It started with one private dinner: a 16 year old's birthday party. "I went from saying yes to something like that to hearing 'Oh, you’re a private chef!'" laughs Janice Hudgins, aka Little Miss Ha. "Then it snowballed."
Hudgins is opening her first storefront at 915 Houston Northcutt ... soon. "It was supposed to be December, and then January, now we're hoping for the end of the month," she says. Formerly Betty's Eatery and before that Aya Cookhouse, the location is tucked next to Whole Foods, a yoga studio, a running store — suburban amenities abound. Tony and Kelly Chu, who ran Betty's and Aya, are excited to welcome their friend into the vacant spot.
"They were looking for someone to take over the space and they thought it would be a good fit for the Mt. Pleasant scene," says Hudgins. "We'd actually been looking for a place for six months in Mt. Pleasant. At that point we knew, over the past two years, that's where our customer base mostly is."
Hudgins has no formal chef training — two years ago she started posting food pictures on her social media, which blossomed into requests for elaborate spreads at friend's houses with her mother Miss Ha's recipes. Demand for more hasn't slowed since.
"It's been a hard position to go from having been in the workforce to not having a job for 10 years then getting back into a career," says Hudgins, who has been a stay-at-home mom with four little ones for the past decade. "But I love to cook." And people love her cooking. Little Miss Ha successfully helmed a stall at Workshop for a full year before setting out onto the next phase.
Hudgins says she had never dreamed of opening her own restaurant, far from it, in fact. Her husband owns some local Mellow Mushrooms, so Hudgins has witnessed the taxing trials of operating a restaurant. So why not stick to catering and weekly deliveries? Why take the risk on a restaurant?
"Proof of concept," says Hudgins. "I felt there was a need and lack of diversity, especially in catering. I was filling that niche — we really built our business on private dinners and catering and I started doing deliveries, working out of a Mellow Mushroom kitchen. And then we outgrew that space."
When Workshop owner Michael Shemtov offered Hudgins a spot she was hesitant, but he promised it was relatively risk-free. While Hudgins admits they didn't rake in money running the stall, she did say it was the learning space she needed to transition from catering to restaurant. Plus she grew her customer base and social media followers, going from 500 fans to over 2,500.
"We just kept proving our concept," says Hudgins. And while she's still expecting to make mistakes, she thinks the concept will thrive in Mt. Pleasant. They'll be able to operate the catering business out of the same space, which Hudgins says will help over the slow season. The counter service, fast-casual model Workshop offered proved to be perfect for Hudgins' concept, she says. She's sticking with that at her new spot, but will have servers run food and answer questions about the Vietnamese dishes.
Her long term goal? Not more restaurants — one is plenty. Hudgins says she'd love to use her Mt. Pleasant location as the anchor for the business, introducing a line of retail products like bottled sauces and packaged egg rolls. "We love what we did at Workshop where we saw people on a weekly basis," says Hudgins. "Affordable and casual — that is what Vietnamese food is, you don't find full service fancy places in Vietnam. I want to have somewhere where me as a customer, too, where I'd want to go once a week."
Keep up to date with Little Miss Ha's opening date by following them on Instagram