Don't you hate it when the summer's optimism gives way to the cruel realities of winter? Jason Hill certainly understands.
The chef, known around town as Big Sexy, has been looking forward to opening Hugs & Donuts with his business partner Matt Opaleski since the duo raised over $58,000 on Kickstarter in June and July. They planned to open shortly thereafter, but Hugs & Donuts still hasn't debuted.
"No one’s really done the donut right yet. Some people have tried, but no one’s really gone out of the comfort zone and done anything really astonishing or crazy out there."
Hill says he thought they'd be open by now but estimates a mid-January opening.
The shop looks almost ready for customers. Overall, the space sports a casual look. Bright orange chairs sit around unpainted, donut-shaped wood tables. A display case remains empty, but the donut fryer just needs to be plugged in.
"I think we’ve paid close to 30 grand in rent. It’s taken eight months of buildout and a lot of delays with the city. Seven or eight months just to get the plans approved before the build out (started)," Hill says.
He cites Houston's popularity as another reason the shop is delayed.
"A lot of it is that there’s so much construction in Houston that it’s hard to get small bids done. You end up using electricians, plumbers and concrete smashers who are in between larger jobs or doing it at night. You’re sort of at their beck and call on when they can do it, because your job is smaller than everyone else’s job."
Bird House blues
Just as they're preparing to open Hugs & Donuts, Hill and Opaleski are winding down The Bird House fried chicken pop-up. The return of crawfish season will cause the space to revert to being the Boil House in the next three or four weeks. Increased competition from the likes of The Chicken Ranch and the upcoming Lee's Chicken and Donuts means The Bird House probably won't reopen in The Heights.
"I’d like to put (a chicken restaurant) in Garden Oaks or Oak Forest. I think that neighborhood is underserved."
"I definitely saw my numbers go down a little bit when The Chicken Ranch opened. I think once Lance (Fegen, co-owner of Lee's) reopens it’ll probably be less," Hill predicts. "I’d like to put it in Garden Oaks or Oak Forest. I think that neighborhood is underserved."
Hill says the duo may also re-concept their venerable H-town StrEATs truck to offer some of the fried chicken and sides that have been well-received at The Bird House.
Whatever the future holds for their fried chicken restaurant, Hill says interest remains strong for Hugs & Donuts. "We get Facebook messages every day about when are we going to open. We get Twitter messages every day."
Beyond people who want their Kickstarter rewards, Hill offers a simple explanation for the strong interest. "No one’s really done the donut right yet. Some people have tried, but no one’s really gone out of the comfort zone and done anything really astonishing or crazy out there."
Expect to see flavors like key lime pie and curry when Hugs & Donuts opens to justify those sorts of ambitions. Savory and sweet kolaches will round out the initial offerings, which will grow over time.
"Just be patient with us. We’re doing the best we can," Hill says to the eager backers. "I would just drive by and stare at the people to make sure they’re working. It’s really all I can do. I’m just a chef. I’m not an electrician or a plumber or a city inspector.
"It’ll be worth the wait," he promises. "The space is beautiful. The logistics are good. It’s going to work out really well."