Kenny Hollingshead: The Beer (and Brats) Baron
"Thank you so much—have a great day, kids!" Kenny Hollingshead yells from across the counter of his inheritance, Hollingshead's Delicatessen in Orange, as some regular customers leave. He has charmed generations of customers at his family's legendary beer emporium, giving you nicknames depending on where you fall in social strata—"honey," if you're a lady; "kid," if you're younger than 40; "guy," if you're older. His voice fills the room like the sound of your dad finally coming home from work—comforting, constant, traits that have unfortunately been lacking in his life and business (which are indistinguishable from each other) in recent years.
Hollingshead's mom died on Mother's Day 2011, and his dad followed on Sept. 26, 2012, "so the baton's in my hands now," he says with an air of acceptance. "The future of Hollingshead's is lying with myself and the family. It's pretty exciting."
His parents opened their first deli in 1963 off Katella Avenue; Kenny, an only child, joined the business while in his late 20s. Even though he attended college for many years away from home, he learned very quickly what actually mattered in life. "What interests me is people and business and family," he says. "That's what keeps me going."
And what the Hollingshead clan built was an institution, a place that sold craft beer years before every other hipster deemed himself a brewer, that served as a home for Packers fans and grilled fine bratwursts. Losing his parents was the biggest challenge he ever faced, even though the goodbye was the best anyone could've hope for. "My dad said, 'Have one good cry, and then be done with it. Then have some beer and food,' and that's what we did," Hollingshead remembers. He took a leave of absence for most of last year, but he is ready to face 2013 anew.
His strengths are rooted in the stories you know he has told many times, worn down and smoothed in all the right places. Hollingshead still cannot believe his parents worked full-time jobs to keep the store, and that Grandma Schulte moved all the way from Columbus, Ohio, with her recipes to lend an extra hand. "They were very self-sufficient and totally devoted to each other," he says, stressing the importance with his blue eyes. "So that kind of devotion and sacrifice, for me, that's what love is all about."
He starts to razz his son, Michael, who's bartending across the room—and who sends it right back at him.
"My dad encouraged me to not make friends with my customers," the elder Hollingshead says, pausing. "It's difficult for me to not do that because these people are supporting three generations of my family." Most conversations with Hollingshead don't end without some mention of how much he loves his son; his daughter, Melinda; or his wife, Charrion, with whom he's still fascinated after 36 years of marriage. "I still can't figure her out. . . . Doesn't mean I love her any less," he says with a laugh. "Whenever I think I kinda got her, I think I've got her figured out . . . naah, I don't got her figured out."
Hollingshead plans to live until 100 "as long as I'm not a burden on my family. Although," he pipes in, "we Lutherans feel that if there's not beer and bratwurst in heaven, we're not sure if we're going."
He laughs. "Just joking!"
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.