Delhi native brings vast experience to new eatery

Allison CollinsChef Dan Wiginton and the Ken's American Cafe namesake, Ken Bender, stand near 'Betty,' the wood-fired pizza oven.

Delhi native Ken Bender tried nonprofit work, law school and finance before finding his passion in the food industry.

Bender, 61, brings more than 30 years of restaurant management skills, honed in corporate and independent kitchens across America, to his Ken’s American Café, opened in Oneonta early this month. A master’s degree in business and a 10-year stint with Greenpeace, Bender said, help balance the administrative and interpersonal aspects of restaurant ownership.

The renovated 6,000-square-foot eatery, at 718 State Route 28, offers from-scratch cuisine meant to feel familiar, Bender said.

“People love our comfort food,” he said. “It’s Yankee pot roast, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, fish ‘n’ chips, jambalaya — there’s a whole variety. It’s just good, homemade food at moderate prices … and a place anyone can go for anything.”

The menu, Bender said, was developed with chef Dan Wiginton.

Bender, who recently managed the Otesaga’s Hawkeye Grill in Cooperstown, said his Oneonta restaurant is the long-awaited second of its kind.

“I worked as manager of the famous Ken’s Steak House (in Framingham, Massachusetts),” he said, noting the well-known salad dressing line manufactured by the same family. “When Ken passed away, it was time for me to open my own place: Ken’s American Cafe.”

Bender worked from 1989 to 1995 at Ken’s Steak House. His Ken’s American Café in Littleton, Massachusetts operated from 1995 to 2004. The closure of the latter, he said, coincided with his divorce.

“Then I went to work for corporate restaurants and co-opened a couple of Mexican restaurants,” he said. “But I always had it in the back of my mind that I should own my own restaurant again and this is the first time in 15 years that I do.”

Bender said the early response from diners has been hearty.

“We’ve had a very good reception and all locals,” he said. “And (the clientele) has been very mixed. One of the biggest segments for dining out is retirees, and we’ve had a lot, but I’m also seeing families with kids and professionals coming in. I feel like we have a lot of niches we can fill.”

Bender said he expects to see diner demographics broaden in coming months.

“This place is built for high volume,” he said. “It’s the type of place where, during baseball season, we’ll easily do 300 lunches and 300 dinners a day, and the open kitchen lends itself well to that.” The restaurant, Bender said, also welcomes banquet parties.

“One of our prides and joys is the wood-fired pizza oven,” he said, noting that the 900-degree oven was imported, assembled on-site, and named “Betty” for his late mother.

The allure of a homecoming, Bender said, dovetailed with his desire to tackle restaurant ownership once more.

“When I was getting ready to leave the Otesaga, I thought about living out west,” he said. “I love it out there, but my parents were at The Plains, so I wanted to stay close to home for them and thought owning a restaurant would afford me some flexibility.”

“When you grow up in a small town in Upstate New York, all you want to do as a kid is get out and see the world,” Bender said. “But then, after 50, there’s a compelling magnetism that draws you back. I do love this area … and there was always that draw.”

Ken’s American Cafe is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 11:30 to 7:30 on Sundays, with a full bar and happy hour from 4 to 6:30 every Tuesday through Friday. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, Bender said, the restaurant will open Mondays.