Thirty-five years is a long time for anything to last these days, but it represents particular longevity for a local restaurant.
Patricia and David Ayer opened Kerbey Lane Cafe in a small house on the eponymous street in 1980 with the idea of serving local, healthy and affordable food and providing a welcoming and memorable experience. Their son Mason Ayer serves as CEO of the seven Kerbey Lane Cafe locations throughout the Austin area.
“The restaurant opened on May 5 and I was born on December 27,” he recalls. “There are pictures in my baby book of me being carried around the cafe on that New Year’s Eve. I have early memories of wanting to help out and being given a putty knife and asked to scrape gum off the wooden tables.”
Growing up, Mason performed just about every job at the cafe. He left Austin for nine years, attending college and law school on the East Coast before returning in 2007 to practice law. He took the helm of the family business in 2010.
“The secret sauce of our longevity is providing a high-quality experience that people want to have over and over again,” Ayer says.
“We try to make sure we get it right more often than we get it wrong, and I think we have done that. My parents are both very, very good people who genuinely cared about the organization and our team members since day one. That legacy created a powerful culture of caring about each other and wanting to make the best, most memorable experience possible for our guests. In the past five years, I have taken that and expanded on it and made it more powerful.”
Staff turnover runs around 40 percent, good for any organization but outstanding for a restaurant, he says. “Here, people really enjoy doing what they do. We make it fun to work here and that translates into a better guest experience,” says Ayer. “People are more likely to forget bad food than bad service, so that’s one reason we teach and preach service as relentlessly as we do.”
Not that food isn’t important at Kerbey Lane — far from it. “The food is probably the most fun part of the job,” he explains. “I really enjoy working with our operations team and Executive Chef Joel Welch, coming up with interesting dishes that fit our personality.” Kerbey Lane focused on ingredients sourced locally from the beginning, before that became an established trend.
The restaurant is famous for breakfast, especially the pancake of the week, and the signature Kerbey Queso. Ayer plans to roll out a queso of the week this year.
“It will be interesting takes on our regular queso, perhaps sprinkled with bacon and roasted pumpkin seeds, or served with crispy pork belly and cilantro,” he says. A seasonal taco menu is also in the works. “We have a seasonal sandwich menu and it’s great, but Austin loves tacos and our chef is excellent at making innovative and interesting ones. He’s been researching different things he wants to do.”
The seventh Kerbey Lane Cafe just opened in Round Rock, and others near the Domain and in San Marcos are on the drawing board. Ayer has plans for additional locations but is sensitive to the potential for cannibalizing his own business and oversaturating the Austin market.
“I’m willing to bet that we’ll be in cities outside Austin in the next five years,” he says. “We have no firm plans yet, but that is a goal of ours.”
Four Kerbey Lane locations remain open 24/7: South Lamar, Northwest, University and Southwest. The original location is open 24 hours from Thursday through Sunday evening. All locations are open every day of the year, except Christmas Day.