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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Houck: Hot Rod's closure a gut punch for Lutz

“It says barbecued fruit bat on the menu,” I said.

A twinkle shined in the corners of Rod Gaudin’s eyes. He put the exotic item on his menu years ago at Hot Rod’s BBQ and Grill on Livingston Avenue.

I told him I was by no means an expert on bat physiology, but with such tiny wings, it was probably a species more likely to walk than to fly. I suspected the delicious animal in front of me with arms crossed like an altar boy was, in fact, quail.

That brought a smile.

All he would say was, “It says fruit bat on the menu.”

Except that’s not true either. There is no menu.

After 17 years, Hot Rod’s is no more.

The restaurant was sold last week for $19,000 in a foreclosure auction after a civil lawsuit by her former boss, David Potts, went against Rod and his wife, Helen.

A jury earlier this year ruled in Potts’ favor after he sued the couple for not paying back loans he made to them for insurance, property taxes and improvements on the restaurant.

The Gaudins maintain they not only paid back the loans, but Potts actually owes them money. Potts disputes this. On Friday, Potts said by phone that he offered to let the family run the restaurant after he takes over. They refused.

“I tried to work with (Gaudin) for three and a half years, and he just wouldn’t work with it,” Potts says.

Rod Gaudin, who twice ran unsuccessfully for county commission, has since petitioned the governor for help, citing 700 supporters on Facebook. He’s begged his congressman for assistance, to no avail. A hearing to set aside the judgment is scheduled for next week. He is not optimistic.

So on Thursday, the last official day of business, Gaudin held a celebratory wake of sorts at the restaurant, inviting friends, family and customers to have a bite, enjoy some music and buy the antiques, collectibles and, well, junk he has accumulated over the years.

He’ll hold what he calls “a redneck auction” through the weekend. The mounted wild boar in the men’s room had a $100 price tag. The 1960s vintage Coca-Cola machine was going for $500. An old wood stove was listed at $400. A homemade statue of Yoda gripping a light saber, with an American flag in his chest, did not have a price.

Gaudin’s bottles of mosquito blood hot sauce were already sold. I bought a one-eyed mounted deer with a messed up nose and an orange-and-blue striped neck tie. My keen eye told me that kind of hoarding treasure doesn’t come around very often.

At 2:44 p.m. Thursday, the last order of cherry-flavored bat, or quail, or whatever it was, left the kitchen, headed for the hungry mouth of Kris Moats, a lifelong Lutz resident.

“Our family has been here for 70 years,” Moats said. “We’ve got roads named for us.”

He ordered it with ribs and a side of corn pudding. His wife, Lisa, kept their 2-year-old toddler, Emma, fed with green beans in their corner booth as she ate her own basket of smoked and sticky chicken wings. The booth was in the part of the building that used to be a carport on a residential house before Gaudin covered it in reclaimed wood and made it into a ’cue shack.

“Eating here is like eating with your neighbors,” Emma Moats said.

Not any more.

Nancy Boyette Garvey, a 56-year-old retired Jazzersize instructor from Lutz, said she and her daughter would ride their bikes up to Rod’s for a meal. They would buy vegetables at the roadside stand he built out front by the jalopy covered in moss and ferns. It sits next to a sign that reads “LUTZ BEST CUBAN.” I’m guessing it was Lutz’s only Cuban, but I could be wrong. It still tasted great to me.

“This place is a piece of history for Lutz,” Garvey said. “It’s like stepping into another time.

“How many Hot Rod’s are around?” she asked. “None.”

One couple from Alaska who asked not to be named sent Rod a check for $1,000 when they read about his plight on Facebook. A former ranch family from Lutz — back when they drove cows on Highway 54 on Sunday afternoons when traffic was light — they ate at Hot Rod’s during a return visit and fell in love.

Gaudin tried to send their check back, but the husband wouldn’t hear of it. I called him in Fairbanks to confirm the tale. He said the story was true but he didn’t want any notoriety from it. “I don’t know the family well other than from being customers, but Rod has worked for everything he’s had,” he said. “It’s the best barbecue I’ve ever had.”

And now it’s gone.

Or maybe not. Gaudin says he isn’t giving up.

He didn’t give up six years ago when a doctor told him the eyelet cell carcinoma living in his pancreas was going to kill him within months. He told the doctor he wasn’t going to die. So he didn’t.

“My brother-in-law said, ‘Walk away from the restaurant. You’ve got cancer,’” Gaudin says. “I said, ‘Bobby, I can’t do that.’”

He didn’t give up when he was sent as a young man to serve in Vietnam. “I fought on behalf of a country in which someone took their property,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to come home and let someone take my property.”

Rod Gaudin has been Hot Rod for 17 years. It’s all he has ever wanted to be. He intended for it to provide retirement money for him and his wife. He has $900,000 invested in the land and the building. He even lost the tip of his left index finger sawing a cedar plank for the entrance.

“The happiest day I’ve had was the day I opened the restaurant,” he says.

All business failures are terrible and full of strife. But restaurants hold a special charm in the community. Nobody celebrates a birthday at a quick-lube. No one drinks their way through a divorce at a dry cleaner.

Restaurants are in the business of eliciting happy, pleasing, soothing emotions.They do that by convincing you to put what they make into your body. Money is precious. Your taste buds are valuable real estate. Every bite is a contract.

When a restaurant disappears out of a small town, jobs disappear as well. But you also lose a place where good memories are made.

No matter how big the business might be, every restaurant is someone’s on-ramp to a better life. When that doesn’t work out, the off-ramp is steep and slippery.

It was Rod’s ticket to a happy retirement.

Now it’s over.

Say goodbye to the fruit bat from Lutz. Whatever it was.

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