Before defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh started playing in Super Bowls, he would sit in the back of his mother’s food cart, making lemonade.
Suh, who grew up in Portland and still returns for a portion of the off-season, would spend summer afternoons watching his mother prepare jerk chicken and red beans and rice, chatting with customers, helping set up and close down the cart. He was the son of two strong home cooks: His mother — originally from Spanish Town, Jamaica — could knock out a mean curry chicken, though he preferred his Cameroonian father’s plantains. Suh, now a hulking six-foot-four mass of muscle, was born to play football, but food was always in the background, literally and figuratively fueling him.
When Suh started playing in the NFL, he and his then-girlfriend, now-wife — fellow Nebraska student athlete Katya Suh — spent (and still spend) the off-season eating. They’d travel to Europe and go wine tasting, or eat their way through Greece or Cuba. “We actually got engaged in Bordeaux, France on a wine tour trip,” he says. “Food and beverage have always brought us together.”
While sports fans around the country know Suh for his unrelenting defense, on display at three of the last five Super Bowls, in Portland he’s more of a fast casual restaurateur focused on creating places he would want to visit as a teenager. He co-owns a number of local chains with Micah Camden, co-founder of brioche doughnut giant Blue Star and fast food staple Little Big Burger; together, they own Baes Fried Chicken as well as Kinnamons, a bakery that specializes in tricked-out takes on cinnamon rolls. He’s also a partner in the growing Oregon drive-thru chain Super Deluxe, and outside Oregon he owns a number of other restaurants in places like California and Colorado, including Bib Gourmand honoree Pizzana in Los Angeles. The same drive that motivates him on the field powers in his restaurant career, as he eyes further expansion in Portland and beyond.
Countless football players have pregame rituals. Emmanuel Sanders played Madden before games. Curtis Martin would read the bible. Suh’s ritual is going out to eat.
His passion for dining out began to emerge in college, at the University of Nebraska: He and his friends would pop by restaurants on Thursday and Friday nights, checking out pizzerias and wing shops. When he ended up in nearby Omaha, he would go out of his way to stop by Blue Sushi, a favorite of his. By the time he was done with college, ready to start his professional football career, he decided to get into the restaurant business as well — with the team at Blue Sushi.
“As a young kid in college, they would give me some friendly discounts as a student athlete,” he says. “As I was leaving college, I was bold enough to ask them to open up a restaurant in Lincoln.” Together, they opened Lincoln Blue Sushi in 2014.
Since then, Blue Sushi has expanded rapidly. The chain now operates 16 locations around the United States, emphasizing sustainable fishing and sourcing practices. It was Suh’s first dive into the restaurant industry, and he was hooked.
When he came back to Portland to visit family, he noticed his hometown’s food scene was starting to level up. It was the height of the city’s culinary renaissance, as more national buzz grew about chefs like Gabriel Rucker and Andy Ricker. Food carts were popping up everywhere, and Salt & Straw was selling ice cream made with bone marrow.
In 2019, Suh finally decided to pursue a career in Portland restaurants. He met restaurateur Micah Camden in passing a few times throughout the years, and Suh had been fantasizing about opening a fried chicken place. Camden — with his extensive history of opening fast-casual restaurants in Portland — seemed like a natural partner.
“He said, ‘I want to do a better version of Popeyes,’” Camden told Eater Portland in 2019. “‘I eat a lot of chicken, but I want access to an organic bird that’s accessible.’”
Camden, generally in charge of the culinary side of the business, started going on research trips throughout the United States — Howlin’ Ray’s in Los Angeles, Hattie B’s in Nashville — trying out hot chicken and fried chicken. Baes opened in November of 2019, right ahead of the pandemic. Despite the conditions, Suh and Camden went on to open four Baes locations around the city, including a spot in Portland’s Moda Center. The restaurant’s newest location, within one of Suh’s Alberta Street buildings, is its biggest endeavor yet, with brunch dishes like chicken fried steak waffles, maple-bacon biscuits, and deviled eggs with smoked trout caviar.
Camden attributes some of the success of Baes to the moves the restaurant made at the beginning of the pandemic. The restaurateur — who, on his own, also owns restaurant chains like Boxer — offered employees at all of his businesses the choice of whether their restaurant would stay open for takeout and delivery or close entirely. Baes employees chose to stay open. “Us and Luc Lac, we were basically the only ones who were delivering,” Camden says. “So Baes was one of the only ones that was able to sustain itself. We were doing $18,000, $20,000 per day in chicken.”
After the Boxer location in Westmoreland shut down in 2020, Baes took over the space, focusing on takeout tenders and thighs. Then, the Moda Center reached out about opening a Baes as a concessions option. As Baes grew in popularity, Camden got excited about the idea of pursuing something else with Suh. The restaurateur says he was reading an article about people making Cinnabon knockoffs at home during the pandemic when the idea to open a cinnamon roll bakery came to him. Camden pitched the concept to Suh, whose feedback was straightforward: “If you were to apply the Blue Star lens,” he told Camden, “I think you’ll really have something.” So, in the summer of 2022, Kinnamons opened in the Pearl District with flavors like passionfruit chocolate and key lime pie, raspberry pistachio and maple bacon. Suh believes the bakery has the potential to become a national chain. “He was having conversations with the ex-CEO of Cinnabon,” Camden says.
“It might be a two-year trudge,” Suh told Camden before they opened, and he was right, according to Camden. After a busy summer, the bakery’s business slowed. Still, the cinnamon roll brand opened a second location at the Moda, and the two are currently contemplating the brand’s future. Suh has casually floated the idea of locations not only in other U.S. cities, but in different corners of the world.
That’s the thing about Suh, in Camden’s perspective: He’s passionate about food, but more than anything, he’s strategic. He’s always thinking about the next play, what makes the most sense. His understanding of real estate has been a driving force in his role as a restaurateur, but also as a developer. “I think they work hand-in-hand, real estate and restaurant development,” Suh says. “Having great quality tenants, being able to understand these folks work hard, being able to provide jobs.”
Baes opening on Alberta was important for Suh — not just as a developer, but also as a Portlander. He has watched that neighborhood grow and change over the last few years, and has overseen the development of multiple buildings in the area. His most recent, called Alberta Alley, is home to the most recent Baes. For Suh, investing in Alberta — with his buildings and his restaurant brands — means he gets to help build the Portland he wanted to experience as a kid.
“When I was growing up on Prescott, nobody at night would walk up and down Alberta,” he recalls. “It didn’t really feel safe to walk down that street. To be a part of that change, being able to help bring people to that beautiful art district, that’s important to me.”