The Eating... Our Words 100: Bobby Heugel, Owner of Anvil, The Hay Merchant and the OKRA Charity Saloon
Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge and many other places
Photo by Julie Soefer
Bobby Heugel has probably received more press and started (or taken over operations of) more small food and beverage businesses in the last 12 months than any other Houstonian. He, along with partners Kevin Floyd and Steve Flippo, started Anvil Bar & Refuge in 2009. Today, Bobby also is a partner in The Hay Merchant, Underbelly, The Original Ninfa's on Navigation, Antone's Famous Po-Boys, The Original OKRA Charity Saloon, the just-opened Blacksmith and the upcoming Julep. He is also known for political activism and is staunchly against city ordinances that penalize small, independent bar and restaurant owners.
Who is he?
"A troublemaker," says Heugel. "We run good businesses because we have a responsibility to our employees and investors, but I really enjoy social and political discourse on how to make Houston better. We're starting to shape the standards for how people evaluate our industry. We publicly question the role that restaurants, bars and other public institutions play in people's lives and what it means to be a resident in our city. I think it's extremely important and we ignore that too often, particularly in Houston. I love bringing that to people's attention."
"I've probably spent as much time working on city regulations that affect restaurants as I have working on our businesses. That makes me a troublemaker and a thorn in people's sides. The momentum that restaurants have in Houston right now gives us an opportunity to question not only regulations that concern restaurants and bars but to also where our city is headed."
A quiet night at The Original OKRA Charity Saloon. Proceeds from the bar go to a charity that gets the most votes from patrons during a given month.
What does he do?
"I'm a bartender at heart and I often see the industry through that lens," he says. "The transition to starting multiple new businesses has been professionally rewarding and personally challenging. I'm too immature for what I do. I'm 29 years old. I co-own eight operating concepts."
"Sometimes that gets ahead of you. You can make up for that a lot with enthusiasm, confidence and having a good crew. At the same time, my lack of experience leads to mistakes with people and in choices. I feel like the city and the people who support us are learning along with us."
How did he end up here?
"I'm a native Houstonian. I grew up in Rosenberg, but I've held jobs inside the Loop since I was 13. My first job was with Kevin at Brook Mays Piano Max. I don't play piano, but I can fix them, move them and set them up. The metal back shelving at Anvil came from the piano warehouse were we worked. It was sitting out back rusting and we rescued it."
Why does he love it?
"I love supporting other people who are talented and helping them reach their dreams and get their businesses open. Helping Chris [Shepherd] get Underbelly open, David [Buehrer, of Greenway Coffee] get Blacksmith open and Alba [Huerta, former General Manager of Anvil] get Julep open is more rewarding than when we opened Anvil."
What inspires him?
"It's really important to have mentors. I have a lot of good ones. But the ones who inspire me the most are the younger people in our industry who are really thirsty. I love meeting someone who is really passionate and talented and watching them work. It reminds me of when my life used to be a little simpler. We're inspired to protect the restaurant industry so these young people can continue to have access to it. I'm always excited to meet new people and hear what they think would make a good concept."
If not this, then what?
"I have a Master's in Intercultural Communication that focuses on discourse management for peacekeeping. I would want to be doing that. I found opportunities to connect that with the work on the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP). [Author's note: TIP is a not-for-profit organization that works to protect the history, culture and methods of artisanal producers of agave distillates--such as tequila, sotol and mescal--throughout Mexico.] If I wasn't in the restaurant or bar industry, I'd probably be working overseas... never in one place too long."
If not here, then where?
"I really like Philadelphia. The majority of the population there is blue collar and down to earth. There's a lot of history there but it's not uppity like a lot of East coast places. There are a few good bars there, too."
"Who knows? Julep opens late this spring. Maybe something else. I don't know. I'd like to find the time to meet a girl."
The Eating...Our Words 100:
- Renatta Lindsey, The Taste Contestant and Houston Home Cook - Enrique Bravo of Pollo Bravo on How Selling Chicken Helped Him Realize His American Dream - Sean Beck, Sommelier Extraordinaire - Brooksy Smith, Owner of JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers - Minh Nguyen, Owner of Cafe TH and One of Houston's Best Front-of-House Personalities - Tiffany Tyler and Aimee Turney of Central City Co-Op - Ellen Schwartz, Culinary Instructor & Private Chef - James DeLeon, Certified Sommelier and Craft Beer Nut at Kroger - Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation - Kevin Strickland, Herder of Cats at gratifi, a.k.a. Ziggy's - Ron Chen, Owner and "Head Coach" at Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro - Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery, the Oldest Microbrewery in Texas - Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger - Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer & Educator, Spec's - Sam Ray of Republic National, Houston's Largest Wine Distributor - Thai Van, Server Extraordinaire at Kata Robata - Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers - Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile - Benjy Mason, Executive Chef at Down House
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.