An overflowing cup of optimism

A popular café proprietor inspires the university community with her courage

When Judy Hodgins’ son went missing in Mexico, she went through the worst period of her life. “We went into the police station to report him missing to Interpol because we hadn’t heard from him,” says Judy, recounting the disappearance of her son Alex in January 2010.

“We saw those photos of missing people. The worst week of my life was when he was missing and we didn’t know what had happened to him. Finding out about Alex and going through that was very hard and always will be. My heart bleeds for people with a missing loved one.”

Everybody has a story. Judy’s is sadder than most. But her courage and positive outlook have carried her through crises that would destroy some people. Patrons of the gods cafés – popular ANU restaurants which she co-owns – say they have been inspired by her courage and positive outlook.

Judy has long been a part of the campus community. Judy, her husband Tony and their business partner Maribeth Cole have built the gods cafés into thriving businesses.

The daughter of English immigrants, Judy grew up in Adelaide. She met Tony at teachers’ college there. The couple moved to Canberra in the late 1980s. “We left family but Tony had a job and I love change,” she says.

Both taught in Canberra schools for several years. Judy was a devoted science and physical education teacher, and took on extra tasks such as the supervision and teaching of students participating in extra-curricular activities, including rock eisteddfods, excursions and camps. “I’d take on too much,” she says. “I’d get sick in the school holidays. My body would collapse.”

After years of teaching, Tony wanted a career change, and he jumped at the opportunity to buy into a restaurant venture on the ANU campus.

The gods café and bar in Union Court opened in 1991, and Tony bought it in 2000. Judy, also tiring of teaching, joined her husband in the endeavour two years later. “I did love teaching but it got difficult in the end, perhaps because of discipline problems,” she says. “It got frustrating, and the bureaucracy went wild, so I joined Tony here.”

When Maribeth joined them as a partner in 2008, the three opened a second gods café on campus, in the Hedley Bull Centre. Judy now runs the café.

The cafés have become an institution at the University. They have a reputation for fine food and are popular meeting places. They display art and are venues for functions such as jazz concerts. Les Murray spoke at one of the gods’ poetry nights. Gods won the 2007 ACT Best Café Restaurant award.

Judy and Tony learned the restaurant business from the ground up but both took to it with alacrity. “When we first opened, it was absolutely exhausting,” she says, recalling the long hours. “Now it’s mainly a matter of maintaining the whole thing – the product, the service, the staff.”

The pair adopted a hands-on approach. Until recently, they worked every day in all aspects of the business, including waiting on tables, making sandwiches and washing dishes.

“Tony and I have always been at the coalface,” Judy says. “We actually work. Some people who own cafés don’t. I don’t know how they can afford that.”

Still, she needed the business and social aspects of the venture to keep engaged. “I don’t think I would have maintained an interest just working for someone in a café.” She says the main driving force are the patrons, many of whom she now counts as friends.

“I really love being in an educational institution, having come from teaching,” she says. “We’re not hospitality-ingrained people. I don’t think I’d be as inspired if the café were at the airport. I love talking to people about their research. It’s like a little community. The customers are interesting, and I feel that we can support education.”

She is on a first-name basis with patrons, ranging from students to some of the world’s top researchers and senior public servants.

She says being a woman is no hindrance to her work at the ANU. “It’s so egalitarian,” she says of the campus.

The only sexism she has faced in her career was from a minority of chefs when she started out in the restaurant business. “At first, hospitality shocked me after coming from teaching, which at that time was dominated by women, who were opinion leaders,” she says. “At one stage, I wasn’t comfortable with the apparent chefs boys’ club but that has changed in recent years, at least with the chefs we employ.”

Judy says her main mentors in teaching were men – deputy principals – but she had no role models when she first went into business. “I didn’t know anybody in business,” she says.

“When I was teaching, travelling and then having children, I felt like I was in that group of women who felt they could do it all – working and having children,” she says. Judy’s husband and her business partner, academic-turned-chef Maribeth Cole, are her main mentors today.

In conversation with Judy at gods in Union Court, her amiable manner belies the trauma she has experienced.

Her son Alex moved to Melbourne several years ago. “He was probably a bit unsettled,” she recalls. “He moved back home briefly and we began to work through problems. He insisted on travelling to Central America, which worried us. While in Acapulco, Mexico, he drowned.”

This year, Judy and Tony took off on a motorbike trip from Perth to Darwin. On the back of the bike, she thought of her son constantly. “I would think he would love this, and I’ll do it for him.”

Alex’s friends still visit her. “I always talk about Alex,” she says. “People bring Alex’s name up. In a way it will make me stronger but, of course, there will always be a hole. I’ve always thought you have to look on the positive side when horrible things happen. You can get down but something is going to come of it.”

Since Alex’s death, Judy and Tony have stepped back from the restaurant, handing over some responsibilities to staff rather than “working ourselves to death.”

“We used to do a full week’s work, but we’ve now managed to cut it down to three or four days a week,” she says. “When it’s your business, you’re always worried to ensure that everybody’s doing the right thing. But we have faith that we’ve trained other people and can let them go.”

She says she owes it to her son to make more effort to live her life and “do something positive”. “Eventually, I’d like to do something in mental health. With my degree in education I could do that.”

Judy practises yoga and has begun Italian lessons. She and Tony hope to travel to Italy soon.

“I try to have something outside of work, but I’ve made some lovely friends through this café. I count some people who are customers as friends now. The work has brought a lot into my life.”

Her daughter Ella says Judy has been acknowledged in many PhD theses for helping the authors get through hard times. “I have been told countless times by customers of Judy’s about how much she brightens their day with her infectious energy,” she says.

John Nguyen, a former employee says Judy taught him to “see the brighter side of life”. “Just being in her presence is enough to make your day,” he says. “I've never seen so much courage and strength in a person in my life. Judy’s optimism and caring, gentle nature is indestructible. She is an inspiration to me and many others.”