Local 123 finds its feet in West Berkeley and beyond

As well as serving coffee and food, Local 123, at 2049 San Pablo Avenue in west Berkeley, has a carefully curated line-up of local artists and frequent events — from pop-up dinners and patio barbecues to jam-making workshops and film screenings

Frieda Hoffman, who runs Local 123, a popular west Berkeley café, trained to be a social worker and wanted to work in the addiction field. She spent six years in Berlin with her then-husband, a German, but had difficulty landing work in her area. So when an American friend decided to open up a café there, and became quickly overwhelmed, she jumped in to lend a hand and discovered that she rather liked the barista business and wound up managing the java joint.

Hoffman and her husband returned to the States in 2008 and toyed with the idea of running an eco inn along the coast, but soon realized that was cost prohibitive. So then they started scouting for café locations – and found the storefront on San Pablo Avenue, formerly a video rental store and a beauty supply shop. (During the build-out, much of which the Local 123 crew  did themselves, they discovered placenta hair gel, among other artifacts.)

Her marriage didn’t survive the cross-Atlantic shift but Hoffman decided to soldier on with opening the café – the business was a welcome distraction – and her sister-in-law Katy Wafle, stepped in to help. Hoffman lived above the café until the summer of 2009, when she decided she was done waking up to the sound of coffee grinders.

That was more than three years ago now. Since then, Hoffman and Wafle’s olive-green spot has been a welcome addition to a neighborhood now undergoing a restaurant renaissance. Their coffee – these days it’s Four Barrel, early on it was Flying Goat  – wins rave reviews, as do buttery and sugary pastries from Starter Bakery and vegan donuts Pepples. Their simple, seasonal breakfast and lunch menu (largely the legacy of the café’s former kitchen manager Rebecca Stevens) has a following too. Add to that a carefully curated line-up of local artists and frequent events — from pop-up dinners and patio barbecues to jam-making workshops and film screenings — and the place has become, well, a local fixture.

Hoffman has had opportunities to use her social work skills, including a specialty in conflict resolution – both in her dealings with staff and customers. Mostly, she says, she’s learned to listen. Even her knowledge of addiction issues have come in handy (early on in the transitional neighborhood the owners found needles and crack vials in the bathrooms, though that is no longer a problem.) And, she jokes, she just traded working with people addicted to drugs to those in need of a caffeine fix.

Hoffman, 32, who lives in North Oakland, can also be found at the café’s new satellite location – a 1969 Airstream Streamline Princess trailer parked at the lush nursery setting Flowerland on Solano Avenue in neighboring Albany. She is busy working on new partnerships, which she discussed with Berkeleyside this week over a chai latte.

Frieda Hoffman serves Four Barrel brews from an Airstream trailer at Flowerland

What have you most enjoyed about launching Local 123?

I love that people enjoy all the different nooks in this space: There’s the section up front and the patio out the back and the couch area and the communal table.  I love that people connect in this place – both the staff and the customers – and there’s this tight sense of community. That’s what it’s all about.

Do you have any quirky café stories to share?

Just the other day a woman who had been coming here regularly for months told me that she’d been getting gift card after gift card here and she would just spend the day here. I remember her being parked  here all day – don’t get me wrong, she was a great customer and probably spent $15-$20 a day. And then she said she finally did the math and realized she could just go rent an office. So she did. And now she just comes out two-to-three times a week, as a treat, for coffee.

What’s surprising about running a food business in Berkeley?

This town is so seasonal: I’m shocked by even though we’re so far from the university we still feel its impact. There’s a different feel in the summer – when the university is out and families are on vacation – than in the fall.

What’s challenging about doing business in this town?

It’s been such a saga with our bike racks and also with our beer and wine license. I think the city was really saddled with staff cuts and furloughs at the time we were trying to get our permits. It ended up taking us nine months to get our beer and wine license, whereas at the state level it took only four weeks to get it approved. The city just kept dragging its feet.

With bike racks: We just got one and installed it in the back patio. We’d asked the city well before we opened – we even said we’d pay for them – but there was all this bureaucracy about whether it was going to be done and by whom. Now you’ll notice that there are bike racks out the front that just popped up on San Pablo about a month ago. I have no idea who put them in.

Working with the city of Albany on Flowerland was a breath of fresh air after dealing with Berkeley – the personnel was so friendly and welcoming, people seem down to earth, and you don’t have to wait in line. The guys at the fire department had me over and congratulated us when we got our sign off on our fire inspection. It’s just a very different, small town feel.

A cup of joe is also a work of art at Local 123

What’s next for the café?

I’d like to do a parklet project out the front. But who has time?

We’re also interested in running a café space within a space, and we’ve been talking with a number of potential partners.

We may run the café at Freight and Salvage. I think the idea is as a trial in late August we’ll take over what they’re doing – which is bare bones, they don’t have a refrigerator, just an ice chest, where they offer beer and wine. We might just tweak the menu in the lobby a bit.

Inside they have an area where we could offer great coffee, sandwiches, hot pretzels, and pastries for the evening dessert crowd. We could also do their catering. It would be cool if that goes ahead.

Where do you like to eat out around town?

Meal Ticket is a favorite spot for breakfast. I like their trout and their eggs. I love the burger at Café Rouge. And I wish 900 Grayson was open for dinner because then I could get down there more. I eat anything they make – their Cobb Salad, and their TV Dinners, which change daily, are awesome.

What do you takeaway from the recent demise of Remedy Coffee, which formerly ran the BAM concession and had a popular location in Oakland?

It was sobering. Todd, the owner, is a friend of mine. He’s in a very different place than 123. But it was very real. It’s tough to be in this industry, the profit margins are so thin.

I learned what not to do on the business side from managing my friend’s café in Berlin. He had no sense of accounting. A quote from the time: ‘I don’t believe in math’ horrified me. He was doing horribly financially but stayed afloat because he was in a great neighborhood and had a great staff.

Trying to open a café and stay within a budget is challenging. We’ve done well with small business loans, we own the building, we’ve put solar on the roof, which provides nearly all of our hot water needs; solar probably covers about 80-90 percent of our hot water and electric needs, which is great. I can’t imagine what our PG&E bills would be like without it.

We’ve almost hit sustainability, though we’ve just put a lot of money into start-up costs for Flowerland. Katy and I worked for a long time without paying ourselves – pulling 80-90 hour weeks from the start – there’s a lot of sweat that goes into a business like this.

Local 123 Café, 2049 San Pablo Avenue (cross street University Avenue), M-F: 7-6, S-S: 7-5.

Check out the café’s event page for upcoming art shows and such, including the 200 Yards Project opening and the BACON art crawl and BBQ. And view the sweet slideshow of Local 123’s Airstream location in Albany, courtesy of the design-centric Dwell.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Cool Berkeley coffee joints to get your caffeine on
Babette’s feast: Finding fine fare at the Berkeley Art Museum [07.06.12]
Bartavelle owner: What’s cooking for ex-Café Fanny space [05.25.12]
Pop-up restaurants are popping up around town [04.29.11]
In West Berkeley, a café opens, a community blossoms [07.16.10]

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  • Kamarie

    I wish Local 123 would stay open later!  I’d be there a lot.  

  • Rare!

    I grew up in Berkeley and have been hanging out in cafes since 1977.  Local 123 is a wonderful addition:  good coffee and snacks, nice people, soothing space.  Good luck to them!

  • 4Eenie

    I’ve only been there once, when they first opened. I ordered a latte. The guy made it and when I was ready to pay, he said they only took cash. I didn’t have cash. I’m not sure where the latte went, but it didn’t go to me. From the photo in the article and the good word-of-mouth reviews I’ve heard, I can only assume that business is moving along swimmingly. The place looks so much happier and cleaner now, and this article is a great reminder to give it another try. I assume the cash-only policy has been lifted?

    By the way, I love the graffiti/artwork that is on this building, or one nearby, of two rhinos mating. It’s difficult to see if you are driving past, but it is really pretty and worth taking a pause to see. The rhinos are facing northword. Look up as you head south to see them.

  • They’ve certainly seemed to be doing quite well the times I’ve been in there, and it’s great to know they’re close to sustainability on some fronts. But $4 for a 10 oz. latte? Come on.

  • Guest

    Interesting story.  It shows a really poor retails sense, especially for a new establishment trying to build a steady and loyal clientele.  After all, with the $4 10oz latte already made, what sense in discarding it?  If he had simply given it to you gratis while explaining their (then?) cash-only policy, I am betting you would have bought a lot of lattes there since then.

    By stark contrast,  Eric Sartenaer, the owner of Pasta Phoenix is incredibly generous with his offerings.  He’s always giving away some new tasty creation of his or adding something special to your order that he won’t charge you for (even if you insist!).  It’s amazing how much loyalty and gratitude you can build in your customer base by not nickle and diming them constantly and by giving away some merchandise or eating a small expense once in a while when someone forgot their wallet or is a little short.

  • guest

    Cutest coffeeshop owner evah!

  • 4Eenie

    I think they were just getting their bearings when I went. It was like a day after they opened. I understand how that might happen early on in a business. I just drove past it today and there were lots of folks inside. Looks like a great place! And I checked–the rhinos are still there too. :)

  • M.G.

    I am so happy that Local 123 has expanded to Flowerland. What a lovely spot to drink great coffee. I hope they do okay there in the rainy season.

  • David D.

     I wonder if she’s single. :)

  • David D.

    Sounds like a we-just-opened type of story. I found the baristas a little abrasive the first time I went, but they are much nicer now. I like my coffee without attitude, and I think Local 123 “got it” faster than some other cafes around town.

  • David D.

    I haven’t been to Local 123 for a little while. The outside tables had been moved into the sofa space the last time I was there. Any idea if they’ve been put back? The switch absolutely killed the ambiance, so I started frequenting Cafe Yesterday instead…

  • Anonymous

     Or double?

  • Rhiannon

    I was excited for Local 123 to open up because there aren’t any other good 3rd-wave coffee shops in Berkeley, but I don’t spend the time and money I thought I would there because they refuse (sometimes in a not-nice way) to make my favorite drink, iced mocha (or anything else that involves putting ice in an espresso drink). I know it’s not just about money, but I do wish they’d understand how much more money they would get directly from my own caffeine-addicted coffee-snob wallet if they understood (like so many other great shops do) that some of us really do like skillfully-prepared delicious coffee drinks with ice in them!

  • David D.

     All the drinks are double. I should have known better!

  • Eschmitt3

    Local 123 is a great addition to Berkeley. The interior is beautifully done, always great art on the walls and they serve great coffee and snacks. I wish I could spend more time there.

  • john joseph

    Yes, stay open later! 3 reasons — 1) What coffee shop closes at 6? 2) A liquor license is costly in both time and money so maximize the opportunity to sell the booze. 3) With only two other bars in the vicinity, you’d be a welcome alternative.

  • Stacey

    Yeah! Local 123 is so awesome.  We love you!!