Locavores Before It Was Cool
Austin's homegrown Kerbey Lane Cafe
The term "locavore" was coined late in the past decade to describe someone who searches out and consumes locally grown foods. The word is so new to the American culinary lexicon that it isn't yet recognized by the spell-check mechanisms of most word-processing programs, but the trend itself is in full bloom across the country. A growing number of upscale restaurant chefs are cultivating relationships with farmers, ranchers, dairymen, cheesemakers, beekeepers, and other artisan food producers in order to ensure that their menu items are made with the best quality local ingredients. It's a welcome trend in many cities, and Austin is no exception. But Austin's version of the locavore movement really isn't anything new – owners of the 30-year-old, homegrown Kerbey Lane Cafe chain have been searching out local produce for at least 20 years.
When Kerbey Lane co-founder David Ayer started looking for a farmer to grow tomatoes for the three restaurants he had in the late Eighties, starting a trend was the farthest thing from his mind. "We just wanted to replace tasteless tomatoes with some that had actual flavor," he recalls. After a couple of failed attempts at working with other growers, Kerbey Lane contracted with local farmer Cora Lamar for a large portion of her summer tomato crop. The menu specials that resulted from the "attack of the summer tomatoes" were (and still are) well-publicized and well-received in the restaurants. By the early Nineties, Lamar was providing Kerbey Lane with more summer crops, and soon yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, okra, and herbs found their way into seasonal menu items. The superior flavor and popularity of the summer specials demonstrated the value of featuring local produce. And as a wider variety of seasonal items became available in the Austin market over the next two decades, Ayer invested the time, energy, and money necessary to make sure that the Kerbey Lane kitchens were able to increase the diversity of their seasonal menu offerings.
So how does a four-outlet restaurant chain that feeds roughly 1.2 million people a year manage to walk the locavore walk with average menu prices that range from $3 to $10? It takes a genuine commitment to the basic philosophy, a certain degree of menu flexibility, the desire to build long-term relationships with vendors, and savvy business management. Kerbey Lane has all that. From the company's earliest days, co-owners (and former spouses) Patricia Atkinson and David Ayer made a point of supporting other small local businesses. They bought produce from Joe Segovia and his sons when they only had one truck and got chickens from L. East Poultry, yogurt and tofu from White Mountain, tortilla chips from El Lago, and breads and desserts from local wholesale bakeries (including my own for a couple of years in the early Eighties).
Kerbey Lane's commitment to quality ingredients has been a facet of the business since the beginning. At a time when most cafe salads were still made with bland, flavorless iceberg lettuce, Kerbey Lane switched to a spring salad mix of various greens and lettuces. Ayer recalls that the change initially had some customers asking why there were "weeds in my salad bowl," but the couple persisted, and the better-quality, more flavorful greens soon caught on. These days, all Kerbey Lane salads come from Bluebonnet Hydroponic Produce and are incredibly fresh and tasty. As a restaurant that built its fame on big-volume breakfast, the cafes serve milk from Hill Country Dairies, pork from Pederson's Natural Farms, cage-free eggs from Maxim near Rosenberg, and signature pancakes so popular the mixes are now available by the package.
Kerbey Lane offers a large, long-established core menu that's available around the clock. The flexibility to use local produce comes with seasonal menus that change four or five times a year. "We look at what's available from our vendors and encourage our employees to participate in a contest to develop new seasonal recipes," Ayer explains. "If their dish is chosen, it appears on the menu with their name, like Yoli's Posole on the winter menu." The volume of produce necessary to keep four restaurants serving more than a million folks a year is staggering. Kitchen/facilities manager Carl Leefe says that vendors are sometimes daunted when they find out he's buying for Kerbey Lane Cafe. "We do look for growers who can handle our volume, but we make it clear to them we can use a few items a few months at a time," Leefe says. The new spring menu is set to debut in mid-to-late March.
For the past couple of years, Kerbey Lane's summer produce has been provided by Fredericksburg-area farmer Paul Engel. Ayer and Leefe have also cultivated good relationships with farmers and ranchers who sell at the weekly Sunset Valley Farmers Market. Check out the rotating seasonal menus, and you're likely to find Caskey Orchards peaches, Love Creek Orchards apples, oranges and grapefruit from Gonzales Fruit near Mission, Loncito's lamb, Thunder Heart Bison, or Broken Arrow Ranch wild boar. "We also work with John Lash of Farm to Table who distributes for some wonderful Texas growers and producers," Leefe reports. You can see a complete list of vendors at www.kerbeylanecafe.com.
The business model that is the foundation of Kerbey Lane Cafe's 30-year success story continues to evolve. The company currently employs about 300 people and does $12.5 million a year in gross sales, with a healthy percentage of that money being funneled back into the local economy. Though Patricia Atkinson has moved back to her native New England, she is at her virtual desk in the Kerbey Lane corporate office every day via the Internet, overseeing day-to-day operations and business assets. Ayer maintains control of the overall vision for the company and is actively involved in menu development. Leefe manages kitchens and facilities including the South Austin commissary where Kerbey Lane staple items like salsa, queso, black beans, salad dressings, vegetarian soups, desserts, and some seasonal specials are made fresh, from scratch, every day. The entire team is currently involved in developing the company's signature pancake mixes (for sale via the website and in some local stores) into a successful national brand. Kerbey Lane Cafe's line of pancake mixes should begin selling on QVC within the next 60 days, just about the same time the company will announce the location of a fifth outlet set to open during the coming year. What a way to celebrate 30 years of success as one of the authentic flavors of Austin!
Kerbey Lane Locations
3704 Kerbey, 451-1436
2606 Guadalupe, 477-5717
2700 S. Lamar, 445-4451
13435 Hwy. 183 N. #415, 258-7757
All are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.