By Charlotte Aguilar
In a culture where every diner is a potential “foodie” whose online reviews can be viewed by thousands and where chefs are culinary institute-trained celebrities, Ken Bridge is an anomaly. He’s more Babu Bhatt than Bobby Flay, more entrepreneur than gourmet. And more accomplished than most, in an industry where the failure rate is 50 percent.
Arguably the most successful restaurateur in Leader communities, the self-taught Bridge has built a popular and enigmatically complex collection of eateries – pizza joints, a modern diner, a neighborhood draught house and a pan-Asian eatery – becoming something of an enigma himself.
“I like to keep people guessing,” he smiles.
In just six short years, Bridge’s restaurants – Dragon Bowl, four Pink’s Pizzas, Lola’s and Shepherd Park Draught House – have become emblematic of the rebirth of the Heights, where he has four locations, and communities to the north, such as Oak Forest (“the new Heights,” he says) and Shepherd Park, where there are two of Bridge’s “Delicious Concepts,” his company’s moniker. He has no real office, traveling between the restaurants, “very hands on” in the kitchens and the front of the house.
“If you’re sitting in an office, you’re not listening to your customers,” Bridge said. “I’m all about my customers, whether they like the food, the service, whether we’re providing what they’re looking for.” That kind of attention wasn’t always evident in the area’s offerings, he said.
“For years, the people in the Heights and these other areas were very limited in our choices, very underserved,” Bridge said. He credits Gary Mosley, founder of the three “Creek” eateries – Onion, Dry and Cedar Creek – with “proving this is a place where fast casual restaurant choices can thrive.” The payoff from both Mosley’s and Bridge’s success? Just in the past year, the Greater Heights and areas north of 610 have seen a steady flow of fresh eateries, some of them new outposts of successful concepts from elsewhere in Houston.
Bridge dove into the business six years ago with the Dragon Bowl on 11th Street. He had discovered the germ of an interest in cooking and serving the public when his parents ran a “Denny’s-style” coffee shop in Indianapolis, where he did a bit of everything when he was a teen.
About a decade ago, he took a chance on a long-abandoned pizza stand in the corner of a gas station-convenience mart in Katy. It failed, he said, but gave him valuable experience in managing a business, serving the public – and in concocting the self-devised recipes that would later become the basis for Pink’s, which has now grown to three locations in Leader communities and one in the West University area.
Lola’s was the third concept he brought to life, followed a year ago by the Shepherd Park Draught House, which he was able to locate fortuitously next to a Pink’s on the corner of Shepherd and 34th Street.
Almost every recipe – whether it be pizzas, chicken fried steak, kung pao chicken or shepherd’s pie – comes from Bridge’s creativity. (He encourages staff to bring ideas, too, and some have found their way onto menus.) Still, he says, “I am a businessman before I am a chef.” He calls himself “a classic case study in entrepreneurship: Set unattainable goals, be completely obsessed 24 hours a day seven days a week, and if by some stroke of genius you succeed, keep going even faster.” He hints at expansion plans and new concepts with a twinkle in his eye.
As for that Babu Bhatt reference? Babu was the restaurateur on Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom who proclaimed Seinfeld a “very, very bad man” for talking him into focusing on his native cuisine instead of the vast menu of his “Dream Cafe,” leading to failure. An online food blogger, reviewing Ken Bridge, noticed a similarity in his variety of dishes and concepts.
“That’s me,” laughed Bridge. “If I stop exploring new ideas and don’t trust my own taste, then I should get out of this business.”
Bridge talks of dreams, too. He evokes the names of restaurateurs Mosley and Tilman Fertitta as role models and Steve Jobs as an inspiration. “Jobs said if you look around you at any level and open your eyes, everything we see today started as someone’s dream.”