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.
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.
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.
Cool Berkeley coffee joints to get your caffeine on [07.16.12]
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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