Hard work paying off for Hought’s owner

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer April 06, 2011 05:23 pm

CARLA SORWEIDE, owner of Hought’s 24 Flavors in La Grande, re-opened the long-dormant business on Valentine’s Day 2005 — and she has kept it much the way it was in its heyday. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
CARLA SORWEIDE, owner of Hought’s 24 Flavors in La Grande, re-opened the long-dormant business on Valentine’s Day 2005 — and she has kept it much the way it was in its heyday. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
 

Ice cream and burger shop to be featured stop on Rose City Motorcycle Club Grand Tour; will be included in book about quaint, out-of-the-way places to dine

Not every businesswoman needs a powerful national franchise behind her to become a success. For proof, look no further than Carla Sorweide, owner of Hought’s 24 Flavors.

She bought the long-dormant business on the west end of Adams Avenue back in 2004, hoping to restore it to its former niche as

La Grande’s favorite little ice cream stand and burger emporium.

Seven years later, Sorweide, a widow with three grown children and six grandchildren, is still in business. Not only that, Hought’s is attracting attention from people who have an eye for small town charm.

“It’s going well,” Sorweide said. “People seem to appreciate us. We’re a special stop for a lot of people who are traveling from Seattle to Boise.”

More about that later. First, some history.

Back in 1951, long before the advent in La Grande of McDonald’s, Baskin-Robbins, Burger King and other giants of the fast food industry, Clair and Helen Hought opened Hought’s 24 Flavors in the one-story frame building at the corner of Adams and Cedar Street.

They ran it 34 years, serving up burgers and fries and other stick-to-the-ribs fare. Most of all they sold ice cream — ice cream in a wide and exciting array of flavors, from peach to Rocky Road and everything in between.

It was your typical mom-and-pop operation, complete with soda fountain, juke box and small-town friendly atmosphere. Today, it’s hard to find a longtime La Grande resident who doesn’t fondly recall visits to Hought’s.

 For a variety of reasons, the Houghts closed down in 1985. But they didn’t sell, not right away. The store with all its fixtures sat empty and idle the next 19 years, until 2004 when Sorweide stepped in to buy it.

Opening on Valentine’s Day 2005, Sorweide meant from the beginning to keep Hought’s much the way it was in its heyday.

The small-town atmosphere is still there, and the menu is about the same, with fresh home-made burgers, curly fries, hot fudge sundaes and waffles the specialities of the house.

That’s not to say Sorweide doesn’t experiment. Recently, for instance, she added tacos to the bill of fare.

“I try something, and if works, it works. If it doesn’t, I discontinue it,” she said.

 And of course, there’s still that wide, wonderful selection of ice creams flavors. Sorweide said the sign on the building has always been a little deceiving. Twenty-Four Flavors is a name, not a limit.

“Sometimes we’ve got 30 or even 40,” she said.

Accenting customer service along with the good food, Sorweide employs five people in the restaurant to keep up with the pace. She said that in the summer, she’ll add more staff.

It takes a lot of work to make a little family restaurant go, and Sorweide herself isn’t the kind of boss to sit home and let business take care of itself. She’s a worker, too.

“I put in a lot of 11-hour shifts,” she said.

These days, as in days of yore, school kids come in by the droves. Sometimes, according to Sorweide, they spread their books out and do their homework as they’re enjoying their treats.

Neighborhood families drop in for meals, and so do people on the road. A key to survival, Sorweide knows, is to have them all coming back. She said she works at it every day.

“Our customers end up feeling like family. I visit with them, find out where they’re from. You don’t get that in a lot of other places,” she said.

Last year, a member of the Portland-based Rose City Motorcycle Club came in, ate a meal, looked around and decided he liked what he saw. He asked Sorweide if she was willing to let Hought’s be a checkpoint for the club’s annual Rose City Grand Tour.

The tour takes place each year from April 1 to Sept. 30. About 500 participants riding the highways throughout the summer check in at locations in selected towns.

For every checkpoint they visit, they get points. The more points they accrue, the more chances they get in a sweepstakes drawing.

Sorweide said she jumped at the opportunity to be a stop on the tour. She said it will help not only her business, but the whole town.

“Of course they won’t be coming all at once, but I’m hoping they’ll stop at other businesses besides mine,” she said.

And Hought’s (and by association La Grande) is in for even more recognition soon, thanks to a recent visit by a writer named Gail Hoofnagle.

Hoofnagle, planning a book on quaint, out-of-the-way places to dine, heard about Hought’s during a tour of Wallowa County. On her way back through La Grande, she stopped and took a look at Sorweide’s unique little shop.

“She’d met people in Wallowa County who knew about us and liked us and talked about us. One of the first things that came out of her mouth was, ‘Did you know you’re famous?’”

It didn’t take Hoofnagle long to decide Hought’s should be in the upcoming book.

“We were having one of our happy hour specials, and she was really impressed at the number of kids that were here,” Sorweide said.

Sorweide said that Hought’s broke sales records last summer, and she’s hoping for more of the same this year.

She said she’s ecstatic about the recognition the restaurant will get from the tour and Hoofnagle’s book.

“I feel honored,” she said. “We’ve come a long, long way. The hours have been long and hard, but it’s finally paying off.”