It’s 2pm on a bright Friday afternoon and the lunch rush at Hoover’s Cooking is still simmering with laughter and conversation. The welcoming scent of smoked meat drifts through the open dining room where new and longtime customers enjoy generous plates of the city’s finest comfort food. Hoover’s Cooking is twenty-one years old and still going strong, thanks to the inspired efforts of owner Hoover Alexander and his mission to promote, maintain, and protect Austin’s culinary traditions.
“I’m a guardian of Austin restaurant history,” he says. “I maintain that honest, straightforward niche, help bridge the old and the new, and celebrate and honor the unsung heroes of the past and present. At some point, pride becomes a brand of its own.”
To understand where he’s coming from, you have to go all the way back to 1932, the year the Night Hawk restaurant opened. The chain, whose last Night Hawk Frisco Shop closed its doors last year after a 65-year run, employed women and minorities before such things were politically correct, and was Austin’s first fully integrated restaurant. Its owner, Harry Akins, was an innovator, entrepreneur, and food quality evangelist. (He raised his own beef to ensure the quality of Night Hawk’s steaks and hamburgers.) The Night Hawk and Frisco Shop were legendary, and Hoover Alexander started working there when he was in college and went on to learn every thing there is to know about running a successful restaurant business.
“I worked every single position there. I started as a busboy and ended up doing everything, he says.” One of the unsung heroes he honor to this day—he thinks a lot about life’s unsung heroes—is Mr. Leon, a longtime Night Hawk friend who showed Hoover how much love, effort, and labor it took to make the food that made the Night Hawk so special. “Mr. Leon worked there forever. He had a third- or fourth-grade education, could read bible verses and recipes, and was a real inspiration to me. He mentored me. He taught me how to make gumbo, pie shells, the whole from-scratch thing.”
Fast-forward to now, an era of lightning-fast growth and a super competitive restaurant market. Where does that leave Hoover’s Cooking, an Austin institution of the highest degree? “ We have to constantly reinvent ourselves, keep giving the customer what they like, “ he says. “ You have to keep marketing to the new population when you aren’t the new kid on the block. You just have to keep your name out there.”
Adapting to change and staying relevant is right up there with being “honestly, sincerely grateful” for the twenty-plus years as the captain of his own ship. Hoover says, “after this long, you have the perspective of a business owner, and you start to really appreciate the core group of employees who don’t get the credit, but do get the blame.” Several members of this core group have been with Hoover since the beginning, back to when he owned
GoodEats. “I get up every day and set the dial for ‘G,’ for grateful,” he says. I have a lot to be grateful for.
Visit Hoover’s cooking at 2002 Manor Road, 512-479-5006, www.hooverscooking.com
—Story and photo by Ann Guidry