By James Bash
For the Hollywood Star News
Alberta Street offers an eclectic mix of stores, food carts, restaurants, and music and art venues that have made it a popular destination for anyone interested in the Portland scene. In the center of that mix (at 1452 N.E. Alberta St.) sits Fuel, a restaurant known for its locally sourced, organic comfort food that includes gluten-free and vegan options. However, things didn’t start out that way when owner Kevin Shelby acquired Fuel (fuelpdx.com) five years ago.
“Fuel used to be a coffee shop only,” said Shelby. “But there are so many coffee shops on Alberta. For us to survive, we had to rethink what we were doing. A gentleman who used to work for us suggested doing breakfast and lunch. We converted it from a coffee shop to a sit-down restaurant. We immediately got busier and busier.”
Menu items include everything from Belgian waffles and bagels to salads and the Signature Grilled Cheese (Tillamook Cheddar, Swiss and provolone on Portland French sourdough with house-made pesto, all “grilled to gooey perfection”). One week, the specials included the Logger’s Breakfast (an open-faced biscuit topped with Canadian bacon, two poached eggs, vegetarian sausage gravy and a side of potatoes or grits).
“I take some of my wife’s recipes, my mom’s recipes, and mix that into something that is not pretentious,” remarked Shelby. “Everything is from scratch, and everyone here at the restaurant contributes ideas. We are always thinking and reading and watching. It’s fun.
“Restaurant competition in Portland is intense,” said Shelby. “Portland is food city. You have to be inventive, and you have to find your spot in your lane and do well at it.”
To get the freshest food to Fuel, Shelby’s day starts at 5 a.m., because he does all of the shopping for the restaurant. He also pitches in to do wherever else is needed, whether that means sweeping the floor, washing the dishes or serving food.
Fuel is Shelby’s second restaurant. He also owns Bellagios Pizza in downtown Portland. He quickly pointed out that Bellagios is a franchise and has a completely different atmosphere from Fuel’s.
But Shelby didn’t set out to become a restaurateur. He grew up just a few blocks away from Fuel, and his mom still lives nearby. Because busing was in full swing when he was young, he attended schools that were miles away, including Sunset High School on the other side of the West Hills.
“I started with the busing program all the way from grade school through high school,” recalled Shelby. “The only kids at those schools who were African-Americans were the ones on the bus with me. On a typical morning, only five kids got out with me to go to my school. Looking back on it, it was pretty strange.”
Shelby attended Portland Community College and graduated from the University of Idaho with a major in education. He intended to work as a teacher but ended up working in telecommunications and at a fitness club. He is well aware that the gentrification of Northeast Alberta Street has benefited his restaurant, but he sees the upscaling as a two-sided story.
“I’ve seen the good and the bad,” said Shelby. “As far as community, people feeling safe, walking the streets, shops and businesses, the change is a good thing. On the other hand, you hate to see that the majority of African-American families have moved away, and housing prices have soared. That’s unfortunate, because when I was a young child, I had my grandparents and my parents. So this was a nice, safe community and people were invested in it. Then it went through a dark period with a lot of gangs and a lot of bad stuff. Now it has changed again. People come here and enjoy the restaurants and shops. There are choices. Some of the kids I rode the bus with did get caught up with gangs. Fortunately for me, I avoided that.”
Shelby paused and looked around the restaurant, checking to make sure that everything was flowing smoothly.
“When my wife, Mary, and I picked up Fuel, we thought that we would start a new adventure,” said Shelby. “It’s been a lot of work and a rewarding adventure, too.”