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When life takes an unexpected turn, where do you go from there? A former New Mexico banker chose to follow a different path by building his own brand in an arena where he had no previous experience.
“I wanted to see if I could create a business that would be successful based primarily on my ideas and goals. A brewery came to mind because of my interests in beers,” says Ken Carson, owner of Nexus Brewery & Restaurant and Nexus Brewery & Smokehouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Carson started thinking he would open a brewery serving a few simple snacks. That changed as he made plans to serve beer and food not found at other restaurants in his native city. “Everything I did was textbook marketing, differentiate yourself, make yourself different, and it worked,” says the restaurateur.
New Mexico Soul Food
The new entrepreneur’s first choice for Nexus Brewery & Restaurant was to focus on the dark, malty craft beers he likes best. Other breweries already offered popular IPAs that contain more hops. “It worked out because one of the first medals we won was for Imperial Cream. The Imperial Cream that we have is a high alcohol, very malty beer,” adds Carson.
The restaurateur also selected the food he would serve based on his preferred taste. He grew up eating soul food and New Mexico’s specialties. The heritage and cooking of his wife inspired the menu selections. “It was based on creating what I call New Mexican soul food,” explains Carson. “And the reason why I did New Mexican soul food is because of my wife, Teresa. Her dad is from Louisiana, and he is Black. Her mom is Spanish, and she’s from New Mexico.”
Nexus Brewery & Restaurant attracts foodies who crave soul food and New Mexican flavors. Carson satisfies different palates with some fusion dishes that combine the qualities of both cuisines. “Our gumbo has pico de gallo on it. It’s surprising how good that is because of the freshness of the jalapenos and things like that,” he adds.
The NM Hot Chicken on the menu is the Nashville spicy fried chicken concept with the red chilies that make New Mexico’s food unique. Carson describes the difference between his hot chicken and Nashville’s version. “I take out the sugar. I add red chile and take out some of the cayenne. We came up with a product I think is even better than Nashville’s because the red chile adds another layer of flavor that cayenne can’t give you.”
Just about everything served at Nexus is made from scratch, from the red or green chile nachos and fish tacos to the fried catfish and red beans and rice with sausage. The restaurant’s chicken and waffles is the most popular dish. Ironically, the former banker wanted his business to be more of a brewery than a restaurant.
“We had anticipated that we would do 80% beer and 20% food. Within a year, we were at 50/50, and in another two years, ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ stepped in and put us on the map in Albuquerque,” Carson admits.
The Food Network show featuring Nexus Brewery & Restaurant first aired in November 2013 (Nexus Brewery and Restaurant | Restaurants: Food Network | Food Network). Celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s visit for the “Comfort and Soul” episode solidified Carson’s reputation for serving exceptional food and excellent craft beer. “That was one of my proudest moments. Our sales doubled over nine months,” declares the Nexus founder. “Every time the show would air, we would get an influx of people.”
Travelers from out-of-state who have made visiting “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” locations a hobby are still showing up at Nexus. Fieri’s endorsement helped the business launched in 2011 become profitable within three years.
“We’re probably one of the best new concepts in Albuquerque started in the last several years. It’s because we were capitalized at the level that we needed to be able to open a brewery and restaurant that basically provides soul food,” Carson acknowledges.
From the start, the restaurateur insisted on Nexus serving food and beer that met his high standards. “Every item I put on the menu has to be exceptional. I don’t let them put anything on the menu that is not up to my expectations,” he says. It also means revisiting the menu every year to determine what changes or improvements can be made.
“The chicken I’m serving today has nothing to do with the chicken we started with in 2011. In fact, I had to get rid of the chicken from 2011,” Carson reveals.
Eat This, Not That! put Nexus Brewery & Restaurant on its 2022 list of Best Fried Chicken in Every State. Carson shares the advice he received from some Black church ladies before being named New Mexico’s best. “They called me from the back and said, “Honey, you need to work on this fried chicken.’ All I did was drop it in the flour and season it, and I thought that was fried chicken. They said, ‘No, there’s something missing.”’
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A dishwasher Carson later promoted to cook suggested marinating the chicken in a brine. The brine made with sugar, onions, rosemary, seasonings and milk worked its magic. “The chicken came out so good. It was amazing. The church ladies, they’ve come back and are happy now,” says the Nexus owner.
Tinkering with the menu’s offerings gives patrons a fresh perspective on familiar dishes. Carson had his cooks add smoked pork belly and red chilies to the red beans and rice. “I do enjoy creating and strategizing on new kinds of food you can’t get every day.”
The Albuquerque businessman takes customers’ opinions seriously when he makes decisions about the food, beer and service at Nexus. He not only talks to patrons but takes surveys and follows social media postings. As a result, the flagship brewery won gold medals for its Imperial Cream Ale and Honey Chamomile craft beers.
The Beer Travel Guide listed Nexus as one of Albuquerque’s best breweries in 2019. One of the city’s top-rated B&Bs, Bottger Mansion of Old Town, described it as a brewery worth the visit. “Nexus Brewery is the place where craft beer and soul food harmoniously collide. Each day, they create a wide variety of delicious beers, some of which have received “World Beer Cup” and “Best of the City” awards!”
Return on Risks
The success of Carson’s first venture into the demanding hospitality industry spurred him to take on a new challenge in 2019. He bought the old Elks Club in the South Broadway neighborhood where he grew up and opened Nexus Brewery & Smokehouse. He shares what it meant to pay off the debt on the building. “Back in the day, the Elks Clubs were the only places Blacks could go and enjoy a drink,” says Carson. “They were able to move to a smaller location. In return, I got a nice building, about 6,500 square feet, that we’ve redone completely.”
Launching the smokehouse about a year before the COVID pandemic struck led to some lean months for the Broadway location. Streamlining the menu and reducing days of operation to five helped Carson keep his second restaurant in business. “Our sales dropped during the pandemic to $10,000 a week, and now we’re at $20,000 a week.” The Nexus owner continues, “It’s one of the few businesses started there in the last 30 years. It has succeeded and is bringing people from other parts of the city into that area.”
Carson traveled to barbecue joints in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas and Texas before deciding to serve Texas-style brisket, ribs, pulled pork and chicken. “I have maybe another year or two to develop New Mexican barbecue from our Texas style. The only difference is I make my barbecue sauce out of red chile pods. It is 100% red chile other than the brown sugar and other ingredients we add to it,” he says.
The craft beers, including Imperial Cream Ale, Honey Chamomile Wheat and Scotch Ale, are brewed at the Nexus flagship location on Pan American Freeway NE. Carson plans to offer barbecue styles from around the world along with live music at his Nexus Brewery & Smokehouse.
How did this former federal bank examiner and president of the Bank of Belen manifest his dreams with no professional culinary training? Carson took enormous risks. He spent all his retirement savings and $200,000 investments from his father and brother. Failure was in his game plan.
“My mom was a teacher for the public schools, and my dad was a mail carrier. They always told me you can do anything,” states the entrepreneur. “I didn’t go to a bank to finance my business. I knew I would have turned myself down because I had no experience. But I was adequately capitalized to weather the storm.”
Banking experience and relationships made it easier for Carson to obtain Payroll Protection Program funds during the pandemic. He advises others looking to start businesses not to expect banks to finance their ideas. They should establish relationships with smaller banks and hire a qualified accountant. “I can read my financial statement. I understand it, and I use it as my basis for changes and making different moves that I do. That’s really been beneficial.”
Despite putting all his retirement savings on the line, Carson still offered full benefits to his employees. If they agree to pay a portion of the costs, Nexus workers receive health insurance, paid leave and 401K options. “I just want to please customers in whatever I’m doing and also make sure my employees are taken care of. Those are my two goals on a day-to-day basis.”
What’s Next for Nexus Brewery?
Last year, Edible New Mexico selected Carson as a local hero. It named his first restaurant the best gastropub in Albuquerque. At 67, he works seven days a week to continue building the Nexus Brewery brand. “I’ll never be out of business until I sell it. And I don’t plan on doing that in the short term. I’m going to ride it as long as I can. My dad made it to 87, so I’ve got a few years to continue,” says Carson.
His wife, Teresa, works at the restaurants when needed and acts as his advisor. Carson has two daughters. His oldest, Reina, helped run Nexus off and on for a decade. Younger sister Keyanna worked there for about five years. Both women are pursuing their own interests now, but the restaurateur knows they’ve learned from his diligence. “They’ve seen the creativity, and they’ve also seen the hard work I’ve put into this business. Once they get a job and decide to work on it, they do a really good job.”
So what is next on Carson’s agenda for the Nexus brand? He plans to open a smaller food court location of his brewery and restaurant in 2023. The Albuquerque businessman hopes to make Nexus Brewery & Restaurant and Nexus Brewery & Smokehouse nationally known and among the top Black-owned restaurants in the country.
For Carson, there are no regrets about investing in his own business. Now, it’s all about making the Nexus name mean what it does in the 1994 “Star Trek Generations” movie, a perfect place where everything is right. “There’s nothing better than having ownership and being able to work for yourself. I do feel grateful and blessed to have the opportunity to stretch myself in two different careers. It was a good decision.”