that night,” he said. “In looking back over the early years, my father’s first priority was to have the best breakfast, hamburgers, chili, onion rings, home baked pies and to use top-quality ingredients and provide great service. Hof’s Huts are located in Southern California, and although we have grown over the years, our philosophy is still the same today.”

He initially attended Arizona State, but then his father died and his mother took over the business for the next two years, overseeing five Hof’s Huts. “She did it despite no training. She put all her energy into running them. But after two years she told me she was tired and was considering selling the restaurants if I didn’t return home from Arizona State and help her run them,” he said.

“That was kind of a grow-up moment. I decided to come back and make the restaurants my career. But at the same time, I decided not to give up my education and I enrolled at CSULB and earned a degree in business management.”

When Hofman considered expanding in a new direction, he spent several years touring Southern barbeque restaurants prior to opening the first Lucille’s in Long Beach in 1999.

“When I returned from the South, I realized there really was something to this BBQ idea,” he said. “I decided that whatever we did in Southern California, it had to be upscale and authentic. BBQ restaurants in the South often served their ribs on paper plates with white bread. I thought we could do better with homemade biscuits, cloth napkins and hot towels for the messy barbeque. Our kitchen was going to be totally scratch, with all of the recipes made on the premises. We decided to have a full bar and live blues music.”

One of the biggest challenges to restaurant success is delegating authority. “When the first restaurant opens, the owner needs to be there all the time watching every little detail. But it’s different when the 16th restaurant opens. You need to build a team of people who believe in the culture of your restaurant. We’re all about great BBQ and Southern hospitality here. When you have team members that believe in our values, they can carry on the vision. It can be done.”

The family connection continues with all four of Hofman’s children joining the company. Ashley does all of the graphic design, Brad runs the marketing and catering departments, Ryan oversees construction and Dirk is involved with the bar aspects. “I feel reinvigorated by having them in the family business,” said their father.

“When I attended CSULB, there were no classes in entrepreneurship,” he continued. “Everybody was expected to go to work for the large corporation. That has changed. A lot of people are starting their own businesses. The basics are the same. You’ve got to work really hard at whatever business you pick. Many try their hands at being entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, sometimes they underestimate the amount of capital they need. They end up sacrificing their vision because of economic realities. It is really important to be well capitalized going into business.”

Hofman believes the key to success is determination. “You’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing,” he said. “Going into business just to make a buck just doesn’t fly anymore. If you don’t love the business, you are just wasting your time.”

And, be in the right place. “One reason both our restaurant concepts have done well here is that Long Beach is a great town which supports its local restaurants,” he said. “I decided to build the first Lucille’s in the Long Beach Towne Center because I knew I needed to be close to a brand new concept. Long Beach has been great to us.”

Hof’s Hut has made many friends over the years. Hofman recalls loyal customers recording stories about the effect the Huts have had on their lives when it celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. “There were stories about guests that met their high school sweetheart at Hof’s and then married. Now their grandkids are coming. I even met Mari, my wife of 36 years, at Hof’s,” he said.

“It is a tribute to our quality that we’ve been around this long. There are many reasons for our survival but the most important thing is the quality of service and food. We believe in excellence. We try to do things the best way we know how. Quality is the way to survive the long term.”

Hofman’s goals are clear—keep growing. “We’re going to continue to open restaurants,” he said. “We’ll keep doing it as long as it proves worthwhile, including plans for a new pizzeria franchise from Kansas City. That will put yet another concept in our portfolio.”