Perhaps Ken Gordon’s t-shirt said it best: “By Reading This You Have Given Me Brief Control of Your Mind.” Ken is half of Kenny & Zukes — one of Portland’s most beloved Jewish delis, and he hasn’t gotten to the point of moving 800 pounds of pastrami in a weekend by letting his kitchens get out of line.
“I mean really, in the food business, the restaurant business, it’s all about control,” Ken says during our recent interview. He shared his thoughts on the Portland food scene, being Jewish, and yes – his control issues.
I know you’re from the East Coast, but not sure where:
New York City, Queens. Your next response is, ‘Do you know…’ Someone did that once and I did actually know them.
So do you have a ton of history with delis?
Yah, that was our go-to meal when we went out. We probably went to, or brought in bagels and lox or whatever, once or twice a week. It was just something I took for granted. So yeah, I have that history, but I never thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to work in one, or making pastrami,’ or anything like that. It was kind of in my blood I think.
Uh huh. Yeah. The Jewish Review called me a ‘cultural Jew.’ Actually she called Nick and I cultural Jews and Nick’s not even Jewish. I actually wrote them back a really nasty letter saying, ‘Look. One of the few things I really like about Judaism is that it doesn’t really distinguish.’ Cultural Jews? What does that mean — does that mean I’m not as good as you because I’m not religious? It’s something I find really objectionable and really insulting and I’ll correct somebody. So yeah, I’m Jewish.
Do you ever get to Kornblatts?
(chuckles) My wife and I moved here with my three-month-old daughter, who’s now 17, so 17 years ago. One of the first places we went to was Kornblatts. We said, ‘Ok, Where’s the deli in town? There’s gotta be some place.’ Someone directed us to Kornblatts and we went in there to get some take out. I’ve come as close as I’ve ever come to vaulting a counter and saying, ‘Go out of my way, I’m going to do this myself.’ First of all they took some rather sub-standard corned beef or pastrami, I’m not sure what it was, took it out cold, sliced it paper thin — you could see through it — piled it on a piece of rye bread, and then microwaved it. And I’m going, ‘No, no, no.’ We were just off the boat from New York, so I was like, ‘This is really bad.’ Then they had a side of lox and they preceded to try and slice us some. It was like Paul Bunyan trying to cut down a tree — they’re hacking at this thing. That was my first experience and I think I’ve been by there once since. I don’t remember it. That’s kind of why we started this.
So how’s business?
August was our busiest month yet. It slowed a little bit after Labor Day but not by much and catering has taken up a lot of that slack.
A lot going to The Ace?
Not that much. Mostly to small companies. Yesterday we delivered to Legacy Emanuel Hospital. Wieden + Kennedy ordered something yesterday… so things like that.
All the talk about food costs – has that come into your bottom line?
We’re paying more for flour for sure, but it’s actually come down a little bit. Yeah, it’s hard out there. Our food costs aren’t as good as we’d like them to be, but we won’t compromise on the product. I think people view us as kind of the high end of what we do. We’re not expensive for a restaurant — especially a downtown restaurant-but I think people go, ‘Oh, this much for a sandwich? That’s a lot.’ We’re giving them something for their money, and we won’t compromise on that. There’s sort of a ceiling on how far we can go on a sandwich in terms of price. If our beef or brisket goes up in price we can’t really adjust so easily without seeming like we’re gouging people, which we don’t want to do. We’re giving up a few points on food costs for our ethics I guess.
Do you miss Ken’s Place?
Yeah, I do. I had myself and four people there. And here I have myself and 60.
You really have that many people working here?
It’s a lot. Well, we’re open seven days, breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have a counter. We’re making all our breads, our bagels our desserts, and catering and all that stuff… I used to do everything myself over there. I didn’t have a dishwasher, or a manager or a host. It’s completely different. It’s like a different industry. I don’t cook that much here. We started the family dinners so I’d have something to do, so I’d have a creative outlet and they’re selling out; they’re doing great. But it’s more management, less hands-on. I get in there for quality control. But really I’m not cooking that much. At Ken’s Place I was touching every dish. There are things going on that I don’t have anything to do with. I come here in the morning and there’s stuff that’s been moved! There’s even some people I don’t know. There’s a host on Friday evenings that I’ve never even met yet. And he doesn’t know who I am! And I have Nick, a working partner, which I’ve never had before. I miss the cooking, I miss the intimate contact I have with the customers.
About six months ago I ran into Naomi Pomeroy from Beast. She’s sitting with her friend and her child, and I said, ‘Oh, how are things going? Is this your first time in?’ And she said, ‘No, I’m in about three times a week since you opened.’ That being said, the upsides here are a lot greater. I’ve been in this business for 32 years; I’ve always made a living, but I’ve never put away a whole lot. This is the first place that’s really, really commercially viable. We just talked to Carlton Farms, who brines our beef for us now, we smoke it – and we’re still going to do that for the meat here, but they’re going to start smoking it to our recipe and we’re going to start selling our meat up in Seattle and Eugene, and New Seasons hopefully. And we don’t have to do anything. We basically get a royalty check from the meat company once a week.
And they do the distribution?
I might have to go on a book tour and do some demos and things like that, but other than that, we never even see it. As long as it’s up to our standards, we’re fine with that. We’re also looking to do a spin-off business that’s complementary to what we do here – so we’re looking at some locations now.
Again, it’s so different than the intimate little restaurant I’ve always done. It’s more of a small-big business. We wanna keep it local, we wanna keep control over the quality. We don’t want to franchise it, or go outta state or whatever, because then we loose that control. I mean really, the food business, the restaurant business, it’s all about control. The one thing I think that goes wrong with restaurants or food businesses is that somebody comes in and tastes it or buys the product and the next time they buy the product or taste it, it’s different — and they’re like, ‘This isn’t as good as last time.’ That’s how you loose customers.
If we can build a team that can operate several things going on but they’re all close together or coming out of one central kitchen, then that’d be great.
Danny Meyer in New York with Union Square Café, and all those places that he runs — he broke this rule because he opened a café at MOMA — but until a couple years ago he did several other restaurants and he insisted that they all be within a five minute walk of Union Square Café – so that he could visit each one during one lunch time. He has that kind of control and he knows things are gonna be to his standards.
I think when businesses grow – that’s where they go wrong. They have one here, then they have one up in Seattle. Yah, you can do a restaurant in New York and Tokyo, but they’re coming in for Tom Keller’s name.
Let’s talk about Nick
(laughs) Let’s talk about Food Dude.
So how’d you meet Nick?
Did you know Low BBQ?
So Rodney was running it out at A Pizza Scholls and he put it up for sale. He was going to close it because it wasn’t working out there on Monday nights. So I liked the barbeque and we started to get to know each other and talking about it – and I said, ‘Well, why don’t I buy it and move it to Ken’s Place on Tuesday nights?’ I talked to my neighbor in the back and he was going to let me rent part of his driveway for his barbeque.
So we did that. And concurrent with that, I met Nick. He was a friend of Rodney’s… I was eating barbeque at A Pizza Scholls on a Monday night and Nick came up and introduced himself. So right before I was actually going to start production (on the Tuesday-Night Low BBQ), Nick called me up and said, ‘Oh, I’m going to Austin — which is like the barbecue capital of Texas — with a friend. Wanna join us?’ So I said, ‘Sure!’ And we went on a barbecue-eating trip. And we got to know each other. When I started Low Bbq we were jammed, and it was real popular, and I started writing on his Portlandfood.org and we got to know each other more.
I’m as left wing as you can get without throwing Molotov cocktails, and Nick — while being a middle-of-the-road socialist — was pretty libertarian in his views of the government. So we have these kind of clashes about that kind of stuff, but about food we agree about everything, or we find a good compromise. So then about two years ago, there started to be a thread on Portland Food about pastrami and deli. And everybody was going, ‘Oh, you can’t buy good pastrami… and you can’t get good deli…’ and somebody eventually came around to, ‘Well, it’s basically barbecue. It’s a smoked meat, and Ken’s doing the best barbecue in town; why doesn’t he do it.’ So then Nick came to me and said, ‘Let’s try doing some pastrami.’
So we started brining some stuff and trying a bunch of different recipes, and started selling the stuff. We had the capacity to do about 100 pounds at a time, and so we said, ‘Well, what do we do with it?’ So we rented a booth at the Sunday Hillsdale Farmers’ Market. And we made some pickles, and chopped liver, and some rye bread, and got some sodas ‘n stuff. They open at 10 o’clock. At 10 o’clock at The Hillsdale Farmers’ Market people are kinda mingling around, waiting for stuff to open… well, at 10 o’clock, we had a line of 18-20 people, waving 20 dollar bills. Literally we were sold out by 10:30am. People are walking around with one-pound pastrami sandwiches, eating them, at 10 o’clock in the morning. It was crazy. Insane. So then after about two, three months of that, we went, ‘Okay, we’re tapped out. What do we want to do with it now?’ So then we said, ‘Let’s do a Saturday deli brunch, and build a menu around pastrami,’ (at Ken’s Place), and we did. And same results. Just jammed… jammed. After about four months of that we went, ‘Ok, what do we do with this now?’ It was just too much. It was actually about six months. So then we decided to look for a space and do a deli.
I thought at first that I’d operate Ken’s Place and open here; it became pretty evident that I was going to have to sell the restaurant, which I did. I sold it to Sel Gris, and I got more money than I thought I’d get for it, which was great.
Let’s talk more food. What is the most popular?
Rubens. We’ve sold 100 Rubens in a day. Nick and I went over to Clyde Common for lunch, and Nate came over and we’re just sitting around; we’re real friendly. Nate’s a great guy. And God, it’s just… they’ve been open a year, and we’d been open about 11 months at that point, and we’re just looking around going like, ‘It’s like we’ve been open three years. Everything’s wearing out!’ The walls… it’s astounding the amount of people!
We got a lot of shit for it. People online… people on Citysearch, but who pays attention to any of that? But on Portland Food and Drink. A lot of good and bad. Better stuff on Portland Food. Early on people saying, ‘Oh, they’re out of pastrami, and the service is overwhelmed.’ We never had a chance; we did a little training, but we never had a chance. We were just constantly playing catch up. Now we have systems in place, people are better trained. Now we do 600 people in a day and it just doesn’t seem that busy.
If you could talk to your customers…?
Oh, I hear from my customers.
What would you tell them?
To shut up (smiles). No, it’s interesting. Ok, somebody goes into A Pizza Scholls — fabulous pizza. I mean, that’s as good as it gets. But you know, they get people who don’t like that style, oh, it’s a little too charred for them, they want more than two toppings, but really… it’s just, ‘Your crust is too charred.’ Here, we have a fairly big menu; we make everything. Everybody has a frame of reference for delis. Everybody was either in a city with good delis, of which there are many. Everybody has had pastrami, or rye bread, or pickles, or whatever it is, and it’s something everybody has an opinion on. Or they taste something we make and it’s not like their grandmother made it. Oh, when was the last time you had your grandmother’s blintzes? ‘Oh, it was when I was four.’ Oh, so you remember that real well, don’t you? I don’t know what it is, but everyone feels free to express it. I get people walking up to me on the street three times a day; and it’s not outside here, it’s like on 82nd. ‘Oh I love your deli. Oh I wish you’d take the seeds out of your rye bread.’ It’s like I’m in a Woody Allen movie or something. In a way it’s really fun and I enjoy it, and in some ways, it’s like, ‘You know what? It’s only fucking lunch, guys.’
What about your thoughts on the food scene at large?
It’s blowing everyone away. Portland can hold its own with any small city in the country. Every city has its shortcomings. Even New York. Try and get a good taco in New York. Doesn’t happen, and if it does it’s for $6, not $1.25 from a truck here. But for the most part, New York’s got everything anytime and whatever, it’s a metropolitan area of 16 million people. Portland shouldn’t be compared to New York, San Francisco, Chicago, LA. But Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, I think Portland blows them all away. The last few years has just been astounding.
The last few weeks we’ve been going to Tanuki. The best Japanese food I’ve ever had. It’s only got 14 seats. But the food that Janis is putting out is absolutely amazing. We go to Toro Bravo more than anywhere. For the money, and for what you’re getting there, I’d put Toro Bravo with any restaurant in the country. I think they’re doing an amazing job. Simpatica, and Beast and Pok Pok and A Pizza Scholls, and Le Pigeon — amazing food for amazing value. You go to New York and yah, you can find those places around, but it’s three times the price and you can’t get in for two weeks. We go to Toro Bravo, and we go early and we get right in. We’ve been there 20 times and have had a terrific meal every time. How many cities do you think have delis like ours?
I don’t want to be immodest. We’ve gotten criticisms like, ‘Oh, your pastrami isn’t like Katz,’ but you know what? I think it’s as good, but even if you disagree, you go to Katz and the pastrami’s good, the corned beef is good, the pickles are so-so, the knishes are something you’ve stepped in, the hot dogs are overcooked on the grill, the stuffed cabbage? Disgusting. So it’s like, all these delis do some things well, and everything else is on the menu because people expect it to be on the menu. I think everything on our menu is pretty good. There’s not a lot of delis you can say that about. I think we can hold our own with any deli in the country. There’s some serious good food going on in this town, and this isn’t a huge city. I think we’re better than Seattle. You go to most cities our size and you visit a friend there and you say, ‘Ok, where’s special to go eat?’ and they go, ‘Well there’s this one place…’ There’s 20 or 30 places that I can go to and know I’ll get blown away. That’s pretty cool.
Advice for chefs starting out?
Be a sponge. Screw school. Take the money and go to Europe and work for free with the best people you can find. You’ve gotta brave it out; these guys, they’ve got 30 years of experience and they’re not idiots, they know what they’re doing. You may be wanting to do it differently, but they’ve got something to teach you.
It’s a tough business. There’s a lot of people in it. There’s assholes, there’s the most amazing people you’ve ever met, and people who’ll literally give you their shirt off their back, and pretentious fucking assholes who can’t cook worth a damn and everything in between.
[Kenny & Zuke's Deli is at 1038 SW Stark St, Portland, OR. 97205. See KennyandZukes.com for more information. ]
Catherine Cole’s writing has appeared in The Portland Mercury and PortlandPicks.com. She’s also been a copywriter for various businesses, and has a blog at: ccole.info/aflyonthewall.