On Restaurants | New generation at Hickory House updating classic barbecue menu

By For The Columbus Dispatch
  • Jabin Botsford | DISPATCH photos
    Chad Hunter, left, and his wife, Dawn, own this Hickory House, in Reynoldsburg. Jimmy Torchia owns the Gahanna location.
  • Jabin Botsford | Dispatch
    The ribs at Hickory House, which celebrates its 35th anniversary in January

September 24, 2013

The Hickory House has changed a lot in the past three years, since founder Tony Torchia retired and turned over the two restaurants to family members.

Daughter and son-in-law Dawn and Chad Hunter, who took over the restaurant at 7051 E. Main St. in Reynoldsburg, and his nephew, Jimmy Torchia, who owns the Gahanna location at 550 Officenter Place, have set about freshening the concept as the Hickory House nears its 35th anniversary in January.

“The idea is to keep things fresh, even though the staple items that have made us who we are, like ribs and steaks, will never change,” said Mrs. Hunter.

New additions to the restaurant include seasonal menu items and an extensive seasonal cocktail menu. “Every three to four months, we’re rotating in new and seasonal items based on what is fresh at the time and on customer requests,” she said.

For example, Hickory House has added baked sweet potatoes with a honey cinnamon butter glaze as a side, as well as sweet corn nuggets — creamed corn fried in batter and served with ranch dressing — as an appetizer. Another change to the menu, which will include new salads and desserts, is coming in the next few weeks.

In the bar, “We’re doing seasonal drink specials with a Hickory House signature drink menu, happy-hour specials and small plates,” Mrs. Hunter said. The restaurants also have added a family-friendly Buckeye Saturdays promotion in the bar area on Ohio State game days.

The restaurants also have embraced the “local” products movement.

“We’re getting into local beers and (spirits), and trying to be more supportive of local businesses,” said Mr. Hunter. Next year, they will get more of their produce from local farms.

“Sometimes, things need a fresh look,” Mrs. Hunter said. “It’s healthy to step back and see where there is room for improvement, to see if you can do something different without losing sight of who you are.”

The restaurant has added a line of take-home bottled products such as Hickory House barbecue sauce, rib spices, and the house sweet-and-sour salad dressing.

The restaurants also are selling etched Hickory House wine glasses and gift baskets for holidays and special events, and plan to sell gift cards online.

“We have the advantage of taking over the business,” Jimmy Torchia said.

“We benefited from the quality of food, standard of service, and reputation (Tony) built, but our attitude is it’s hard enough to run these restaurants and keep them going because it’s a tough business, but we’d actually like it to keep growing.”

The Reynoldsburg location, which is significantly older than the Gahanna location that opened in 1999, has undergone extensive remodeling as well.

Outdoors, the mulch has been replaced with river rock and an evolving seasonal display of flowers.

Inside, the wallpaper was removed and the walls repainted, and new lights and a new custom-made maple bar was installed.

The bar and the dining room have all new tables and chairs, and the equipment in the kitchen has been upgraded. After the holidays, the space will get new carpet.

Even though the two Hickory Houses are technically separate restaurants with separate owners, the two work together regularly to promote the brand.

The owners plan to open a third restaurant, a more toned-down, faster-service version of the Hickory House in the near future. No firm plans have yet been set.

As for Tony Torchia, just because he’s retired doesn’t mean he isn’t keeping tabs on what the younger generation is doing with his restaurants.

At first, he was reluctant to embrace changes, but now he’s proud of how things have turned out, Mrs. Hunter said. “He says, ‘Man, the place really looks good.’ I think it’s fun for him to watch and know we are at the helm, taking it to the next level while keeping the tradition alive.”

Now that he’s retired, “He and Mom are finally doing date nights on Friday night and doing things they didn’t get to do” when Torchia was working in the restaurant business.

“We love what we’re doing, and when we think about the future, we think the sky is the limit. There is a world of opportunity out there for us.”

Off the menu

• Cleveland-based Melt Bar and Grill, which is opening a location at 840 N High St., is hosting a job fair from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at the Hyatt Regency Columbus, 350 N. High St.

• Central Ohio’s newest Texas Roadhouse, at 4155 Parkway Centre Dr. in Grove City, opened yesterday.

• Raising Cane’s opened its 12th central Ohio location yesterday, at 21 Old Village Rd. in the Lincoln Village area, near the Hollywood Casino Columbus.

Denise Trowbridge, Dispatch restaurant columnist, can be reached at onrestaurants@dispatch.com.