NW 23rd Ave Interview with Phil Geffner and Danny Cardoso (Part 1)
Escape from New York Pizza has been a fixture of NW 23rd Ave. for 25 years. It’s owner Phil Geffner, known on NW 23rd as much for his outgoing and often uncensored personality as for his pizza, seemed like an obvious choice for a local interview. When I first asked Phil if he would be willing do an interview with me, he hesitantly agreed but the next time I saw him he was all excited with an idea. What if I interviewed him with Danny Cardoso, the owner of Santa Fe Taqueria? It is a surprisingly little known fact that Phil and Danny have been best friends for over 30 years, started their businesses together, are part of each others families. Phil promised it would be a real scoop; they’d tell me stories no one else had heard. He started calling me Lois Lane. I couldn’t resist. Within a week the three of us were sitting in a back corner in Starbucks disturbing the peaceful coffee enjoyment of those around us with laughter at the stories these two had to tell and at the fun they poked at each other, me, and a few unlucky passerbys.
Phil and Danny are leaders in the business. Escape from New York was the first pizza shop in Portland to sell pizza by the slice and Danny’s first restaurant, Maya’s was the first Taqueria in Portland. Phil opened the first Escape from New York downtown in 1983 and the current shop on NW 23rd in 1985. Danny opened Maya’s on SW 10th & Morrison in 1986. Santa Fe joined Escape on NW 23rd in 1990 and Danny’s third restaurant, Aztec Willie and Joey Rose Taqueria opened on NE 15th & Broadway in 1994. The downtown Escape remained open until 1993 when the building was torn down; Danny’s three restaurants are all going strong. For both Phil and Danny the restaurants are a family business. Danny has handed a lot the responsibilities of restaurant ownership over to managers and he is especially proud of the work that his niece, Maya has done at Santa Fe. Even with his hands out of the mud, he is still very involved in ensuring that his restaurants uphold his original vision. Phil runs Escape from New York with the help of his sister, Lauren and he treats his staff with a respect that many of us would give only to family. Phil’s brother also runs a pizza shop in San Francisco which shares the name Escape from New York.
Phil and Danny are as casual as business owners come. Danny is in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers; Phil is in faded jeans and one of the closet-full of New York t-shirts that he must own. Today it’s the orange one with the giraffe. Phil is directly across from me at one of those small coffee shop tables, ready to talk. Danny is lounging beside me on the bench, relaxed and easily distracted by someone he knows or by the bench itself, which he likes and considers mimicking in Santa Fe. It takes a little while to get started. Even once I begin recording, Phil had several more jokes to get out at Danny’s and my expense. Phil wants to know if I want this interview to be serious or if they can be themselves. Danny wants to know if I’m going to use their real names or if I would like to know their fake names. Phil takes a moment to yell at a barista who is grinding coffee around the corner. It’s two full minutes before I can ask my first question.
Okay, so I want to know where each of you is from, originally.
Phil: 1978 is when he was in an apartment and I became his roommate here in Portland.
Where did you live before Portland?
Phil: New York.
You lived in New York, really? I mean I guess it’s not that surprising.
Phil: You never figured that out?
I guess I was thinking that you just really wished you lived in New York.
Phil: That I wished I lived in New York? No, I grew up in New York.
Right in the city?
Phil: Yeah, Manhattan, Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Where are you from Danny, originally?
Danny: I was born in Texas but I moved here when I was four. Woodburn, grew up in the Woodburn farming community down there.
Phil: He used to pick nose.
You guys are just going to be mean to each other.
Phil: No we’re not going to be mean. We’re old friends from the beginning of time. ‘78, were you born yet?
Danny: Phil answered an ad I put up at PSU when I was a student there. He saw my ad and came to the house. Him and his… friend.
Phil: Who we won’t mention.
Danny: Yeah, we have to keep their identity hidden. So he came, he liked, we liked each other and we’ve been friends ever since. He moved in, met my family, my family took him right in. He became part of my little family world… My big family world.
Phil: About 500 of them.
Danny: They all took him in. He was different from what we had all been exposed to, being from New York.
Why did you come to Portland, Phil?
Phil: We were hitchhiking, me and this… friend. We were hitchhiking across country and we ended up here.
That’s pretty awesome. I thought it was awesome that we drove out here in our tiny little car.
Phil: Yeah, you could have picked me up. You were 30 years too late.
After a tangent to make fun of my age, my new marriage and my interviewing style, Phil gets into how he and Danny got their starts in the food business. It turns out, they both started out with food carts. Phil had an ice cream cart and Danny had a taco stand. Phil reveals why this wasn’t the most ideal business plan at the time:
Phil: We tried to get a corner for his taco cart and nobody wanted his tacos on the corner. They didn’t have much downtown then. So we had to go to the top of this building and there was this guy there and we go “hey, you mind if we put the taco cart out there?” and he goes “we don’t want your stinkin’ tacos in front of the building making a mess!” He ended up dying. That’s what happens when you mess with guys like us.
Phil and Danny can’t resist taking a break from business talk to share a couple of their favorite stories not entirely suitable for a family website. Curious readers will have to convince Phil and Danny to share for themselves what they snuck into Danny’s girlfriend’s bag just before she went through security at the airport and what combination they came up with for the letters on the marquee at the Esquire Theater on NW 21st when it was playing Octopussy and The Man From Snowy River.
Danny: The paper – I don’t know what paper it was…
Phil: It was the Willamette Week.
Danny: They reported that it was a radical feminist group that had done it. It was Phil and I. This is the first time we’ve admitted this in 30 years.
Phil: You’ve got a scoop.
Danny: No one knows our true history and our true identity. We are the radical feminists of Portland.
Phil: The cop car came by, it was like at two in the morning, and we had to go duck on the marquee, dive down so they wouldn’t see us.
Danny: And we had a 20 foot ladder that we were carrying across 23rd and Kearney and all these streets and nobody saw us. The cop car goes by and doesn’t do anything.
Phil: We borrowed the ladder from a friend – and in the paper the next day they go “the cops can’t figure out how they got the ladder out of the movie theater and then locked it back in the movie theater.” Well, we didn’t get the ladder from in the movie theater.
Danny: We’re admitting to a crime.
Phil: The statute of limitations.
Eventually the conversation returns to the restaurants. When Phil and Danny begin to talk about their restaurants it begins to become clear how significant their businesses are to Portland and to them.
Phil: The pizza shop was first, it was the first slice shop in town. Then a couple years later he opened up Maya’s Taqueria downtown on 10th and Morrison. That was the first taqueria in Portland. They didn’t have any tacos, they didn’t have any pizza by the slice.
Danny, you own all three restaurants?
Danny: I opened them all with my ex-wife. We started them out together. I met her in San Francisco. I was working on a construction crew and I was low man on the totem pole and I had to go out and get the donuts and the coffee and the burritos. And I realized from the burritos and Mexican food in San Francisco that there was nothing like that here in Portland. I hit a point when I was in San Francisco where I was kind of so-so with the city. I did like it except it was too much concrete for me and I really liked Portland so I thought I was going to come back. So we talked about it and she didn’t want to come here without having some kind of business to do because she had something going on there. So I said hey, I think these taqueria things would really work in Portland. So we jumped, we made a jump, we decided to open up Maya’s and it took off. It was great; we’ve been really fortunate. Very, very blessed.
Phil, how’s your business going?
Phil: It’s good, but I’m not like him, triangulating.
You’ve just got your one little place.
Phil: One big place. No that’s good, it’s one little place. It was never a take over the world type of a routine. That wasn’t the mission.
Next week look for the rest of my interview with Phil and Danny. The conversation turns serious with surprising and inspiring insights into business ownership, family, food, and personal impact on the world.
Try a slice at Escape from New York on NW 23rd Ave. between NW Hoyt St. and NW Irving St. Visit Santa Fe at the corner of NW 23rd Ave. and NW Kearney St. or online at http://santafetaqueria.com and on facebook.