A few years ago, there was no decent pastrami to be found in Portland, Oregon. Now Ken Gordon and Nick Zukin sell remarkable pastrami—and bagels and lox and knishes—every day to hundreds of happy customers at Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen.
In 2007, Gordon was a chef and Zukin was a food blogger with a day job as a computer programmer. Gordon ran a successful Portland restaurant, and Zukin was a regular customer. The men shared a passion for barbecue, and barbecue instigated their friendship. Zukin's friend sold Gordon a barbecue outfit, and Zukin invited Gordon along on a barbecue trip to Texas.
In the big smoker in the back of Gordon's Portland restaurant, Gordon began to host barbecue night on Tuesday at his restaurant. It was a success. On Zukin's food blogs (Extra MS and Portland Food), commenters bemoaned the lack of pastrami in Portland. Zukin approached Gordon about trying to make some to fill the need. "We experimented with some recipes and came up with this amazing product," Gordon says.
Zukin and Gordon knew their product was something special. They used local, natural beef and did everything themselves. Most of all, their pastrami was crazy delicious. They took some of it to the Hillsdale Farmers' Market to see how people would react. "We brought 100 pounds and sold out in an hour," Zukin says. Gordon hosted deli brunch in his restaurant featuring their pastrami. The lines looped around the block. "The response was incredible," Gordon says, "so we decided to look for a location and do a deli."
Now they have two locations, more than 70 employees, and sell 2,000 pounds of pastrami a week. The New York Times, Bon Appétit, and Maxim have all raved about Kenny & Zuke's. The deli makes its own rye bread and its own pickles. Day after day, Kenny & Zuke's fills up immediately after it opens. The place took on a life of its own, Gordon says. Gordon soon sold his original restaurant and put that money into the deli; Zukin quit his programming job.
"We're doing things the way they were done 50 or 100 years ago," Gordon says. "There's a move back to artisan products, better quality products. People are interested in paying a decent price for what's really good." Through the recession, they've done booming business. A Kenny & Zuke pastrami sandwich is a treat that doesn't break the bank – a way to go out for something delicious without paying fancy restaurant prices.
"People have been freaking out because they haven't had good pastrami or a good deli before," Gordon says. "We can't match everyone's grandmother's pastrami, so we just do it the best we can."
Doing everything from scratch is not cheap or easy. They roast their own beef and hand-roll, boil, and bake their bagels daily. The deli is open from early in the day to late at night, seven days a week. Zukin says that for the first year he got to the deli at 10 a.m. and stayed until 2 a.m. the following morning on weekdays and until 4 a.m. on weekends. He drove his employees home and had only a few hours to sleep. He stashed a cot in the deli for power naps and once slept on it during a snowstorm so Kenny & Zuke's could stay open.
Now Gordon and Zukin are branching out into wholesale. "It's hard to do volume and quality," Gordon says, "but we manage to sell a lot of something really high quality." They are in the process of finding a facility to make their pastrami for them so they can offer it in grocery stores and delis. "We get to maintain our integrity and make a little more money."
Gordon misses some things about being a chef, he says, "but not miss struggling to pay rent." Now, he cooks when he wants to cook and has more time and money for his family. Zukin, however, says he doesn't pine for sitting in front of a computer all day. He's working on opening a Mexican restaurant; Gordon is running the deli every day, making sure it remains the home of some serious eats.
"People sense it when you really care about quality," Gordon says. "It's a labor of love. Yes, you need to have a good business plan, do your research, follow good business practices," he says, "but mostly you have to be true to yourself and your product."
Zukin and Gordon built the very best pastrami, and sure enough, the people came.