Located in Houston's Rice Village
Owner Prego-Backstreet Cafe and Hugos
In 1983, geologist-turned-restaurateur Tracy Vaught decided to forsake the plotting of America's geothermal energy fields for the potentially hot-and-cold restaurant field in Houston.
"I considered a number of options, from opening an antique shop, to running an ice house or possibly opening a restaurant. When I told my uncle about my plans, he said he was interested in the restaurant idea."
Together the uncle-niece duo found a "For Lease" sign in front of a two-story house on a dead-end street located at the bend in South Shepherd Drive in River Oaks. The property was perfect for the "backstreet getaway" restaurant they envisioned.
Vaught, now an experienced veteran in the restaurant field, owns three of Houston's most popular restaurants, Backstreet Café, Prego and Hugo's.
Initially, Backstreet 's menu was a simple one, offering a selection of soups and sandwiches. "We bought equipment piece by piece, and expanded the menu as we expanded the kitchen," Vaught explains.
Vaught and her uncle Jack Blalock eventually invested in a grill when a Backstreet waitress majoring in restaurant management at the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management did a research project on the possibilities of adding a grill to the Backstreet kitchen, projecting its impact on sales and menu development.
According to her findings, the grill could increase sales significantly at the fledgling restaurant. The waitress made an "A" on the paper, the restaurant purchased the grill, and it has far exceeded sales projections.
In 1987, Vaught was offered the opportunity to invest in Prego, a then four-year-old trattoria located in the Rice Village area. Says Vaught of the now-thriving restaurant, "Prego was the biggest challenge of my life. I never dreamed how hard it would be to turn the restaurant around. Now that it's thriving again, I can say that I've really accomplished a major feat."
In 1989, after six years, Backstreet was well established as a popular cafe, pulling most of its business from a lively outdoor courtyard and a simple menu of Houston standards - hamburgers, soups and entree-portion salads, and simple main dishes.
"I felt that it was time for another major growth spurt for the restaurants," says Vaught. She and her uncle contracted with chef John Watt, formerly executive chef at Galveston's acclaimed Tremont Hotel, to consult with them to revamp both Backstreet's and Prego's menu.
Watt and his prowess at the kitchen helm so impressed Vaught that she hired him to be executive chef over both Backstreet and Prego.
"I look back at our first year in business and I'm amazed at how much we've accomplished. The restaurant business is about as far away from geology as you can get, but I've never regretted my decision to leave the field," says Vaught.
After a number of years working side-by-side at Backstreet Café, Vaught married chef Hugo Ortega in 1994, and they are the parents of Sophia Elizabeth.
In the summer of 2002, Vaught and her husband took on yet another challenging venture with the opening of Hugo's Regional Cuisine. Located at 1600 Westheimer in a beautifully restored art deco-era building, Hugo's quickly became one of Houston's "hottest" new restaurants.
Says Vaught, "It's still very challenging to me to be in this business and I enjoy the fast pace and the people that I'm constantly in touch with," she adds. "There is great satisfaction that comes at the end of the day when you've served hundreds of people and, when everything goes well, they've had a good meal and a good time at our restaurants.