People We Think Are Dope: Derek Kitchen
Updated: Jul 17
Derek Kitchen has been working hard at making Salt Lake City (and beyond!) a better place for all, and we're thrilled to hear his story directly from the changemaker himself. Prevailing in a landmark lawsuit against the State of Utah (Kitchen v Herbert, 2013) which brought marriage equality to the 10th Circuit (six states!) and created critical case law for the freedom to marry nationwide, it's no wonder his political career was inspired. As a small business owner and gay rights champion, Derek Kitchen was elected to represent the 2nd district in the Utah State Senate in 2018, becoming the youngest active member of the Utah Legislature. Prior to assuming his role as State Senator, Derek was a member of the Salt Lake City Council representing District 4.
Derek co-founded and currently operates two businesses in Salt Lake City – Laziz Foods and Laziz Kitchen – a distribution company and a restaurant specializing in contemporary Middle Eastern food. You can find one of three delicious restaurants in the Granary District, Downtown SLC, or Midvale!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Your story and city involvement has always been inspiring, so we’re thrilled to learn more about you!
How long have you been in Salt Lake City?
I grew up here, in the suburbs of South Jordan. I’m the oldest of three boys. We grew up Mormon, but my dad would drink coffee or mow the lawn with his shirt off. I had a mixed experience, especially as a gay kid, it was a rocky experience in my teen years. But I’ve come to really like Utah. I wanted to escape so badly, I felt trapped and just wanted to get out. But moving from the suburbs to downtown Salt Lake was just enough of a break, culturally speaking. I attended community college first, then the University of Utah. I never took the SAT so I kind of had to find a backdoor to university as a first generation college student, but I was really committed to getting a higher education. Attending the university was eye opening for me, learning that I could accomplish something at a young age.
With that cultural break - you know, a blue dot in a red sea kind of thing - I found Salt Lake to be a place with a really strong counter culture energy that I love. I think we have the Mormons to thank for that, quite frankly. If we didn’t have such a heavy force, we wouldn’t have anything to push against, and it’s that push against and that under current energy that really gets me going.
My last year of college I started Laziz with my partner. One thing that I learned within that experience is that Salt Lake is really hungry for new ideas for culture, for things that work well in places like the Bay Area, New York, Seattle, Denver, that we haven’t seen yet in Salt Lake. It’s almost like a plug-and-play sort of thing. We’re so hungry for that experience you can find elsewhere. We have a pretty cultured demographic here I think overall. I think part of it is the Mormon mission experience - they leave Utah, they travel around and see other places on their mission, then come back and realize there is so much the world offers that we don’t have here. Then another part is a lot of newcomers. I think the internet also had a lot to do with younger people seeing what the world offers from the computer, realizing Salt Lake isn’t the center of the universe. I just think there’s this real appetite for new ideas. Salt Lake has become this place for me where you can deliver and be successful pretty quickly here.
So as a small business owner in Salt Lake, you’ve felt pretty supported?
Oh, for sure. Yea, there’s that hunger to support new ideas and support local, so there’s a pretty strong local-first business mentality around here. Even so, it’s hard to be a business owner and survive. Unless you have a lot of money, you’re always boot strapping it. For example, here we are at People’s Coffee, and the owner is working the counter on a Tuesday morning. That’s the beauty of local, right? You get to interact with the people paying the bills and sweeping the floors, doing the whole thing.
Outside of your local business venture, what inspired you to get involved politically?
In 2012, my final year of college, my former partner Moudi and I started selling hummus at the farmers market. It was just sort of a side hustle kind of thing. We were selling food to our teachers, our colleagues, our friends and family and such. Moudi is Lebanese, so he would cook and we would try to make an extra buck at age 23. One day we were selling at the farmers market, and a Whole Foods scout walked by our booth and loved the idea of selling our product in their store. They helped us figure out the branding, buy the barcode, and get certified with the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, and that sort of allowed us to expand our imagination around what was possible. So we started selling our food products in stores around town and got involved in the local business community - Local First Utah, the Chamber of Commerce.
As gay men, we joined the LGTBQ Chamber of Commerce. Through that organization I was connected with a few LGTBQ attorneys and we started talking. Moudi and I were 23 and 24 and we wanted to get married. Keep in mind this is 2012, and in 2008 the Mormons helped fund Prop 8 in California, so it seemed like a far-off dream for gay people to get married in Utah. But we just had this hunch, talking to these attorneys, that there might be a strategy for legalization of gay marriage. So what we did was file a lawsuit and sued the state of Utah. The case became known as Kitchen versus Herbert. Gary Herbert was our governor at the time. We sued our governor, our attorney general, and the county clerk in March of 2013, and by December of 2013, Kitchen vs Herbert became the first case in the country to legalize same-sex marriage to the federal courts in Utah. Five years after they bankrolled the Prop 8 campaign in California, the federal courts came to Utah and said, “Actually, you have to recognize same-sex marriage and treat these people equally.”.
That set off somewhat of a domino effect. So the state appealed our case and we went to the circuit court which is a regional court in Denver, and that included Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Six states. We won there, so it was legalized for those states. The state appealed once again and we went to the Supreme Court in D.C. and the Supreme Court said, “We’re not going to take this case right now, so we’re going to default to the lower level case.”. So when it was all said and done, we ended up legalizing for the 10th circuit, which is all the states I just mentioned. What that taught me at 24 years old was that some punk can make a difference.
Yea, you have power.
You have power and as a citizen in this country, you can make a difference. There’s something big about that. Our case was legalized December 20th of 2013, five days before Christmas, and the state of Utah was unprepared in the process. Usually what happens is when a decision is made they anticipate an appeal, so it puts a temporary pause on the decision, but the state didn’t prepare its brief well enough, so there was no temporary pause. And so December 20th, five days before Christmas, the flood gates of gay marriage open and thousands of people were married. It was like a surprise Christmas gift and really special. That kind of joy where you use your voice, your action, your ability, whatever’s in front of you to take action in that moment and it leads to significant change, not just for myself and the people around me, but complete strangers that I’d never met before were crying and they’ve got their kids there and it’s Christmas and they’re protected under the law. It’s a feeling you can’t really describe. And a feeling of, I want to do it again, right?
The case came to an end in 2014 after a series of appeals and I decided to run for city council. So I launched a campaign for city council and in November of 2015 I was elected into the Salt Lake City Council. I served a term there and loved it. I was the youngest person there. I was not the first gay person, which was nice, but we did build a little coalition of LGBTQ representation. There were three council members that were LGBTQ and then our mayor, Jackie, was a lesbian. Out of eight elected officials, four of them were queer. Kind of cool.
I was able to really leave my mark on some local policies related to zoning, affordable housing, transportation, the buildout of the new airport, and a number of other major decisions that happened, so I was really proud to be a part of the community at that level. Then in 2018 my state senator decided not to run for re-election, and he was the only out LGBTQ person in the Utah legislature. I thought, not only do we need queer representation in the state legislature, I’m teed up for this role, I’m ready for this, serving on the council, so I ran a very competitive race and ended up prevailing. In 2018 I was elected to the Utah State Senate and served four years. Just wrapped up eight years in local government.
Initially, my pathway to the Chamber of Commerce and ultimately my lawsuit began with my business. So all along my public service I’ve been building out my restaurant and food service business. In 2016 we opened Laziz Kitchen over in the Central 9th neighborhood. That neighborhood is growing so fast right now. I knew it would… I remember when we built out that restaurant my grandpa, my mom, people that really cared about me were like, “Kitchen, what the f*ck are you doing? No one is going to come to this neighborhood.”. You know, it didn’t have what it has now, so not many people could see it. But I knew based on the zoning and sort of the development energy that was in the pipeline that it was the right move. And look at what’s happening now. Anyway, Laziz Kitchen opened at the end of October in 2016 and then we were just starting to catch our stride in the restaurant industry when Covid hit. That hit us pretty hard. We made a lot of changes to make the business work. Luckily we had some support from small business initiatives.
Then last year, January 2022, I did some restructuring. My former partner, Moudi, who I started the business with, moved to Colorado and made some changes, so we decoupled the restaurant and brought in a new business partner and professionalized the operation so it’s less like mom-and-pop, or pop-and-pop in our case as being two men. Now I have an operating partner. I still run the show but I have backend support. In May of 2022 we opened up the second location in Midvale. Then Labor Day, we opened Laziz Kitchen downtown.
And how is the new location going?
Going well. The downtown location has a little bar attached in the back called Back Door. A little double entendre there. Even though Laziz Kitchen is an established brand, it takes awhile to get your regular crowd coming through and stabilize a little bit. But I’m feeling really good about the prospects. And the neighborhood couldn’t be better. We’ve got 200 South and Edison Street. There’s so much good energy there. I feel good about where we’re at.
That’s great. How does it feel to be outside of government involvement?
Well, it’s only been three weeks.
That is pretty fresh!
It’s good. I wish I was still there to be honest with you… I mean, I’m a fighter, and back to pushing against, I don’t see a lot of legislatures fighting the power up there. Republicans and Mormon Republicans hold not only a majority but a super majority. Which means every single Democrat could call in sick and it wouldn’t mean a thing. They don’t even need Democrats to conduct business up there and oftentimes they do it without Democrat support anyways. I think there’s a real imbalance in power, and it’s by design for what it’s worth. It's gerrymandering. And not just the most recent gerrymandering. They did it in 2011. They did it in 2001. They did it in 1991. And so every 10 years when this happens they just further consolidate their power. The fact of the matter is, Utah is the fastest growing state in the country. We also have the youngest median age in the country. The youngest demographic - 31 years old is the median age in Utah. And if you look at our leaders, they look nothing like that. So there’s a real imbalance in power and decision making with what the people on the ground care about and want. Look at the Great Salt Lake as an example, right? If we don’t take immediate action we’re going to be f*cked. Housing being another one. There’s like a lot of decisions we should be making and we’re not really discussing right now. It’s stressful for me. I intend to stick around and stay involved even if I’m taking a short hiatus from government.
Well, I’m inspired! It’s been great watching your career from a distance, but it’s such a treat to hear about your story directly from you.
When people come in as newbies or even just for a visit, what are your favorite things to share about Salt Lake or Utah?
I hope that they tap into the energy and feel a real sense of welcome. Like you plugging in and really engaging in your work and your community. You’ve been able to make meaningful connections with like Jesse Walker for example - I mean, what an institution he is in this community, right? I guess what I hope people realize if they’re new here is that old Salt Lake and new Salt Lake are one in the same, and that all of the changemakers are accessible and ready to make connections. That’s also a path for you and for them. That anyone can come here and meaningfully leave their fingerprints on this community. And we encourage them to do so. Open a business. Starting a booth at a farmers market for crying out loud can lead to three restaurants and a political career. It just goes to show that one thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. So my hope is that people sense that and find their own way to engage with their own passions.
But then in terms of what to show people, I have a lot of visitors come through. I had eight friends in town last weekend for Sundance. From New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco… And a couple of them had been here before, but some of them hadn’t, so it was cool to go up into the mountains. When people think of a mountain town, they might think of Denver, but Salt Lake is truly the mountain city. It’s so close. In 10 to 12 minutes I could be at a trailhead with my dog getting incredible sunset views, go for a hike or bike ride. Getting outdoors even if you’re not outdoorsy is worthwhile, so even just going for a drive. The four seasons are really worth exploring. We have beautiful springs and autumns, really warm summers and freezing winters. I just really like leaning into the four seasons of Utah and Salt Lake. I love Liberty Park, I love the Jordan River.
I love our bars and restaurants. Bar X, Water Witch... Cocktail bars are a dime a dozen in a lot of cities, but I think it’s fun to engage because it’s happened so fast around here. Fifteen years ago we only had Bar X and now we have every other one you could name… The food and beverage world has a lot of really cool people making a name for themselves. I recommend going down to Boulder, Utah and visiting Hell’s Backbone. It’s an extension of Salt Lake City as a little town with only one stop sign, one gas station, and two restaurants. But some of the most beautiful vistas in the country. The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art is one of my favorites. Fice Gallery has a lot going on. Grab Slug Magazine or City Weekly to see what sort of nightlife is going on. Drag shows are always cool. Depends on what’s happening.
What do you personally like to get into during your free time?
I’m remodeling my house. I bought my house during the pandemic. A friend of mine who had lived there for a couple decades, she’s in her 80’s, she needed to basically cash out to take care of things. I wouldn’t have been able to get into home ownership if it weren’t for somebody sort of holding my hand, so she really helped me. She wanted me to have her house.
The house is on the National Historic Registry so I’ve been engaged with Preservation Utah. It’s our local preservation society that help administer all of the historic preservation landmarks, any sort of federal, state, or city loan program to preserve. I was able to get a loan to fix up the plumbing. Except for the plumbing and the electrical, I’m doing most of the remodeling myself. During the Christmas break I finished the flooring in one of my bedrooms. That was a nightmare but I learned a lot. The sense of ownership is impactful.
What inspires you day-to-day?
I think what inspires me is when I see people tap into that energy I spoke to earlier about being an underdog, or taking the need for change in their own hands.
As you did…
Yea, because I relate to that. Whatever it may be. It could be jumping careers, buying a home, or just taking things into their own hands, in any form. That’s the kind of energy that encourages me to do more of what I want to do. I feel proud seeing that. I sometimes see people feeling lost or second guessing themselves, maybe dealing with some pressure from family or society at large. Especially being a queer person, I see a lot of sadness among young people, and you see the f*cking Utah legislature targeting trans kids… My heart goes out to people constantly under the microscope or struggling from an emotional or behavioral standpoint. Or even living and working downtown and seeing people living in the rough. It really strikes an emotional chord with me. When I see people try something new or really take something into their own hands, even if it’s still a struggle, but they’re doing it, that is really energizing for me. I’ve seen some small businesses come and go, so even if it doesn’t work out, the life lessons you pick up making that jump, make you a better person.
You’ve pointed out some obvious changes in Salt Lake over the years. What else have you seen change, for better or for worse?
We’re diversifying from a racial and ethic standpoint, which is so refreshing. I’m seeing Salt Lake become more expensive, so maybe that’s a drawback. It’s also sort of part of the game when you grow, so you have to control that in some way. It’s becoming increasingly hard for people to stay in the downtown area or nearby. I see a lot of folks being forced to other parts of the valley due to affordability. Just 200 South being an example… The amount of development that’s happening in this state, in this community. Housing is going up. We’re no longer this cookie cutter suburban style city that wants to be a city kind of thing. We’re growing into our own. I would say give Salt Lake five or eight more years and it’ll be even more unrecognizable. It kind of feels like every day that goes by you could be missing an opportunity… Not quite like scarcity, but the sooner the better you get in on it is the way I would put it. And the opportunity to really leave your fingerprints like I said earlier is there, and it's palpable.
Anything further you’d like to add for our network of readers?
I just feel like there’s room for everybody here. And we need folks that are willing to push against the status quo as well. I mean, I’m encouraged to see more people bring their ideas, and their agitations to their work. Bring it all! And I’m available if people ever want to reach out. Always accessible.