Hometown Heroes

Ndamukong and Katya Suh in Alberta Alley in Northeast Portland. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Ndamukong and Katya Suh throw down roots in Northeast Portland.

Share this article!

Ndamukong and Katya Suh are eating chicken tenders. 

His order includes both regular and Nashville Hot, while she picked out the sauces (honey mustard, spicy peach and “Comeback”). There’s also fries — for him, though Katya had already announced her intention to swipe a couple. “That’s fine,” her husband replies.

Alberta Alley in Northeast Portland. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

It’s a perfect early-summer Portland day at Bae’s Chicken on Northeast Alberta Street, where the Suhs are meeting up with Oregon Business for an interview — and yes, this entire moment is a celebrity profile cliché. But in this case, the cliché is not only intentional but appropriate. Ndamukong Suh conceived and co-founded Bae’s with longtime Portland restaurant guru Micah Camden (cofounder of Little Big Burger, Blue Star Donuts and SuperDeluxe, the latter of which includes Suh as an investor). And this particular Bae’s — there’s also one in Portland’s Old Town, as well as a concession at the Moda Center — is in a building called Alberta Alley, which is owned by HMS Development, a company Ndamukong cofounded. The indoor/outdoor space at the corner of Alberta and Northeast 30th is also home to a location of Camden’s Boxer, as well as Kinnamons, an over-the-top cinnamon-bun concept owned by MMMCo and Ndamukong’s Generals Restaurant Group. (In mid-December, new locations of Boxer and Kinnamons opened in Beaverton’s Cedar Hills Crossing.) And last but not least, Kaya, a high-end cocktail bar conceived and run by Katya, which opened in December and takes its inspiration from music, art and sneaker culture (including Katya’s online “Kicks & Cocktails” video series, which, yes, features both cool sneakers and delicious cocktails).

“Kaya’s going to be one that I hope changes the way in which cocktails are done in the city of Portland,” Katya says. “And everywhere.”

Kaya comes at a time when the Suhs are doubling down on their already strong connections to Portland, which, in addition to their part-time home and business interests, include a family foundation based around the “three pillars” of education, health and wellness. They’re also involved in such community endeavors as financial-literacy programs and backpack giveaways, including at Grant High School, which is not at all coincidentally just a few miles from Alberta Alley. That’s where Ndamukong used to eat the free breakfast as a middle-schooler at Beverly Cleary School before his own time as a Grant student and star athlete.

Ndamukong was a Grant High School  student and star athlete. Photo courtesy of Ndamukong Suh.

Google the name of the 6-foot-4, 313-pound Super Bowl champion (with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021) and it’s mostly football facts. But the first word of his Twitter bio is “Investor” (with a dollar-bill emoji). And the first words of his LinkedIn summary? “An engineer….” 

“I’m very proud of my engineering degree,” says Ndamukong, who majored in engineering and construction management at the University of Nebraska, graduating in four years even as he became a Heisman Trophy finalist — rare for a defensive player — in 2009, his senior year. “And I’ve always wanted to be known as somebody more than an athlete.” 

An athlete who may or may not be retired: Ndamukong played his 13th season last year for the Philadelphia Eagles on a part-time basis, joining the team in November for eight regular-season games and the playoffs; as this issue of OB went to press, in mid-December, Ndamukong had not returned to the NFL, though in theory, he could still sign with a team in January. 

While many athletes struggle to find their way in “life after sports” — or find something they love as much as sports — neither of the Suhs ever assumed sports would be their careers or only passion. Katya played college basketball for the University of Nebraska and Kansas State before putting her mass communications degree to work in television journalism, marketing, real estate and hospitality. And in Ndamukong’s case, you might say the NFL turned out to be his side hustle. 

While plenty of professional athletes lend their name and/or money to companies (Damian Lillard Toyota in McMinnville), new media endeavors (LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company) or passion projects (CJ McCollum’s Heritage 91 wine partnership with Adelsheim) even when they’re playing, Ndamukong pursued entrepreneurship more doggedly than most. He was mentored by Warren Buffet in Omaha and has investments with the Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, in such startups as Quip (toothbrushes) and Judy (emergency kits) and in the national restaurant chains Blue Sushi and Pizzana. He owns or has owned both hotels and real estate in other cities he has lived in (including Omaha and Detroit). His current Portland company, HMS Development, a partnership with fellow Irvington resident Joel Andersen (of Andersen Construction), has multiple projects in Portland, both residential and commercial buildings, including Alberta Alley.  

Ndamukong outside Bae’s Chicken in Alberta Alley. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

“I tell people this all the time: I was ready for Ndamukong to retire after his second contract,” says former Grant High School assistant coach Joe Rollins, referring to the six-year, $114 million deal Ndamukong — who was originally drafted No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions in 2010 — signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2015, which made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history at the time. “Because I didn’t view him as a professional football player anymore. I look at Ndamukong Suh as a businessman, a father and a husband now.” 

Ndamukong and Katya met at the University of Nebraska in 2009; by the time she transferred to Kansas State, Ndamukong, who’d been a senior when she was a freshman, was already in the NFL. He was also just a friend. Sort of. Here’s how they describe it: Boy meets girl, girl holds boy at arm’s length, girl eventually agrees to date. “Courting,” Ndamukong calls it. They stayed friends and, as a couple, were sort of on-again, off-again throughout their 20s and through his moves to lots of different cities. They got married in 2020 and had their twin sons, Kingston and Khari, in March of 2021. 

Katya actually came to Nebraska with a passion for STEM and an intent to study chemical engineering, but the major proved to be incompatible with the grind of basketball’s extended calendar. She switched to communications, and in addition to working as a television anchor, as a model, and in restaurants and event planning, she’s put her communications degree to work as something of a social media influencer. All of that experience, plus the Suhs’ passion for social justice and racial equity, comes together in Kaya. 

Katya Suh in her new bar, Kaya. Behind her are portraits of Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur by artist Jordan Barros. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Kaya means “dope” in Jamaican, and that is what the bar — and its cocktails — are meant to be as well. Manager Kyle Sanders, formerly of Multnomah Whiskey Library, originally consulted with Katya on her “Kicks & Cocktails” content; Micah Camden, whose MMMco. company is a consultant for the bar in addition to its involvement with the other Alberta Alley restaurants, originally introduced them. Katya already had lots of her own restaurant experience in the front-of-house trenches, and her keen presence on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube is also no small thing in today’s restaurant world.

Ndamukong has also been reluctantly but gamely dragged into the social media world of his more gregarious wife, for memes and reels and peeks into their life. “I’m a little bit more energetic and a little bit more talkative — just a little,” Katya says with a chuckle. But Ndamukong is becoming less shy, and his analytical mindset — whether about construction, business or football — also makes him a broadcasting natural. He had an audition with NBC last summer that, according to The Athletic, had insiders raving, and spent the first portion of this season doing commentary for Sky Sports in the United Kingdom when the NFL had games in London. 

While Ndamukong says he’s “blissfully uninvolved” in Kaya, of which Katya is the sole owner, he does co-own the building, and that — plus the fact that it is part of Alberta Alley’s larger whole — means it starts out with a more stable foundation than the average fledgling bar. As they describe it, Ndamukong has always been a source of advice for her, as she has been for him. 

“One of the most important things personally, for me, when I have people in my life is that they challenge me,” says Katya. “I don’t think that a good relationshop is one who always tells you ‘Yes.’” To her, the Suhs’ partnership — whether in business, family or philanthropy — is one where they can say to the other, “‘I understand your vision because I know you that well. But why don’t you look at something a little bit differently?’ It can broaden your perspective.”

Kyle Sanders, Kaya’s general manager, mixes one of the bar’s signature cocktails, the chocolate-espresso martini, called Kat Naste. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan.

Kaya is meant to be fun and experiential but also high-end and cerebral — Sanders mentions the Chicago bar Aviary as an inspiration, with the promise of “Rube Goldberg-type cocktails: a little bit over-engineered and visually appealing.” In other words, something that’s great to drink but that also demands you take a photo and post it on social media. Naturally, that will include what had become Katya’s signature recipe online: an espresso martini made with tequila, espresso, chocolate and coffee liqueurs, and Bailey’s Irish cream, an unapologetically desserty drink.

And just as Ndamukong can’t do anything but try to win — whether that’s in football, business or a pick-up basketball game with friends — Katya brings that winning mentality to Kaya. “She wants this to be raising the bar for cocktails in Portland,” Sanders says. “She’s definitely got a very competitive nature in there.”

Katya shows off some custom Nike sneakers. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Sports and sneakers are part of the vibe — including custom sneakers for the staff — and patrons are invited to wear vintage thrift-store finds, street style or designers. There’s no dress code. There will be a TV — but just one. The decor will include portraits of some of Katya’s heroes in fashion and music by artist Jordan Barros — all “African-American OGs that I really feel have impacted the fashion and music industry for a long time,” she says. (Among them: Michael Jordan and Grace Jones.) “It’s about paying homage to those who have changed the music and fashion industry, and part of that is sneakers — it’s one of my absolute loves,” Katya says.

It’s a place you might imagine players for the Trail Blazers going — as well as Portland’s large community of sneakerheads and sneaker-company employees — but really, it’s for everyone. “I want Kaya to bring customers that feel welcomed and comfortable, and they’re still able to get this really fine-dining, elevated moment,” Katya says. “I want everyone to be able to embrace who they are. Because I am who I am. And I think I’m pretty frickin’ fun and amazing.”

In the end, that’s a social and political statement too: about style and culture, but also class and race and the question of who does this space belong to? Who does Portland — and Northeast Portland, specifically, belong to?

“One hundred percent,” says Katya.   

While the Suhs’ primary home is still in Tampa, Fla. (from his time with the Bucs), they also have a home in Irvington, where Joel Andersen also still lives. They are not just giving back to the community but taking back a community. “Alberta and Killingsworth, they’re still very much thought of by Black Portlanders as their streets, right?”says Andersen. On Alberta, a few blocks west of MLK Jr. Boulevard, the Terrell Brandon Barber Shop stood — until its recent closure — as a survivor and an emblem of that history. Then, for the better part of 15 blocks, you’ve got mostly hip and new fancy businesses. And so it is at Alberta Alley — except there, the hip and new and fancy businesses are owned by a Black man from the neighborhood and his biracial wife. 

During the Suhs’ interview at Bae’s, a customer stops by to say hello. He is Anthony Deloney, a longtime youth-sports coach and the director of development at SEI (Self-Enhancement, Inc.), a local nonprofit for underserved youth whose programming Ndamukong participated in growing up. Deloney is a regular customer, and Ndamukong asks after his son Aaron, a fellow Grant alum and current basketball star at the University of Vermont. The work the Suhs are doing here — even if it’s just an awesome chicken tender or a killer cocktail — is something both a new generation of Northeast Portland kids and adults who haven’t left the neighborhood can appreciate.

“I mean, I grew up five blocks away from here,” Ndamukong says. “The best feeling is coming back to the neighborhood and having people recognize that. You take great joy and pride in it.” 

Better than another Super Bowl, even. 

Click here to subscribe to Oregon Business.