“One lady used to call it the better-than-sex cake.”
Joel Baldazo, co-owner of The Kitchen Door, is in the middle of talking about the restaurant’s infamous angel food cake – covered with cream cheese icing and topped with melted chocolate and pecans – when his partner of five years, Christopher Breed, recalls that customer’s nickname for the delectable dessert. “Gourmet magazine asked for the recipe a few years ago and we declined,” Baldazo says.
Business is brisk these days at The Kitchen Door. The original location on Far West remains where it first began 34 years ago. Meanwhile, Breed and Baldazo recently moved the second location from Lake Austin Boulevard to the heart of downtown on W. Sixth Street. The new shop – surprisingly light-filled and inviting despite its location in the basement of the Chase Tower – is dressed all in blue and white, right down to the deli’s signature chandeliers. Baldazo brought two decades of interior design experience with him when he moved to Austin more than six years ago, a background evident in the modern ambiance of the new shop, which includes unique touches like a wall-mounted stainless steel cow’s head fondly dubbed “steel magnolia.”
After Baldazo met and fell in love with Breed in Austin, the couple eventually decided to buy The Kitchen Door from Breed’s family. Breed had grown up in the family business and spent some time following college working in Washington D.C. before the tug of home got the better of him. There’s no question that he loves what he does, and loves who he gets to do it with.
“So, we work together, live together and travel together,” Breed says of he and his partner.
“And we’re still in love,” Baldazo adds.
Baldazo runs the front of the house operations, overseeing sales, marketing and customer service. Throughout our conversation, diners make a point of saying hello to him on their way in or out of the shop. Breed handles back of the house systems – and he knows his way around the kitchen, too, if one of their bakers can’t make it into work. The company employs 23 people – seven of whom have been with The Kitchen Door for 10 years. Baldazo and Breed do their best to accommodate their employees’ college schedules and other commitments.
What’s the secret to this couple’s success? Despite how intertwined their lives are, both men value their time apart. Baldazo is very active with the Human Rights Campaign’s Austin chapter – and he sits on the national organization’s board of governors. In those roles he’s responsible for both fund-raising and outreach efforts here in Austin as well as being a liaison between Austin and the national organization.
“My way of relaxing is to be out and about, attending events and doing things,” Baldazo says, noting that they still have dinner together each day – waiting for each other to be in the same place. “Chris’s way of relaxing is to be at the ranch working on tech stuff.” For Breed, tech stuff includes things like modernizing and rewiring the lights in the house.
They drive to their 350-acre ranch out in Dripping Springs for rest and rejuvenation. “We have cattle, horses, tons of wild turkey, squirrels and deer,” Baldazo says.
The Kitchen Door bolsters its bonafides by supporting local businesses as much as possible. “Our produce and our chicken are bought from two local companies,” says Baldazo, noting that the furniture in the Chase Tower location comes from Four Hands. “That’s what Austin is about and that’s what’s kept us in business all these years: we’re still one of the few locally-owned delis.”
Their chicken salad, one of Baldazo’s favorites, is their most famous, popular offering. Made entirely of light breast meat, along with grapes, celery, spices and mayonnaise, the salad also contains a secret ingredient. “Some people try to guess what’s in the chicken salad, but nobody knows and we don’t tell,” Baldazo says, adding that they go through 480 pounds of chicken breast meat per week. For his part, Breed is a sweets guy and loves the shop’s cinnamon rolls – warm and sweet, but not saccharine. All of The Kitchen Door’s desserts and baked goods are baked fresh daily at the Far West location.
Aside from their work with HRC – they’ve hosted the gay civil rights organization’s holiday parties – the shop also caters events for Out Youth, Dell Inc. and the University of Texas School of Law. Their new location, in a bustling downtown building with 1,200 workers, is pulling in customers, new and old. Sitting with Baldazo and Breed, sampling their toasted chicken salad sandwich and listening to them complete each other’s thoughts as standards by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald waft over the sound system – the secret to their success is clear. The couple’s commitment to quality, responsiveness to their customers’ needs and their embrace of Austin in all its diversity is what drives this business.
A new George Sugarman sculpture is being installed in the courtyard that’s adjacent to the new deli and they’re catering the reception for the building’s tenants. The pair would also like to get their goods into various retail markets in Austin, and eventually they’ll remodel the Far West location to look like the new one.
“In Austin, there are a lot of people who are willing to either help you or direct you, and it is cheaper here to do certain things,” Baldazo says. “I think people are surprised that so many of our brothers and sisters own many of the places where they eat, shop, drink and hang out. We try to support that. I think it’s fabulous!”