Interview: Kevin, Brian & Walt of Pine State Biscuits

Owners Brian Snyder, Walt Alexander, Kevin Atchley. Photo: Catherine Cole

Kevin, Brian and Walt are anxiously awaiting the opening of their third Pine State outlet on NE Alberta and judging by the near constant around-the-block lines at the Farmers’ Market and Belmont shop, the new location will further fuel their cult following. And while the space is double that of their Belmont location, don’t expect a leisurely restaurant experience. They’re staying true to their quick eat ‘em and run, to-go biscuit kitchen set up.

Is it typical for you guys to all be together:

Brian: Not at all – it’s very atypical.

Describe your different roles:
Brian: Walt and Kevin both work in the shop; I don’t work in the shop at all. Walt’s the coordinator for all the contractors and any kind of shop maintenance. He did our build out on Belmont. He’ll do a lot of the finish work on Alberta. Kevin is our one-man-HR-Department. [laughs] I’m the bill payer. Then we meet every week to talk about operational issues.

So you guys are all friends from North Carolina:

Walt: Yeah, we all went to school there. Brian moved out to Portland in 2001. I followed shortly after in 2002. Kevin was at Arizona State. On the way out to Portland, I visited Kevin. Once I established myself here, Kevin came and visited a couple years later over Christmas and really liked Portland. He was winding things up there in Arizona and decided to move up. We ended up living together and that’s about the time we started thinking about Pine State. It was about 2005.

Kevin: The house that we lived in was Pine State for a little while we got the Farmers’ Market rolling. We worked out of the house. Brian would come over for the first year or so. We’d have our meetings there – worked out of shared kitchen spaces all over town.

Was the idea from the three of you?

Biscuit smothered in mushroom gravy. Photo: Catherine Cole

Brian: You guys pretty much approached me – Originally the talk was, ‘Let’s open a restaurant.’ But all of us were non-committal. None of us had run a restaurant before and it was more financial risk we were willing to take at that point. Kevin, you came up with the idea of the Farmers’ Market.

Kevin: I was working for the VP of the Farmers’ Market board (Scott Dolich of Park Kitchen) at the time. I thought it’d be a good idea to get our feet wet. Walt and I made biscuits ‘n’ gravy one day, took it down and handed it out to the crew at the Farmers’ Market. They were game – so we got on board to do the Market. We mulled around for weeks trying to decide how to buy one oven between the three of us. And if it was feasible to make biscuits outside. We kept working out of these communal kitchens. We were at Simpatica first. We were supposed to go to Gotham (Tavern). The week we started was that they shut down. While Tommy was a really good friend of ours and we wanted to sympathize – we’re like, ‘Oh man, that’s such a drag, but where are we gonna go?!’ We didn’t even know John at Simpatica. I just went down there and was like, ‘Hey man, I don’t know you but can I use your kitchen?’ He actually said, ‘Sure.’

Brian: I think he’s from North Carolina?

Kevin: I think he’s from Virginia. Then once they got their catering stuff we had to find a different space. So we went over to Park Kitchen and worked out of there for about a year, year and a half?

Brian: We finished out the first year of the Market there. The second year we worked out of Apizza Scholls. It was fun; it was good to work in those different spaces. It helped us figure out our setup – what we wanted our kitchen to look like.

Walt: Find out what we didn’t want to do. Yeah, there was a lot of fumbling around the first couple years – we didn’t really have a flow. First year, for sure – second year we got our feet under us a little bit and actually hired someone. It was like Wednesday all night and Saturday for about 15 hours.

Brian: And everyone was working full-time jobs on top of that.

Walt: And we misspelled our sign on opening day of the Farmers’ Market. Me and Brian were up real late … One of our customer’s like, ‘You guys are from North Carolina. You can’t spell biscuits.’

Tell me a little bit about how Belmont happened and what it was like to actually have a space.

Brian: We’d been shopping around for a while.

Reggie Deluxe

Walt: We looked on Killingsworth… then a girl working for us mentioned the place on Belmont. I called Kevin and told him to drive by this spot; it’s a little coffee shop going out of business. He did and met with the landlord. Then we had an appointment to all look at it. We originally walked in and were like, ‘Wow. This is pretty small… but I guess we ARE just a biscuit kitchen – to go biscuits.’

Kevin: It was great because we realized we CAN do this in a 10 x 10 foot space.

Walt: We also wanted to project that intimacy on the new spot. We’ve never said we’re a restaurant. Where we come from the whole idea is about getting biscuits to go. If you’re hung over or on you’re way to work; you don’t sit down and stay to eat.

Brian: That’s how barbeque joints are – that’s how a lot of places are…

Kevin: We don’t even use the term ‘restaurant.’ It’s a biscuit shop, biscuit kitchen. I don’t think we qualify as a sit-down place to this day. We try and just say, ‘We’re hawking biscuits.’

Brian: Our focus is what happens behind the counter.

Tell me how the recipes have gotten worked out.

Brian: We all did a lot of work on ‘em. The year before the Farmers’ Market was spent working them out. We would try different kinds of recipes, each other’s recipes.

Walt: We also tried the freshest ingredients versus shortcuts. Like in the South they use lard or shortening.

Brian: It was a solid six months of making and eating biscuits. Which was good for a lot of people. We had parties to see what they liked. We kept going back to one recipe.

Kevin: It made us realize by trying those traditional recipes with lard, we wanted to do something that was more in tune with how we ate – fresher, more wholesome.

Brian: I honestly think that we all eat better than we did when we grew up.

What’s the reaction been like from your family?

Brian: I make ‘em every time I go home. We’re always calling each other, ‘Can you give me the recipe one more time?’

Kevin: [laughs] Yeah, the single batch… I think we’ve all been forced by family to wake up early one morning during the holidays and crank out some Pine State Biscuits.

Brian: The last time I was home I made everyone biscuits for dinner [laughs]. I was like, ‘I’m not gettin’ up! I’m on vacation.’

I’m not even going to ask for the recipe because I know you won’t give it to me [pause]. But will you at least mention the flour?

Kevin: Oh yeah, we use Shepherd’s Grain – fifty, fifty high gluten and low gluten.

Walt: That wasn’t always the case. We tried Bob’s for a while. Then we got a sweet deal on the Shepherd’s Grain since we use so much flour. We try and keep it as simple as possible – we got this one thing.

Kevin: It’s humble food. We play around with it a little bit – we’ve gotten creative with the combinations, but there’s something to be said for doing one thing the best we can as opposed to diversifying yourself to the point where you’re all over the map. We’re really dedicated to the craft of what we’re doing.

Brian: It took us a while to even do hash browns.

Kevin: It wasn’t until we opened the shop when we’re like, ‘Over easy? Alright. We’ll do an egg over easy.’

Let’s talk about Alberta. How’s it going?

Kevin: We’ve all driven by it when it was another business and thought, ‘Wow, that place is amazing.’ Alberta itself is a good mirror in Northeast for Belmont. No one came in and developed it all at once. Brian had heard about the space being available. We went by, checked it out and the business that was there was closing their doors that week. We got the number of the landlord, got in touch with him and found that he was someone we could really jive with. We liked him a lot; the space looked great; it felt solid.

Walt: It was the right size.

Brian: It’s exactly double the size of our current space.

Walt: Plus an outdoor eating area, which was what we all wanted.

But there was no kitchen when you got it.

Kevin: No, we cleaned it to a blank slate.

Brian: We looked at a couple of places with kitchens.

Kevin: On Alberta.

Brian: Yeah, but we couldn’t create the intimacy that we have on Belmont. That’s the one complaint we get though, is like, ‘What is UP with these 14 seats?!’

Kevin: Yeah, it’s small, but it’s what the city allows us.

Brian: But what it comes down to is the food. So that’s what people are going to experience on Alberta. They’ll be able to see all their food being cooked.

Kevin: There’s something to be said for the energy in a restaurant that’s densely populated.

Walt: We most likely will do some late nights too. We can’t do that at our current location because we’re connected to some apartments – it’s in the lease that we can’t stay open passed 5pm. On Alberta we don’t have any of those restrictions. It’s pretty exciting.

Brian: This space will give us room – we’ll have a walk-in, a place to stage the Farmers’ Market, we’re in the early stages of partnering with other businesses. There’s a coffee shop in Washington that we’re going to start trickling them biscuits. We’re dipping our toe in that water, but we’ve talked about doing more catering stuff, maybe doing more Farmers’ Markets. We love that atmosphere.

So you thought of getting into the new Farmers’ Markets?

Kevin: We talked about it, but we kind of have our hands full right now.

Walt: The Vancouver and Beaverton markets are really big and that’s somewhere we might go, but right now it’s hard to keep track of what we’ve got going.

Kevin: We’d need a van that can drive on the highway.

[all laughs]

Walt: Old Bessie. She’s nearing the finish line. That van is packed to the rim.

Anything else to add?

Kevin: We’re sponsoring a t-ball league too. If all goes as planned, on Saturdays you can watch the Pine State Biscuits T-Ball Team. With at least one of us out there in a Pine State jersey.

Expect Pine State Biscuits on NE Alberta/22 to open sometime this April.

You can read a review of Pine State Biscuits here

 

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. one swell foop says

    Great interview! As a transplanted southerner as well, I love places that can cook southern food properly. There are so many that don’t understand how to fry chicken or oysters, or the taste and texture of a proper biscuit.

    My one question is, where can consumers get Shepherd’s Grain flour? Their website lists distributors, but I haven’t been able to find out if they, or their distributors, sell to retail locations. The lack of White Lily flour here means I haven’t made a biscuit since I moved, and I’ve been too lazy to try and track down a suitable replacement.

  2. Food Dude says

    Note: comments about Pine State go under that review. Comments on the interview go on this post. One comment has been moved.

  3. says

    I love the “meet the dudes behind the magic” feature. I hope to see more of this around here. Of course it’s always nice having a proper review, but I think readers could enjoy being able to relate to restaurateurs as humans as well.

  4. Catherine Cole says

    @one swell foop:

    I’ve seen Shephard’s Grain for sale at St. Honore on NW 23/Thurman. I’d also give Lovejoy Baker and Di Prima Dolce a try.

  5. Ericka Carlson says

    Stone-Buhr Flour sources from Shepherd’s Grain and can be found in most retail grocers–New Seasons, Thriftway and I think Whole Foods all carry it. The co-ops may also carry it.

  6. wine&dine says

    These are some nice guys who make some down home biscuits. Nice to read about their start up and how they
    moved around from kitchen to kitchen. What’s also great to hear is the helping hand given from the other restaurants.
    This is what makes Portland such a neat place to live. People are less competitive, more dedicated to putting out quality food.

    Nice job

  7. Sean says

    The boys are doing a professional Biscuit that is even hard to find in the Carolinas! I’m ready for a franchise in Raleigh!

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