When Elephants Fly
Over nearly four decades, Elephants Deli has grown beyond a specialty deli to a culinary bazaar that serves as a launching pad for innovators.
STORY BY KERRY NEWBERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF ELEPHANTS DELI
Maybe you’ve noticed? For many companies, the way they do business is changing. It’s not just about the bottom line; people are pursuing business as a force for making a difference and for making a profit. Leading this charge is B Lab, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”
When Portland’s first specialty food market opened back in 1979, bell-bottoms and Bee Gees songs ruled the city streets. There were no specialty cheese shops, no artisan baguettes — no local chocolatiers or coffee roasters to be found. “Back then, it was very home-spun,” says Elephants Deli co-owner and CEO Anne Weaver. “Everyone in the food community knew each other.”
Weaver remembers chef and forager Jack Czarnecki arriving at the back door with just-harvested Oregon truffles and chanterelle. Local farmers brought boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables to her husband and executive chef, Scott Weaver, to whip up daily specials. At that time, Anne was curating the city’s first cheese counter, with tomes of Roquefort and Parmigano-Reggiano air-freighted weekly from France and Italy.
In fact, frequent travels to Europe by founder Elaine Tanzer first sparked the idea for Portland’s pioneering gourmet food business. “I lived in Italy for a year and was taken by the food culture, the variety of cheeses, and pasta, and wine — it was fabulous,” says Elaine. Add in trips to France and a few summers in Manhattan and meeting Giorgio DeLuca (of Dean & DeLuca) and Elaine had a vision for Portland. “I wanted a store that would bring people together, a place where customers could live from,” she says. She dreamed of a place that would inspire good eating and instill a celebration of food.
Today, Elephants Deli is a Portland institution, serving about 300,000 customers annually. Chef Weaver and crew have over 4,000 recipes in their collection spanning 38 years. Some are store classics (like the tomato orange soup, created in 1984), while others were sparked by winemaker dinners and special events.
The first destination-deli that Elaine opened on Northwest 22nd, now includes two additional anchor locations in downtown and Southeast Portland, plus five “Flying Elephants” sprinkled across the city, which are mini-versions designed for food-on-the-go.
“People always ask me: What is Elephants?” says food and beverage director Nick Doughty. “And my answer is yes.” Yes, it is a restaurant and a catering company. Yes, it is a café and a specialty food store. Wine corner, coffee shop, yes. Pizza parlor? Yes. “The answer is yes, we are all these things. We rarely say no because we always want to be able to make people’s dreams come true.”
The Third Place
For Portlanders, Elephants Deli offers latte to kick-start the day, a lunch tradition, or a weeknight dinner spot. Regulars flock to the deli for classics like beef brisket and bistro steak au poivre. Or for comfort fare like mac & cheese — Elephants sold 27,572 pounds of it this year, a statistic that doesn’t include their “grown-up” version studded with applewood smoked bacon and caramelized onions.
“We now have three generations of families who are customers, which is really unique,” says Anne. One of her greatest markers of success is knowing that each deli provides a hub for family and community. It’s an ethos the company has embraced since opening.
Anne recalls winter blizzards over the past few decades and the decision to stay open, even if it meant running the deli by flashlight. “Because we are built into neighborhoods, we felt like it was part of our service to the community.”
At the anchor locations, where there’s ample seating, a weekday crowd might include a local knitting club snacking on macaroons, a book club for entrepreneurs, or a team of tech developers brainstorming over lunch. “When it’s busy I like to look out and see who is at what I call the big table at our Northwest 22nd location,” says Nick, “and it’s often this great cross-section of Portland.”
The tight-knit network extends to the 350-plus staff that Elephants Deli employs. “We have many people who have met while working at Elephants and then gotten married,” says Nick, who has officiated five different employee weddings. “I call it l’amour in the deli.”
Then there’s the customers who first met at the deli, and later married. As part of a recent social media campaign where customers use the hashtag #FreeLunchFriday to nominate someone they would like to take to lunch, a husband mentioned his wife because they had their first date at Elephants twenty years ago.
“We are that third place,” says Nick, referencing the concept pioneered by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. Oldenburg proposes that in community building, there are three places: the “first place” is home; the “second place” is work; and the “third place” is a public locale for informal gathering and socializing.
“At Elephants, we want people to feel like this is an extension of their kitchen,” says Nick — a sentiment that comes to fruition daily, when customers swing by for ingredients to feed impromptu dinner guests, or parents coordinate a shipment of the top-selling tomato orange soup to homesick kids away at college.
Community of Food Entrepreneurs
Over nearly four decades, Elephants has grown beyond a specialty deli to culinary bazaar, catering not only to eaters, but partnering with local food entrepreneurs.
When you read about the latest line of organic bitters or small-batch s’mores kits, or are seeking the upstart salami or house made salmon mousse, chances are you’ll find it among the hundreds of edibles stocked at the delis.
At the Northwest 22nd location, among the cheese, wine, sea salts, chocolate, and other culinary items (pickles, jams, pasta, etc.), there are over 300 different specialty products at any given time. “We are always looking for something new,” says Nick. “I think our niche is that we are big enough to be able to move really cool things as far as volume, but also small enough to be nimble and lithe and try something that’s a little offbeat.”
The deli is the only place currently selling locally made Rallenti pasta, a bronze-die extruded and slow-dried pasta made with organically grown durum wheat. Some of Elephants’ newest local products include European-style charcuterie from small-batch producer The Beautiful Pig and confections from The Chocolate Maker’s Studio, including their award-winning Fennel Pollen Caramel bar.
“There’s so much creativity in the local food community, and we want to be part of that by providing a place for people to sell their new products,” says Nick. “I think that’s a big part of who we are in the food community. We are a launching pad for innovators.”
B Corps Community
As part of their B Corps initiatives, Elephants Deli has set a long-term goal of zero food waste for each location. At the end of the night, each deli donates approximately 95% of their fresh food items. The company further supports partner organizations by participating in fundraising efforts, from donating auction items and space for events to providing discounted catering. The catering department, alone, partners with about 30 organizations, primarily shelters. If food is left after an event, the staff drops it at one of the shelters on the list.
“We look at the agencies and organizations located nearest to each store to set up partnerships,” says Weaver. The NW 22nd location has had longstanding connections with Lift Urban and Central City Concern while the Fox Tower deli works with Urban Gleaners, REACH Community Development and the nearby Admiral Apartments.
The catering department alone partners with around 30 different organizations, primarily shelters. If food is left after an event, the staff drops it at one of the shelters on the list. For Anne, the effort is second nature. Forging collaborations and the commitment to giving back started in 1979, when Elephants first opened. Weaver says she can’t imagine running a business any other way. “We want that sense of community to resonate all the way through.”
Kerry Newberry is a freelance writer based in Portland, where she chases stories about people and culture through the lens of food and wine. She contributes regularly to local and national magazines. Read more of her work at kerrynewberry.com.