Other Portland Chefs Want to Make Food Into Art. Micah Camden Makes Money.

Micah Camden, a high school dropout turned felon turned makeup artist turned chef, has built an empire on burgers, pizzas, doughnuts and ketchup.

It's a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and Micah Camden, Portland's most successful restaurateur, is talking smack about the competition.

Specifically, Burgerville.

"Their prices are outrageous," he says. "They charge as much as they're charging because no one was competing with them on a local level."

Wearing black shorts, a gray T-shirt and running shoes, Camden, 40, is picking at a pile of fries at a picnic table outside his own drive-thru burger joint, Super Deluxe. If part of the idea of this place was to put a scare into the Northwest's pre-eminent fast-food franchise, so far, he's doing a good job.

Since the restaurant opened in July, in the shell of a former TacoTime on Southeast Powell Boulevard, a line of cars has stretched around the building. A second location is planned for Beaverton in 2019. And at 1 pm today, he's supposed to meet a woman from Texas who wants to put Super Deluxe into airports.

Such expansion is nothing new for Camden. It's what he does.

He has opened so many restaurants in Portland since his arrival in the city in 2005, it's a little hard to keep straight which ones are actually his. Right now, in addition to Super Deluxe, he is co-owner of Blue Star Donuts, Sweet Heart Pizza and Boxer Ramen. In November, Camden will try something completely different—health food: a dairy-free, chickpea-based ice cream shop in the Pearl called Little Bean.

In the past, Camden owned Little Big Burger, which he sold in 2015 for $6.1 million to the company that owns Hooters. He had Son of a Biscuit (closed; the concept didn't work), Hop Dog (closed; people aren't into hot dogs), Fats (closed; that's another story) and Boxer Sushi (closed; his chef moved away). He once owned all or a piece of a number of fine-dining restaurants like Yakuza, DOC and Beast, all of which are still open. But he left that kind of food behind long ago.

In one of the great food cities in America, Camden, a high school dropout turned felon turned makeup artist turned chef, has built an empire on burgers, pizzas, doughnuts and ketchup. He calls the food that's made him money "fast casual." Some might also call it junk food.

However you want to classify it, Camden's food is popular, with critics as well as the public. The New York Times once called Little Big Burger "the best meat puck in town." Forbes has likened the process of choosing a doughnut at Blue Star to "choosing which child is your favorite." Of Super Deluxe, Food & Wine magazine wrote that Camden "doesn't so much reinvent the burger as he does take a look at the burgers from In-N-Out, stroke his chin thoughtfully and then set about making them even better."

"He has a great eye for giving people what they want," says Kurt Huffman, owner of restaurant management company ChefStable. "And he has a palate that is really, really good at knowing what people want. And he's unafraid to take risks. He's had huge successes and huge failures, and he just keeps going."

Camden's career hasn't been without controversy. He's been sued more than once, by employees, competitors and former partners. On a personal level, he's developed a reputation for bluntness that chafes against Portland's passive-aggressive nature. In a town that frowns upon big egos, Camden shows off—he drives a black Mercedes and built a home on the South Waterfront, where he lives with his girlfriend and two fluffy Havanese dogs, Kevin and Frankie.

Camden's restaurants, too, have become a point of debate, less for the food than for what they represent. When a Blue Star or a Little Big Burger drops into a neighborhood, it's a sign something's shifting there. He's one of the people who's changed Portland into the city it is today—and that, perhaps, is what makes Camden most controversial.

Inadvertently or not, Camden can be considered one of the architects of New Portland. But Camden is unapologetic about his success. Because the way he sees it, none of it was supposed to happen for someone like him.

Earlier in the day, Camden is crisscrossing the eastside on the way to his commissary kitchen.

Clean-shaven, with thick, well-manicured hair and sleeves of tattoos, Camden walks fast and talks fast. It's not yet noon, and he's already had four cups of coffee. He says he'll have two more.

"I came from a lifestyle of volume," he says. "I ate McDonald's. A lot of my peers in the restaurant industry had a more romantic approach. We never cooked in my grandma's kitchen. We didn't make food out of a garden."

If other chefs' food is a reflection of their love affair with cooking, Camden's is a better version of what he ate as a kid. He says if he ever writes a memoir, the title will be something like Government Cheese: The Micah Camden Story.

He was 7 years old when his family—his parents and 11 siblings—moved from Gary, Ind., to Salt Lake City. Camden, who grew up Pentecostal, recalls selling silk roses made by his mother door to-door. His father, a Marine, worked as a maintenance man for their church. Camden often tells a story about asking his dad for a couple of bucks.

"He said, 'Don't ever ask me for a couple of dollars, come ask me what you can do for a couple of dollars,'" he says. "Something clicked."

Not long after, Camden ordered some key chains from a catalog and resold them as he was selling his mom's flowers. He used the money to buy pens, and sold those, too.

"I've been self-employed since I was like 10," he says. In the summers, he washed cars, cleaned gutters, mowed lawns. "I literally set up recurring contracts."

By ninth grade, Camden had a pager, and most teachers allowed him to answer it while he was in class.

When one refused, he walked out of class and never came back—defiant that school was a waste of his time, and he that could make money without it.

"I'm either a ninth-grade graduate or a 10th-grade dropout," he says.

When he was 15, he moved to Los Angeles, becoming a makeup artist ("I had a bunch of sisters") and enrolled at Vidal Sassoon. He didn't need Sassoon, it turned out: He was soon working for big-name brands and styling for photo shoots.

He bounced back home at 18, by then the father of an infant son. And when he was 22, he landed in prison.

He had a friend who worked at Nordstrom. They'd buy items using his friend's employee discount and then return them to another Nordstrom for a full refund. It's called theft by deception, and it's a felony.

"When you're 18 years old, you don't care," he says.

He got slapped with two counts, plus one more for forgery.

He spent five and a half months in Utah State Prison for his crimes, where he shared a cell with a "67-year-old cellmate with chronic gas."

After prison, he moved to San Francisco, tended bar, moved to Hawaii, bartended there, too. And then he came to Portland.

Morgan Brownlow first met Camden in 2005, when he walked into his kitchen and asked for a job.

"He had bar experience. And we didn't need a bartender," says Brownlow, then founding chef at Portland fine-dining institution Clarklewis. "And I knew at that point in time, I didn't need a cook."

Brownlow didn't hire him. In fact, as Camden recalls, Brownlow told him to "get the hell out of my kitchen."

Brownlow is now a partner in Little Bean, working for Camden to refine and develop recipes.

Asked why Camden ruffles people's feathers, Brownlow says Camden "just does his own thing. He's very focused and he makes it happen."

Other peers put it differently.

"Micah has a pretty hyperbolic personality that can be polarizing and controversial," says Katie Poppe, Camden's ex-wife, co-owner of Blue Star Donuts and partner in Little Big Burger. "I certainly don't condone most of his opinions."

Camden wouldn't disagree. "I'm not afraid to stick my foot in my mouth," he says. "I'm not afraid to be me."

Being himself has occasionally gotten Camden in trouble. When Blue Star first opened, he told Portland Monthly he was inspired to start a doughnut shop because of how much he disliked Voodoo.

"Katie was like, 'You can't talk about them any more,'" Camden says. "But I'm not a shock jock. I just talk."

His approach to entrepreneurship, in general, is at odds with the city's usual way of doing things.

"I think he doesn't give a shit about authenticity or any of these hang-ups that a lot of us have," Huffman says. "Everybody's trying to do stuff that feels sincere or something in a way that you don't want to do things that feel calculated or douchey. And Micah's like, 'I want to make money!'"

Matt Brown, co-owner of Bunk Sandwiches, agrees that part of Camden's success is his ability to hang up his chef clothes and to approach food without culinary-school pretension.

"When you're wearing the whites, you're going for a niche part of the pie," Brown says. "When you're wearing that hat, you want to get written up in Bon Appétit and be celebrated for providing something wonderful for their market. Fast casual means taking yourself out of the equation and thinking, 'What does everyone else in town want?' He approaches that pretty well."

After getting rejected by Clarklewis in 2005, Camden got a job as a dishwasher at P.F. Chang's. In months, he worked his way up through all the prep-cook positions. He landed a gig at Pearl District wine bar 750 mL, then the now-closed tapas bar Cobras & Matadors. That's where he met Dayna McErlean—she initially thought he was the owner.

Soon, she was showing him a building she'd been renovating at Northeast 30th Avenue and Killingsworth Street, which was just a raw space at the time. She recalls him looking around and proposing an izakaya, a Japanese pub. They would call it Yakuza.

"He ran the restaurant for the first year," McErlean says. "He was living in my little cabin-shack in the backyard and was working for nothing."

Yakuza "put me on the map" when it opened in 2006, Camden says. They opened more restaurants in that neighborhood, including Italian dinner spot DOC in 2008 and Beast in 2007, which he ran with his then-girlfriend, chef Naomi Pomeroy. (Pomeroy declined to comment for this story.)

But while those first three restaurants helped establish him in the Portland food scene, Camden says they didn't reflect who he really was, or what he really wanted to achieve. Those fine-dining places were doing well critically, but they weren't making him rich.

"My first restaurants were higher end, but it was fame versus fortune," he says. "That's when I came up with Little Big Burger."

Predicting that "value" would be the next big thing in Portland food, Camden and Poppe opened the first Little Big Burger location in the Pearl in 2010, selling burgers just a bit bigger than a slider and fries splashed with truffle oil at still-affordable prices. The buzz was immediate, but observers were skeptical.

"Overall, Camden is playing it a little too safe right now," wrote Portland Monthly food critic Karen Brooks at the time. "To jump to the burger big leagues, he needs something weirdly delicious and addictive. And to succeed on any level, consistency will be key."

But success ended up coming swiftly. Little Big Burger quickly expanded across the city, from the Pearl to Northeast Alberta and Southeast Division streets—eight locations in all.

Two years later came Blue Star, ushering in the "fancy doughnut" trend. There are now seven locations in Portland, and three in Los Angeles. (A location in Tokyo has since shuttered.) Boxer Ramen followed in 2013, opening four locations, with a fifth coming to Sellwood soon. And then, in 2015, Camden sold Little Big Burger to North Carolina's Chanticleer Holdings. There are now locations up and down the West Coast and as far east and south as North Carolina and Texas.

"He really kind of set the tone for the Portland mini-chains," McErlean says. "With the products and businesses he's created in L.A. and Japan, he took things to another level."

But not everyone sees what Camden has done so positively.

Some view his restaurants—uniformly sleek, bright and self-consciously Instagrammable—as contributing to the increasing homogenization of Portland's cityscape.

"I feel like he's an indicator species of gentrification," says food writer Heather Arndt Anderson. "When he rolls in, it's like, 'There goes the neighborhood.' From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it's removing anything that made us interesting or unique."

But there are others in the local restaurant industry who believe the city should take pride in what Camden has accomplished.

Mike Thelin, co-founder of Feast, says Camden has left an indelible mark on Portland's food scene, and though he owns more restaurants than anyone in the city, he never compromises his vision.

"He's not shitting out a thousand locations in every town in America." he says. "We should all be standing up and applauding."

For his part, Camden rejects the idea that his restaurants are somehow paving over the character of Portland, or that he's making food for invading tourists.

"Go to Boxer Ramen on Alberta and tell me the people there are somehow different than anyone else in that neighborhood," he says, adding, "The hardest thing about being successful is finding people who'll be happy for you."

At his eastside commissary, Camden blows by a rack of spices, making a beeline for a bakery rack.

"Aw! You made a tiny galette!" he exclaims to Brownlow and Anthony Cafiero, who are perfecting chickpea-based creations for Little Bean, slated to open in just a couple of weeks.

Camden grabs a sharp knife and snaps one of the tiny pastries. It's filled with apples and huckleberries. No gluten in sight.

"That galette's going to be a thing," he says before returning to the cart again. He pulls off a black disc.

"This is a black olive Oreo," he says.

Jesus, that sounds terrible, I think to myself.

It has a dark, brooding sort of chocolate taste. Then I get it, right at the end: a salty note of olives. Camden smiles. That's exactly the reaction he wants—and, weirdly, it really is delicious.

Camden says he used to be the kind of guy to slam down a pint of ice cream in front of the TV, even if it gave him heartburn, or "annihilate a whole box of cereal" in one sitting.

A year ago, he started trying to eat healthier. He didn't really know what to cook, though. He made a lot of tofu, "but I didn't like that I was consuming all that soy," he says.

So Camden did what he's often done, when he overhauled a bad drive-thru into a better one, for instance, or began treating doughnuts like craft cocktails—he began obsessing over a way to fix tofu.

This, however, was an entirely different challenge.

"I've sort of rested on my own laurels in that I know what people like—with fats and sweets," Camden says.

His quest led him to experiment with the chickpea—the little bean alluded to in his new restaurant's name—which he says is similar to the soybean. He wondered if he could make chickpea tofu. In so doing, he ended up with all this chickpea byproduct, stuff that worked really well as an egg substitute in baked goods.

The wheels were turning. He went to Whole Foods in the Pearl District and bought every dairy-free ice cream the store had. He brought them home and laid them out on his kitchen counter. Could he make chickpea ice cream?

"I said, 'I only need to be a little bit better than the best one of these,'" he says.

Camden grabs a handful of plastic spoons, hunches over an ice cream cooler and starts doling out huge spoonfuls of the chickpea ice cream his team has spent so much time perfecting: Cookies and Cream, Chai Cherry, Strawberry Sichuan, Mint Matcha, Coffee and Chocolate. He says some of these recipes have gone through 50 iterations to get where they are now.

Camden says Little Bean will be a place for people like him, who grew up eating the foods their families could afford, but who are getting older and need to make some changes in their diet.  The fact that it will be vegan is just an added benefit.

"We were never targeting vegans. To someone like me, [the word 'vegan'] scares me off," he says. "It took 20 years for me to fully appreciate steamed broccoli."

Camden has high aspirations for Little Bean. He has hopes the chickpea milk and ice cream he's worked so hard on will one day line the aisles of grocery stores across America. And he's unabashed in his confidence that it will make him a lot of money.

But after so much success in Portland, there's a different undercurrent driving him now. He thinks his businesses could help raise the bar on what Americans eat.

Where Super Deluxe is making fast food a little tastier and a little less shitty for you, Little Bean is all about upping the quality of the dairy-free market. And if vegan ice cream tastes good, maybe more people will eat that instead of the bad stuff.

And then, maybe Camden isn't just a guy with a lot of money and a big ego. Maybe he's someone who is using his skills to make the world just a little better.

"I think it could do some good," he says.

It's after 1:30 pm, and the woman representing the airport company hasn't shown up at Super Deluxe yet. Camden scrolls through his phone—he has an email saying she's been waiting inside.

He rushes in and gets her, brings her back to the picnic table where we've been sitting. He apologizes. She gives him a spiel about getting Super Deluxes into airports far from Portland— including Sea-Tac, LAX and Houston, as well as PDX—so Camden and his partners won't have to worry about them on a day-to-day basis.

"It will absolutely kill it at the airport," Camden says.

She nods back. "Oh, I have no doubt."

They shake hands, and their meeting, which she has flown across several states to attend, is over.

We're walking back to Camden's car. Did he just make a handshake deal to open a bunch of new restaurants in less than five minutes?

Camden just nods.