One of Austin's true restaurant stalwarts, Kerbey Lane Cafe has been serving up pancakes, tomato pie, and queso around the clock for over thirty years. Now a five-store chain, Kerbey Lane has remained a perennial favorite through smart neighborhood expansion, a focus on local sourcing, and a healthy range options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diners.
More than a few regulars likely recognize Kerbey GM Phil Bachus—over the past 12 years, he's managed every one of the restaurant's locations at some point. Eater Austin spoke to Bachus about adapting to a new Austin, wrangling the late-night UT crowd, and how to keep your staff happy.
Eater Austin: When did you start at Kerbey Lane?
Phil Bachus: July 11, 2001.
Which of the five restaurants was the most challenging to run?
Our Northwest location. Hands down.
It seats almost three hundred people, which makes it a much bigger thing. That part of town doesn't necessarily get the culture of Kerbey Lane as much as the other stores. So it tends sometimes to be more like a regular restaurant than the actual culture of Kerbey Lane. I think what makes Kerbey Lane special is the culture of the employees and of your customers. The deeper in South Austin you get, the more you get that.
We're sitting at the Southwest location right now; have you found that here? We're in suburbia.
We are, but this part of town seems like the cool kids that grew up, so they still get it. But you really get the core on South Lamar. That's the core of the whole thing.
Since 2001, Austin has changed dramatically. How has the company changed or adapted to "new" Austin over time?
They've definitely taken everything more seriously as they've grown. In order to stay on top, you really have to pay attention to service and you have to grow with the times. They've done a great job. When you see a competitor like Magnolia, I don't think they grew with the times as much. They kind of stayed [in] that old spot. I feel Kerbey likes to offer a lot for their employees as well as offering a lot for their customers. That's a tricky balance. Sometimes people would say Kerbey, as it grew, has gone more corporate. I don't think that's true. They've grown up and realized that you have to concentrate on certain areas - the big one being service, and they have. They've always had great food, and they've always supported local business and local farmers. That's been there since I started.
What's the most coveted shift for a server at Kerbey Lane?
Morning and lunch. But I don't think it's because of money. Servers want a more consistent lifestyle and to work full-time. A lot of our employees work full-time - this is what they do. Some people move on. But we have handfuls of servers that have been here ten-plus years. You don't see that at a lot of restaurants. It's because they can make a living with the consistency of it and the benefits. We feel like that's what makes us the place that regulars like to come. I feel like regulars come back because of our employees.
What are the challenges of dealing with the late night and overnight shifts? Does it get rowdier and more challenging?
It can. The biggest challenge on late night is obviously our UT location because of the students. You definitely wouldn't send your kids to school there if you head into that place at 4 a.m. some mornings! With UT late night crowds, you never know. Everything from really funny stories to almost dangerous stories do happen, but all your employees come together on those shifts and everybody raises the kids together, you know? And once they move on, you get to do it again next year. That's what makes it interesting there. The other [side of] late nights is that it's not as challenging! Your customers seem to be a little more in tune, and they really love you. There's no stress on late nights other than the busiest ones. It's a lot of fun.
Do any moments from your late night shifts stick out as particularly memorable or unexpected?
One late night at UT, some guys had gotten into it with some other guys through the window. They were arguing back and forth, and ran outside to fight and then the "COPS" van from TV came pulling up and jumped out with their cameras. I don't know if it ever aired, but it was pretty cool. It was a pretty lively night. And over the years we all have seen lots of celebrities.
You can get biscuits and bacon at Kerbey Lane, but you can also go vegan or skew healthier. Have you seen a change over your twelve years in terms of how many people eat healthy?
I think when people come here for "healthy," it's not so much healthy as to be conscious of what they are eating.
Meaning vegetarian or vegan?
I have seen different trends - when I first started, vegetarian was really popular. Everything else was really unheard of. That rolled into a push to vegan. That's kind of died off. Now we are heavily into the gluten-free. But people come here whether they are healthy eaters or not. They are all happy to know that we care about where our food comes from. You could eat something that's not necessarily healthy, but the fact that it doesn't have lots of unnatural things in it is the equalizer as people become more educated about food.
Finally, on a typical day, what's the earliest that customers start drinking?
We don't see a big alcohol crowd here unless it's the weekend, and it's all about mimosas. That starts at like 7 a.m. - but we only have a full bar at two of the stores. We get people for breakfast, we get them for lunch, we get them for late nights - we are OK that customers often [drink] somewhere else. If it is a drink they can enjoy with their meal, it's on weekend mornings. During the week, it's pretty low.
[Photo: Kerbey Lane Cafe/Yelp]