W.hen Janice Hudgins was growing up, there was a weekly egg roll assembly line in their kitchen. “I rolled them with my mom, and dad fried them,” she recalled. “My little brother Ryan, who is now my head chef, was too small to do much more than peel off the wrappers. Then my older brother would deliver them to the local caterer in Moncks Corner, who just happened to be our chorus teacher.”
Food has always been a family affair and the glue that kept their far-flung relatives connected. Thu-Ha, the original Miss Ha and Hudgins’ mother, moved from Vietnam to Charleston with her husband and two young sons, following in the footsteps of other family members who had settled here. Every Saturday, close to 30 of them gathered at their home, cousins playing with cousins and the men smoking and talking politics, while the women huddled in the kitchen with an assortment of potluck dishes, preparing the meal.
Miss Ha always cooked for her family. She worked the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift at the Piggly Wiggly on Meeting Street for over 20 years —where she got her nickname — then came home to cook a family meal before trading places with her husband, who set out to his 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at a local television station. “It was important to them that family took care of family. There was always an adult home with us,” Hudgins said.
Fast-forward to today, and Hudgins is now a mom of her own with four children. After what she called “10 years of extended maternity leave,” she was ready to reenter the working world. To date, she is the only one in her family to graduate from college with a communications degree from the College of Charleston. Cooking was not her first choice. She had thought about pharmaceutical sales and dabbled in real estate too, but food was always a passion — just not necessarily her mother’s food.
“During college, I taught myself to cook by watching Food Network shows and asking friends for recipes,” she shared. Hudgins soon enough began to throw small dinner parties for her friends. She always left the Vietnamese cooking to her mother, until one day, Miss Ha told her daughter it was time she learned to make the dishes for her own family.
“My mom is one of those people who doesn’t write down recipes. It’s all in her head, so it was a process we worked through together. She wanted me to smell and taste everything, so that I had a sensory memory of how a certain dish should turn out. ‘Can you smell how much pepper is used here?’ she would ask me, or ‘Can you taste the ginger in this?’”
Around that time, Butcher & Bee was experimenting with ethnic food pop-ups. Knowing Miss Ha’s cooking reputation, they invited Hudgins and her family to participate. Once a weekend, every month for a year, they worked together: the parents prepping the food with Hudgins in the front of the house. “It was really successful, and my mom, who loves to cook and entertain and make people happy through food, had a ball.” But it was also very tiring for her parents, and so they eventually stopped.
Hudgins turned back to hosting private dinners, first for friends, but as her newfound cooking reputation grew, so did her clientele. “My goal was four events a month, so I still had plenty of time for my family,” she said. When she started exceeding her quota, her husband had a suggestion: Why not make egg rolls and sell them by the dozen? Her announcement coincided with an article in the Post and Courier. The orders started to pour in.
It was not lost on Hudgins that there they were — back in a kitchen on an egg roll assembly line like the old days. Only this time, she enlisted her brother Ryan, who was now cooking in restaurants on his own. “I taught him to roll them while I fried them. It was right before the holidays in 2017, and we were making them like crazy. I kept wondering if I should just tell everyone I was sold out, but my husband just told me to keep rolling and hire more people.”
Those egg rolls were just the beginning.
Butcher & Bee had launched Workshop, a group of incubator kitchens for chefs to perfect their skills and menus. Hudgins was adamant about not opening a restaurant at first. “My husband owns restaurants, and I just didn’t want to be tied down to one of my own.” Instead, she committed to a three-month stint at Workshop that turned into a year. “The option to walk away at any time was appealing. But what it really did was give me confidence in my food.” Not only was it successful, but Hudgins noticed that most of her customers were from Mount Pleasant, so ultimately, the location for a restaurant was a no-brainer.
It’s a small menu by design. Much of it is gluten-free. All of her children have food allergies, so dietary restrictions are top of mind. Even the egg roll recipe has been modified to include no eggs or dairy of any kind. Hudgins knows her audience and wants Little Miss Ha to be the kind of place you can afford to visit once or twice a week.
The space itself is a little jewel box tucked into the Whole Foods shopping area on Houston Northcutt Boulevard. Mixed media on the walls vies for your attention. It’s part Vietnamese kitsch, part Asian shabby chic, with attractive lighting. There’s a long, well-lit bar and tables that are well-spaced.
Little Miss Ha opened on February 13, 2020, exactly one month before the full force of the pandemic hit. Hudgins remarked that since then, it has literally felt like they have had to change their model every week. “Failure was not an option for this family,” she insisted. “Luckily, we could pivot, and we did.”
Her catering experience was a plus. She already knew how to package food for home delivery, complete with reheating instructions. “Asian food reheats well,” she added gratefully. “In the beginning, we delivered everywhere and did really well. As places began to open and people had more options, we took a hit, but we pivoted again.” Today, half their business is still take-out.
When asked if she can see more restaurants in her future, Hudgins laughed with a tiny twinkle in her eyes. “Perhaps a space for additional catering,” she mused. No doubt she’s thinking about those egg rolls, and which of her own children to enlist for the next assembly line.
By Pamela Jouan