After Noodle Theory’s doors closed, Lazybird’s opened
When the local restaurant chain Noodle Theory was at its peak, owner Louis Kao was running three different locations. The last one, in Rockridge, closed this past November. In retrospect, Kao describes the last three years of working in the restaurant industry as “tumultuous.” He and his team struggled to find staff to support lunch and dinner service seven days a week. After closing Noodle Theory’s doors for the last time, he decided that, going forward, he wanted to be involved in a more manageable, casual business.
Initially, Kao told a business partner that he didn’t want to open another food service restaurant. He was ready to leave the industry to do something different. “I wanted to see if Noodle Theory could survive as a frozen line, or as a shelf stable line,” he explained. But the exact idea of creating a Noodle Theory product is still in development. Kao and his partner then decided to open the Alameda retail space, but it took awhile to smooth out and finalize Lazybird’s details.
In order for the business to grow, Kao believed Lazybird should install an oven, which required city inspections and permits. He ended up buying his partner out of the business with the help of other silent partners. “We’re in a small, two-block commercial area, and there are a lot of homes around us,” he said. Kao knew that Lazybird could grow a close-knit clientele from the cafe’s neighbors who are within walking distance.
To make the transition to running a cafe, Kao asked himself some hard questions: “Do I have to kill myself to be successful? Does it have to be a constant struggle?” With a new concept, ideally, customers will be forming a line out the door. But after 15 intense years at Noodle Theory, the chef and restaurateur is envisioning a different approach to balancing a successful work life with his personal one. Kao and his wife have young kids at home now. “I want to be able to enjoy my life, to find a space where I can be happy,” he said, adding, half-joking, “and still stay married.”
Lazybird Coffee appears to be fulfilling Kao’s revised set of goals. The cafe occupies a small space along one of the quieter sections of Central Avenue in Alameda. There are four to six two-person tables, max. The front counter dominates the interior with an array of pastries and snacks, and a gleaming La Marzocco espresso machine.
Conceptually, Lazybird Coffee isn’t an average coffee shop. Kao is serving pastries from Firebrand Artisan Breads, malasadas from Ono Bakehouse, Dream Fluff Donuts and his own original dishes, such as congee and breakfast sliders. “Anything I do is going to have an Asian influence to it,” he said. “I just appreciate the flavor profiles and the ingredients.” He cites Bake Sum and Sunday Bakeshop as local examples of bakeries where similar innovations are taking place.
“It’s no longer just French or classic croissants and pastries,” Kao explained. “We’re bringing other things in, flavoring them differently. That’s what I appreciate about the Bay Area.” It was also important to him that Lazybird actively supports small mom-and-pop businesses. Kao has been going to Dream Fluff Donuts since he was a student.
His own personal mom-and-pop experience goes back to his childhood. “I grew up in the restaurant business,” he said. Kao’s parents owned small businesses. When one of their employees didn’t show up for work, he would step in as a short order cook, flipping everything from burgers to pancakes. But in addition to his family obligations, and before the advent of the Food Network, he watched the PBS show, Great Chefs. And before opening Noodle Theory, Kao spent a decade working at The House, a San Francisco restaurant that also recently closed.
Kao said that running a restaurant in this “new landscape” isn’t easy. “If my parents had told me what was involved—paying taxes, balancing the books, paying vendors—if I had known all about that stuff, I never would have gotten into it,” he said. After three months though, he said that the neighborhood has embraced them. He added, “I love that I see the same people everyday.”
Lazybird Coffee, open every day 7:30am–2pm. 930 Central Ave., Alameda. 510.263.8057. lazybirdcoffee.com.