Ken Carson of Nexus Brewery and Restaurant
An exclusive eskca interview with Ken Carson (founder and owner) of Nexus Brewery and Restaurant, which was honored in our:
Tell us your origin story. How did you come to be involved with Nexus Brewery and Restaurant?
I formed the brewery after a 35 year career in banking. Prior to working in Nexus Brewery, I had no experience in food service other than working for A&W in high school as a fountain worker when I was 15.
I began as a Federal Bank examiner with the Comptroller of the Currency. I was later appointed the State’s Banking Commissioner by Governors Caruthers and King, and held that position for seven years. I then went on the become Bank President of the Bank of Belen, aka MyBank of Belen, for approximately 13 years, leading the bank from its first 9 months in business and growing it from $7 million in assets to $150 million with 5 branches. I left the bank and took a position with 1st Community Bank as Senior Vice President, but working with Belen and Los Lunas business people inspired me to want my own business, so I took my savings and started Nexus Brewery in 2011.
I started by hiring consultants who were brewing and restaurant/bar experts. I used the SBA website to build a business plan and Score to get advice from retired volunteers. The goal was to open a brewery that was unique at the time and would have exceptional beer and some good food. In Albuquerque at the time, there were only 5 breweries in the area, and only one had what I would consider “good food”.
We started with a very small menu. I had an idea that soul food would be a good idea in Albuquerque by noticing that the most successful soul food restaurants had an item called “chicken and waffles” that I had never heard of. I then went to a famous restaurant in Phoenix called LoLo’s, saw the crowd of happy customers, tried chicken and waffles, and said “this is it”. I, along with a small staff, came up with recipes and created a menu with about 8 items, including a frito pie.
Another one of the things I insisted on was including New Mexican favorites on the menu. Something I noticed as a banker with the success of restaurants in the Albuquerque area is that you had to have red and green chile to succeed. Due to my long family history in Albuquerque (my dad was brought to NM in 1929), I decided to combine my family’s traditional southern food with the local New Mexican food to create what I coined as New Mexican Soul food.
Our menu was developed solely by customers and team members – no chef was ever involved. Each year, I would look at ways to improve each item on the menu, with the goal to make every single one taste exceptional. For example, I used clues from my wife’s father’s Louisiana heritage and a trip to New Orleans to create gumbo, red beans and rice, and fried chicken to improve Nexus’ New Mexican Soul food offerings,
To my surprise, after opening, people started ordering more food. At first, the ratio of food sales to beer was 20% to 80%. Within 6 months, that ratio had moved to 40% food to 60% food. With a 60/40 split by year one, I had to finally admit that I had created a restaurant after adding desserts and the menu had grown to about 20 items. A restaurant was one of the last business I wanted to create based on my experience as a banker – bankers do not like to finance them due to risk and high failure rate.
During the menu development, I also hired brewers who excelled in what they do and along the way, every brewer who worked for me won a World Beer Cup award in addition to Great American Beer Festival national awards. Currently, Nexus has 5 world beer awards for its Honey Chamile, Imperial Cream, and Imperial Scottish Ale. I allowed my brewers to work on their own, only giving them simple ideas of styles of beer I liked, so the credit for the awards goes to the three of them, including our current brewer Randy King, who recently won an award in 2022.
In 2019, I opened Nexus Blue Smokehouse. I would have opened with BBQ on day one because of my passion for making smoked meat, but because of the challenges I saw as a banker, I felt it was too risky. I purchased a building in the historically Black area of town in South Broadway. My family originated out of this neighborhood and I to elementary school just up the street. The building was previously owned by the Navajo Elks fraternal organization. This was an African American fraternal organization that built the night club back in the 60’s, a place where the African American community could go to dance and socialize as they were not always welcome in clubs throughout Albuquerque. It was in some ways one of the last anchors, along with various predominately Black churches, remaining in the neighborhood. The building has been completely remodeled and currently stands as one of the first large new businesses to open in that community in more than 30 years.
What were the biggest hurdles you encountered in your journey?
Along the journey, we have been really lucky to have distinguished ourselves as a food centric brewery, where our food is as good as at any restaurant. It has taken time to get into the mainstream as a restaurant as breweries and even bars are not know for having good food. We have even seen issues where people did not frequent our restaurant because customers would say “I do not drink beer so I have not tried your place”. That has turned around in the last 2 to 3 years, and people no longer see us as just a brewery.
What does the future hold for you and Nexus?
Our goal is to continue to improve and refine both restaurants. We currently are recognized as having the best fried chicken in Albuquerque and, many times, the best in the Southwest. The goal going forward is to improve the taste and quality of the chicken even more. And the overall goal for the Smokehouse is to become the best BBQ in NM, offering not only BBQ, but other smoked meats as well.
What are your thoughts on the food scene in Albuquerque?
We are seeing new restaurants enter the market with some diverse types of food. Unfortunately, with the challenge of hiring good team members, I see that as the biggest challenge faced in any business I have been in, including banking. I believe we need to shrink and outsource the things that we can. I do not know how at this point, but we are looking at our partners and technology to help. 4 years ago, before the pandemic, we operated with 80 employees between two locations. Today, we have only 55 and we are having a really hard time increasing above that. Our costs are out of alignment due to inflation. We’ve increased prices one time since we came out of the pandemic. We need to increase prices again, which we are reluctant to do. We need to become more efficient, but at the same time, provide the level of service customers expect all while customers are becoming even more demanding.
What’s your best advice for aspiring restaurateurs?
Distinguish your product. It is not enough to have a restaurant that offers fried chicken – you can get fried chicken anywhere. You have to strive to be the best and be unique, and listen to customers and team members. I used to joke that we are the only soul food brewery in the universe. Today, with the addition of many Black brewers opening breweries across the country, that is probably not true, but in NM, we are good. All of this was marketing 101 from a person who was not from the industry.
Additionally, make sure you have a Plan A, B and C. I recall that at the end of the first year, I was on my last life line. My father was Plan A to help if we ran out of money the first year, my brother Michael was Plan B, and my retirement was Plan C. I always jokes that after 2 years, we were on Plan E and definitely had to scramble to survive, but things did turn around in year 3, and ultimately it all worked out about year 4 when Guy Fieri with Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives came to visit. Today, we still have people coming in to check us out from an episode that is 7 or 8 years old.
Our readers love recommendations! What’s your favorite item at Nexus?
I love our fried catfish, and our tarter sauce is so different than most that I can just eat that by itself. Additionally, our New Mexican hot chicken is so good. We decided to get into the Nashville hot chicken market, but we did not want to follow Nashville. NM has its own chile, and we wanted to create a Nashville hot chicken that would be better than Nashville. My daughter Keyanna went into the kitchen with a couple recipes to create a NM hot chicken from NM red chile and cayenne, but to improve the taste, we added the floral flavor of Habanero to make something very unique. I still need to go to Nashville to try the famous hot chicken, but we think they use sugar in theirs, which is inconsistent with NM style red chile, so at this point, we think we have them beat.