Deal will keep Hibachi Hut in Manhattan after historic restaurant goes under

Russell Edem | Collegian After 54 years, Hibachi Hut closed its doors. The restaurant, a community landmark, will be moving from Aggieville to Poyntz Avenue.

Hibachi Hut, an Aggieville staple since 1959, announced it had gone out of business on May 26. Alan Benest, who worked at Hibachi Hut for a year and a half, said he found out the next morning when a friend and co-worker called him to break the news.

“I guess I wasn’t surprised I found out from him and not the Beckers,” Benest said of the previous owners, Kale and Sandra Becker, who declined an interview with the Collegian. “They didn’t seem like the kind of people who would tell their employees that.”

Although Benest said he understood that restaurants sometimes just “kind of go under,” he was surprised to hear the news about his place of employment.

“Honestly, I thought the restaurant was on the up-and-up,” he said. “They hired a new kitchen manager who was making positive changes, and it seemed like business was starting to pick up.”

When Brenda Morgan, wife of local entrepreneur Ward Morgan, heard the news about Hibachi Hut, she was crestfallen.

“Brenda came up to me Sunday night looking like the dog had died,” wrote Ward Morgan in an email Wednesday about the closing of Manhattan’s oldest continuously operated restaurant. “I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘Hibachi Hut is closing!'”

Morgan, who is CEO of CivicPlus, a Manhattan-based firm dedicated to providing systems for community engagement to local governments across the country, gave the issue some thought. The next morning, he contacted former co-owner Kale Becker and asked if he and his wife would be willing to sell the rights to the name, recipes and some fixtures. The Morgans and their son, Matthew, met with Becker soon after and came to an agreement that will keep the iconic restaurant in Manhattan, albeit a few miles from its original Aggieville location.

“We are planning for it to be located in the old Credit Bureau building at 429 Poyntz,” Morgan said. “I like the Aggieville history of Hibachi Hut, but I think it’s a great fit for downtown. Downtown Manhattan is really becoming the place to be.”

Morgan said the deal is not about making money, but rather preserving a local tradition.

“This isn’t something we’ll try to make a living on, so the focus will be well-executed food, great service, and reasonable prices,” he said. “I think we want to keep the essence of Hibachi Hut, but there will be some changes. Hopefully, the loyal customers will be OK with some tweaks.”

Morgan said he hopes to open for business in the next 90 days, but added that achieving that goal depends upon the construction company.

Benest said he hadn’t heard anything definite in regard to employees of the Aggieville Hibachi Hut retaining their jobs under the new ownership.

“One of the Beckers mentioned that they might be looking to hire some of the old employees,” he said, “but to be honest, I don’t know that I want to work for a different Hibachi Hut.”

As for the vacancy left in Aggieville by Hibachi Hut’s relocation, it will reportedly be filled by Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, which was founded in Fort Worth, Texas, and has since spread to 60 locations in 11 states. Fuzzy’s is a popular destination in many college towns, including Lawrence. However, some locals fear the Aggieville district is losing its local identity.

“As a district, we welcome anyone, and my understanding is [Fuzzy’s] will be a locally owned franchise, which is really good news,” said Tim Fitzgerald, president of the Aggieville Business Association. “We do need to be really cautious about losing the unique feel of Aggieville. There is a role for chains, but we don’t want to lose that unique, eclectic feel.”

Fitzgerald said that the restaurant business is incredibly competitive and requires owners to be “on their game” at all times. He said many businesses in Aggieville are struggling to some degree, so while Hibachi Hut’s closing did not surprise him, the sudden announcement caught him off guard.

“It all happened so quickly,” he said. “It’s a huge disappointment for the district.”

Partly to blame for Aggieville’s challenges, according to Fitzgerald, is a largely negative view of the district by non-student residents of Manhattan, which he said is unfounded.

“The city tends to look down on Aggieville,” Fitzgerald said. “To your outside person, the ‘Ville is your destination, but there’s a sense from longtime residents and officials that it’s regarded as an eyesore, and that’s shameful.”

Fitzgerald said this reputation can be attributed to the fact that Aggieville is the most popular weekend destination for students of legal drinking age, but he added that the situation is blown out of proportion. He said that while students do flock to Aggieville during the school year, they tend to wait until late at night and early in the morning, leaving plenty of time for residents looking for a more laid-back atmosphere to enjoy the district earlier in the evening.

“You’ll literally hear townies say, ‘Oh, the students are gone, we can go to Aggieville now,’ and it’s really unfortunate,” Fitzgerald said. “Do things happen in Aggieville, yeah, but that’s just the nature of what goes on there. It’s no fault of the students. You can go park and eat on a Friday or Saturday evening, no problem.”

Another aspect of Aggieville that Fitzgerald says may not be widely understood is the quality of food available. Even dealing with inconvenient parking, an issue Fitzgerald said the district has been attempting to resolve with the city for years, is worth it to eat some of the best food in Manhattan.

“I don’t think Manhattan residents really grasp the treasure that Aggieville is,” he said. “It’s not just a bunch of bar food down here. There are a lot of great chefs doing some really cool things.”