He’s wearing a black button-down shirt with “Hodad’s” embroidered over the left pocket, a Padres hat and a Bluetooth headset. A yellow burger wrapper sits on his tray table next to a soft drink and a Gumby. I ask him if he comes here a lot, and with a wide smile, he says, “I volunteer at Hodad’s.”
I’d never entered Hodad’s before my interview with restaurant owner Shane Hardin, the late Mike (Bossman) Hardin’s 24-year-old son, who is now Hodad’s third-generation restaurateur. This is not a situation Hardin anticipated – it’s just the way things happened.
Hardin meets me at the entrance and introduces himself with a smile. He’s low-key: respectful, self-assured, with a hint of shyness. A full beard gives his young face a modicum of maturity. His shoulder-length strawberry-blonde hair shows off his blue eyes. He’s dressed in casual attire with a sleeve of tats on his left arm he calls “a work in progress.”
In the adjacent parking lot, I stare at a piece of street art – a purple, black and white VW with six feet of cabin cut out of its middle. It’s a Newport Avenue icon, covered with stickers, rust holes, a Hodad’s logo (People’s Republic of OB) on a side window, religious pamphlets stuck under the wipers and gnarly surfboards strapped on top.
While I snap photos of Hardin, four bikini-clad Italian Gidgets gather around him as if he is a rock star. He blushes and tells them the legend of Hodad’s. While they exchange contacts, he says, “Join me later for burgers and shakes. It’s on me.”
Hardin and I slither our way through a block-long line of hungry people. Stepping into the interior, a hodgepodge of boards from forgotten surfers, vanity plates, decals, bicycle wheels, lifeguard rescue cans and the front-end of a Volkswagen (booth for three) keeps patrons entertained – reminders of a life missed.
The Rivieras, the Ventures and Dick Dale play loudly, but nobody seems to mind – not the gremmies or the old carps. Jeremy Diem, general manager for the past 12 years, joins us at a table for four. All around me, people are chomping down on juicy, humongous burgers. By this time, I’m jonesing for a Hodad and a phat shake. He insists I order anything I want.
Diem talks about his growing bond with Hardin and how he’s changed since the death of his dad. “Taking over the responsibilities of the guy who pretty much invented the job for himself isn’t easy,” he says, “Shane’s been around from the start. He now walks a little taller and greets everyone with his father’s demeanor and smile. He’s learning the biz.”
“It’s exactly six months to the day since my dad died,” Hardin says. He talks about his transition from son to boss, overseeing more than 90 employees. “I take it one day at a time. My goal is to move forward; the customers don’t want to feel like something is missing. I follow dad’s motto, ‘Hodad’s is my livelihood, not my life.’”
I can’t help but notice a shell tattoo on Hardin’s right wrist. He tells me it represents his trip to Spain – walking the Camino de Santiago (just under 500 miles). “The scalloped shell symbolizes St. James. It’s a reminder of my spiritual journey.”
Hardin talks about another recent trip to Japan and how it helped him with the business: “Mostly, it’s the work mindset that I bring back. The Japanese go to work, thinking it’s all about the team. The only difference is we’re family. Employees are our biggest assets.”
Samantha, a blonde waitress dressed in a cropped T-shirt and shorts, talks freely about working at Hodad’s. When asked about having Hardin for a boss, she smiles: “He’s amazing, a chip off the old block. Every time he sees you, he gives you a big hug.”
Before leaving, I ask Hardin what he loves to do besides running the restaurants.
“I’m bassman in a band called Los Seafinks. Love music, beaches, cliffs and caves. October is my favorite month because I get to relax and be myself – tourist season is over.”
“Are you the next Bossman?”
“I’m not out on the beach selling shark repellant to tourists, like my grandfather, and I’m not the gregarious unofficial mayor of OB, like my dad.” He looks down and says, “My feet are way too small to fit the Bossman’s shoes. I’m just me.”