NW 23rd Ave Interview with Phil Geffner and Danny Cardoso (Part 2)
Last week we posted the first half of my hour -long conversation with Phil Geffner, owner of Escape from New York Pizza and Danny Cardoso, owner of Santa Fe Taqueria. Phil and Danny shared their backgrounds, how they became friends and how they got started in their businesses with their usual humor. In the second half of the interview I was looking simply for a perspective on NW 23rd from two guys who have known it long and well, but Phil and Danny were ready to share much more than that. In between the jokes and stories came wise words from long-time business owners and some truly inspirational thoughts on life, work, ethics, food and a person’s individual contribution to the universe.
So how has NW23rd changed?
Phil: How has it not changed? It’s different.
How is it different?
Phil: Well for instance we were in-between two bars.
Danny: Two taverns. Old, old taverns.
Phil: They used to meet in the middle to have a fight where the pizza store was. Then they’d come to me, the OLCC, and say “they’re fighting in front of your store, you’ve been selling alcohol.” I’d go “no they’re not coming from here” and they’d go “no you gotta break up the fights, they’re in front of your store,” so I had to always break up fights. I never thought I would miss it until it changed to like – you know, a slice of orange with your breakfast kind of place. I liked it back then because it was a little more – more like where I grew up or more – you know, it was different economic classes, put it that way. Now it’s more gentrified and not as colorful. But you know, things change. Everything changes and things don’t stay the same. The pendulum swings back and forth and you can’t just put your finger on something and say “stay here.” Just like the city – at a certain point it’s big enough and you don’t want it growing anymore but you can’t say it can’t grow anymore. You can’t say to people they can’t move here when you moved here yourself. But if there was a point where it would have stopped it would have been right in the beginning because I liked it then. How about you Danny? It was kind of nice then.
Danny: It was simpler. But we were young and we were growing our businesses and stuff so it was like we were just in it, gung-ho.
Phil: And you gotta understand there were only three places where people could get anything. Downtown, Hawthorne and Northwest. Those were the only places with stores where you could buy anything. So people would come from all over the city to eat at our places because they didn’t have places in there own neighborhood. Now they have different neighborhoods and that’s good for people who don’t have to travel but it’s a different city than it was back then.
What’s better now?
Danny: Well they fixed the street, I think that’s better for the little old ladies that can go out walking and cross the street without falling in a hole.
Phil: And they put the white lines on the street so people don’t get run over as much crossing it. They see that white line and the car stops for some reason, unbeknownst to me.
Danny: I think it’s better for that reason. I think there are too many Starbucks on the street though – I’m just kidding. Is it better or is it worse? I don’t know.
Phil: It’s different. Change is the only constant.
Danny: It’s not as easy as it was; it was easier then.
Danny: Well, just financially. Everything grows up much too fast. Traffic’s a little more dense.
Phil: Back then, for instance, we didn’t raise prices for the first seven years we were in business because the prices for us didn’t go up. Things just didn’t change that much so you could just keep things the same.
Danny: Now they just want to grow every year regardless of what’s happening. Across the board all expenses – everything just keeps going up and up and up. It gets tougher to keep pace with it all. I recently just was tracking my numbers at the restaurant. An item like the super burrito, we’ve raised it 16 cents every year since we opened, that’s been the average. But the cost of other expenses haven’t gone up the same.
Phil: But you know what the other funny thing is, I was thinking about it the other day. The generation before us was the World War II generation, so when we were coming in we were young and new. Everything was all brown and gray and businesses and we came in and we were like the cutting edge new things because we were young and we were doing things a different way; attracting all kinds of people not just a type of person. It used to be like the rich people went somewhere the poor people went somewhere – but everyone came into our places. It was like the next thing, from the old guard to the new guard, and we were at that edge. Now we’ve done that for 25 years and there’s another generation. The new stuff is like, social networking, computers and all that.
You seem to be surviving without that.
Phil: Yeah, but Danny does that, he has Maya. He’s gone along with that more than I have.
Danny: Maya has pretty much taken over the restaurant. I recognized for myself that we’ve had a great run and Maya and her dad wanted to buy my partner and I wanted to get out too. My brother and his daughter asked me to stay and I told them I would stay only if Maya was going to be the one in charge of it. Hopefully she could make it run for another twenty years – I wanted somebody to reinvent it and take it in another direction or do whatever. I was kind of tired, I wanted to reinvent myself differently and pursue different things in my life and not have so much hands on. She’s been great, she really has stepped up and she’s really doing it. And it’s fun – it’s fun for me to go to work again and she’s there and my children are working there too, my brother comes, my brothers and sisters come. It’s become a little family hub kind of thing for us so that’s been really nice.
Phil: They had a family reunion the other day and there were like six hundred and fifty of them. Three thousand two hundred and forty.
Maya’s just running the one restaurant?
Danny: Yeah, just Santa Fe. I have management at the other stores, too. I check in with Maya, she’s three years in. She’s really good at being able to run the store. There are details that come up every day with running a business -especially a restaurant. It’s chaos in motion, that’s in it’s nature. You can’t stop the chaos, you have to be able to manage the chaos, be able to respond to the chaos and she’s got that. Now the piece for Maya is taking it and moving it into the next generation, the next 20 years. But I have my ideas.
We just recently did a whole mural on the inside of the business. We had a mural downtown on 10th and Morrison that we had done about 20-some years ago by this guy from Mexico. It’s a beautiful, huge mural right on the side of the building but it faded really poorly. I had a lot of artists come wanting to do it and I never really found one but then this guy showed up, he’s from Mexico and he wanted to do it so we gave him a shot at it and I thought he made it more vibrant, made it better. So we were looking to remodel the inside of Santa Fe, you know we were looking at paint and looking at wallpaper just because it was boring, there was nothing exciting about it. So we talked about it for a year, year and a half and nothing came and when he finished the mural downtown I thought “why don’t we do a mural on the inside of the restaurant?” So I went and talked to Maya, she thought it was a great idea, I talked to my brother, he thought it was a great idea so I thought let’s just do it, so we created this mural. When I talked to the artist what I told him was I wanted him to take the Native American Indians of the Southwest and the Aztecs and the Mayans and show them in their natural state of how they live, and show their art and their music and their dance and kind of show the divine presence in those native cultures that were decimated. That presence was there, we just missed it. The invasion that happened in those countries missed all that beauty, all that wonder and art and the symbology that they had and the mythology that they had – they just kind of looked at them as less than – they really missed the beauty and the culture. One of the things for myself growing up in this culture, even though I was born here, there really is a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge of these cultures and so they’re looked at as second-hand citizens. But in reality they’re very beautiful, they’re very beautiful cultures so I wanted to show that. That’s always something that I wanted to do with the restaurants: we always wanted to take the positive aspects of the culture, of the food, the music, the family and present that through the restaurant. So that’s what we did and we’ve done it recently with the mural.
And the food piece for me really comes from my mom. I grew up in migrant camps when we were living here in Oregon as a child and the happiest time for my mom was when she had food that she could actually cook. Because in Mexico she grew up really poor she didn’t have food she had to scrounge around for food as a child so when she came to America she could actually cook, she could actually have food and so she was just really really happy. So I would go into the kitchen when she was cooking and she was just singing along having a great time, you know there were ten kids, my father was chaos in motion as well. So it was like there was a time when she was cooking, she’d make the food and I was in there tasting all her food and I didn’t realize that she was making a cook out of me. And I would tell her what I thought, whether I liked it or not, and all the family would come into the kitchen when she’d set the table and I was just peaceful It was a real time of peace, it was a time she just gave from her heart, she gave us all this love through her food and really that’s all I’ve done with the restaurants is that I just wanted to give her love of the food to the public that she gave to me and give an atmosphere and a place where people can actually just be at home with each other and actually talk to each other and feel comfortable with each other regardless of what’s going on in our lives. That’s basically what I did with my restaurants.
Phil: He’s got a nice family, really big. When I first met them there were maybe like a hundred of them now there are six hundred of them. That’s global warming. But they’re all really acceptingly nice people. You get just engulfed in their whole group, it’s really fun.
What’s your philosophy, Phil? That was a pretty good business philosophy, what’s yours?
Phil: Yeah I can up him one. We have employees that have been with us the whole time. We have people for years because we have health insurance for everyone that works 20 hours and we’ve got bonuses and we’ve got vacation pay and we’ve got paid off holidays. We took them to Hawaii, took them to New York, took them to Vegas. All this stuff that he’s talking about – which really is like, your business becomes a personification of who you are. Like your vision of the world, what you want to do to the world, it becomes personified in your business through a million decisions you make about how you want to run it every day. So before you know it is you, you’re creating a you because you’re making little tiny decisions that become the whole. It’s like a manifestation of who you are and what you believe. If you believe in socialism or equality or if people should be treated right, well if that’s what you believe you have a place to put it in motion or if you’re hypocritical, not to put it in motion. So it’s like make your choice in that. So it’s like with all the decisions you make you have a chance – it’s not just a hypothetical philosophy it’s a philosophy that you live in so that becomes who you are.
Like when you go into Deborah’s place [Blush Beauty Bar], it’s totally alien, women and makeup, what do I care? But when I go in there I can see how that place is run because I’m used to it, I can see it’s Deborah. Deborah’s all pink, the place is all pink. The girls are all really nice and it’s like they’re not fake nice they’re nice as themselves. Which is like in mine, people say they’re rude but they’re not really rude, they just help people and they go through the line and if people are mean to them they can be rude. They’re just people but it’s rude to people that they’re people because they’re not smiling at them all the time because they don’t feel like it. But that’s how I am and that’s personified through them. If you go to Deborah’s place they’re all nice, girly girl, but they’re also well taken care of and they like Deborah and you can feel that when you walk in there. Even though I don’t know a thing about makeup I can feel that’s how it is in there just because that’s how she is and you can feel it.
It’s really hard, not many people could really do it and it’s a lot harder than it looks. You’re talking to us after 25, 27 years and we’re kind of relaxed in our roles and who we are and all that. But it is the hardest, gutrenchingest, things on your mind all the time, drive you crazy, you can work your head off and lose everything you own type of thing you’ve ever seen in your life. And then you’re up against statistics, ninety-some percent of them don’t work for five years and people put their life savings into them borrowing every penny they can, it’s very nerve-racking. We didn’t have anything when we started. We borrowed, took, stole, owed and we still were working 90 – 100 hours without getting any money for years before we started making any – and we were very successful. And we were young and all we needed was $100 for rent and heat and that’s all we needed. And you know you’ve got employees and they’re all making more than you because you’re paying them by the hour and they’re not happy about this or that and you gotta make it better and you’re dealing with that for years and then maybe you get on top of it. And we both did – we were in the right time, place, mindset, abilities and luck. And luck is the most underrated out of all of them. Everything’s gotta come together. And then you’re there and you gotta be grateful for being there because a little bit of bad luck and you’re under the bus at any given time.
And then you’re trying to be yourself through the whole thing. Some people want someone to tell you what to do, you know there’s all kinds of people, some people are self-motivated, some people want structure and you gotta deal with all these different people. We had a long life before that, even though we were young, we knew how to deal with people. That’s like, ninety percent of it, where you see what people need and you gotta go put them in situations for them to prosper and not to fail and you know that they can do it. If you keep firing the worst three people there’s always the worst three people coming up the pipe. So you gotta work with the ones that are there and make them better instead of keep firing the lower ones because they’re always gonna be replaced. So it’s like you gotta work and figure out where people are coming from and what their strengths and weaknesses are and work with that. It’s a whole psychological experiment that you gotta learn through life and put in motion and that’s part of what we do every day. And we have people like each other to talk to because nobody else really knows what’s its like because it’s like an alien world. People can think they know but they don’t. You’ve got millions of managers that go in from managing a place and they wanna own a place and they go “I’ve been managing, running it” but no you haven’t been running it because the buck doesn’t stop with you.
Danny: You gotta manage to people’s strengths. I take a look at where they’re strong and focus on managing to their strength.
Phil: And it’s a lot of tracking, and he does a lot more because he has three places. But also you gotta like, he loves Mexican food, he grew up with it, it has meaning for him. And pizza, in New York you grew up eating pizza and when you go somewhere else and they don’t have pizza by the slice it’s like an alien thing. It’s like I need this, I grew up eating this every day and nobody’s doing it so you gotta do it. It’s like a calling deep inside you somewhere where this is something that’s missing in my life and I need it and other people need it too. And with his thing it was the same way, San Francisco was full of taquerias, he grew up eating the food and it was nowhere here. There were like sit down Mexican restaurants which were like a whole different kind of feeling. It wasn’t like a taqueria where you go down the food, get your food quick, eat, good quality. They didn’t have that, he was the first one doing it.
Danny: It was like my mom’s kitchen, my mom would make all these different things and we’d grab a tortilla and we’d throw what we wanted on it and then we’d go sit down, so it was similar. Just put it all on the table, we’d just grab what we wanted make a taco. So this is a commercialized version of it, but basically it was like home. This is great, I’m gonna run in, grab a hot fresh tortilla which she just made which were unbelievable. She was making everything from scratch and she loved it.
Phil: When I’m hungry I go and get a slice of pizza every day because I love pizza and the best thing is I never got tired of it after all these years. And when he’s hungry he just goes behind the counter and makes himself some food, that’s the food he’s comfortable with because that’s what he eats. It’s not like we serve this for other people and we’ve got something special for us. We both really like what we make and eat and this is like 25, 27 years later and we still feel the same way which is really nice. We still eat our own food all the time every day, and we like it, it’s not just something to eat, it’s something that we enjoy eating. Isn’t that right? He eats it all the time when I’m with him, he’s just taco-ing around.
What’s your favorite thing that you serve?
Danny: If I’m having my last meal, what am I having?
Phil: What did you do, did you kill somebody or are you dying of cancer?
Danny: Whatever. It’s a carne asada taco.
Phil: Yeah, I like that too.
Danny: On my way out, I want to have a carne asada taco, and I don’t drink coke anymore but maybe I have to have a little shot of coke. Or lemonade would be good. And maybe a fish taco.
What’s your last meal, Phil, what kind of pizza?
Phil: Cheese. Just a cheese slice. That’s what you grew up eating was cheese. Cheese pizza is ninety-nine percent of what people eat in New York so it’s kind of a comfort food. There’s something to comfort food you know. It’s like when they try to make Philly cheese steaks gourmet but that’s not what it is, it’s not supposed to be made that way. Just like pizza you start putting a lot of crazy topping on, it’s not pizza anymore. It’s not that it’s bad food, it’s just not pizza anymore. We use really good ingredients but it’s simple. We just use whole milk mozzarella cheese, one cheese, we don’t use a blended cheese that doesn’t make it better. That’s a New York way of making things. If you have five cheeses that doesn’t make it better than one cheese because mozzarellas the best cheese. And then we have veggies, pepperoni, Canadian bacon and sausage and that’s good but to put like a whole chicken on a pizza it might taste good but it’s not pizza anymore.
We were the beginning of a whole cultural thing happening here. We were part of this whole change of Portland from brown houses to purple houses to multicolored houses. That was what we where in the restaurant world and now it’s like all these good restaurants and all this stuff it’s like we were in the beginning of all this stuff changing from the 1940s culture into the next generation. We were in the middle of it.
A big thanks to Phil and Danny for sitting down with me for so long and sharing so much.
Visit Escape from New York Pizza on NW 23rd Ave. between NW Hoyt St. and NW Irving St. Visit Santa Fe Taqueria at the corner of NW 23rd Ave. and NW Kearney St. or online at http://santafetaqueria.com and on facebook.