A Foodie With a Taste for Business
In fall 2019, Jake Greenberg hosted a fundraising dinner to establish the Professor Stephen Dow Beckham Scholarship at Lewis & Clark. Attendees feasted on grass-fed locally raised beef filet with porcini butter; fresh Dungeness crab cakes; and Oregon bay shrimp cakes, featuring local sustainable seafood.
“When the food was ready, I peeled off my lab coat and joined the party,” says Greenberg. “I’ve always thought of myself as an artist with food as my medium.”
Greenberg is the owner and operator of Portland-based Classic Foods, located in a 1932 Art Deco building that he renovated to LEED Gold standards. He supplies hotels, restaurants, and markets in the Pacific Northwest with artisan specialty food products. Also committed to community building, he supports numerous nonprofits, such as Our House, for people living with HIV; Birch Community Services for families experiencing hunger and economic hardship; and the Oregon Humane Society’s annual Doggie Dash.
Greenberg grew up in Seattle eating bland food with his parents and grandparents, who emigrated from Europe’s Baltic region. At a young age, he gravitated to the sharpest, most pungent cheeses on the table. Later, at Lewis & Clark, he combined his business acumen with his love of fun and food to help revive the Rusty Nail student co-op. In May, he conducted a pasta cooking class for alumni via Zoom.
Before opening Classic Foods in 1984, Greenberg helped establish the Hollywood Farmers Market as one of the founding vendors and worked at local restaurants and clubs. When a sales rep went belly-up, Greenberg tracked down the supplier and slowly took over distribution of soup bases in the Portland area. “My first order was for $1,006, $6 over the minimum,” he says. “I reinvested my profits and my base business took off like a snowball rolling downhill.”
At the end of 1986, Greenberg opened Classic Foods full time. His product line quickly expanded from premium low-salt soup bases to herbs, made-to-order spices, specialty items from around the world, and fresh handmade pastas. His on-site outlet store sells preordered products to the public, a labor of love during the pandemic.
New Seasons Market, his biggest customer, offers his fresh pastas, pestos, and other sauces under their house brand. Other Northwest specialty grocers carry his fresh pasta line under their own house labels, along with restaurants like Deschutes Brewery, Hood River Inn, Pastini, Il Terrazzo, and Pizzeria Otto. “We produce the legendary McMenamins Cajun Seasoning, as well as all the spice blends for New Seasons’ sausages.”
Greenberg currently has almost 50 full-time employees, including 8 pasta makers, and is adamant about building relationships with local farmers. He chose to locate Classic Foods in Northeast Portland’s Woodlawn neighborhood so he and his employees could walk or bike to work. When a tractor trailer smashed into his pickup, he bought an e-bike, which he says helps “flatten out the hills.” He’s ridden it on epic trips in the U.S. and Europe and has personally visited many suppliers, including Italian prosciutto and cheese plants and an American tomato-packing facility. His Facebook e-bike touring group now boasts 3,500 members.
“There’s a lot of the world I still need to see, and I plan to see much of it from the seat of an e-bike!”
—by Pattie Pace