It's been a little over three months since New York Times food critic Pete Wells surprised everyone with a highly negative review of Locol in Oakland, the healthy fast-food venture from celebrity chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson that aims to bring better food to the so-called "food deserts" of America's inner cities. Patterson remains baffled by Wells's choice and how he was even so unhappy ("I have a lot of flaws, but my palate is not one of them," says Patterson in a new profile in the California Sunday Magazine), but nonetheless they've made improvements to the burger and a couple other menu items, they've opened a new bakery location in West Oakland, and they're launching a new premium coffee brand called Yes Plz which is attempting to do something perhaps thought impossible: give customers an artisanal-roastery cup for corner-deli prices.
The New York Times found it notable enough to write up the side venture, in which coffee will be available at Locol locations and ultimately at stand-alone coffee windows, for $1 for a regular 12-ounce cup of black coffee and $1.50 if you want milk and sugar. The coffee is sourced by the same standards as Intelligentsia or Blue Bottle, roasted by a team in Los Angeles led by Tony Konecny, and will be available also in 12-ounce bags of whole beans for $8 to $9.
"There’s an extreme democratization that I really want to make happen in coffee,” Konecny tells the Times. "Coffee still thinks that mass appeal is a sign of selling out and inauthenticity, but everybody wears Levi’s. I think contemporary coffee has failed to find the consumers it should be finding."
Konecny says he has no patience for "ingredient preciousness, [and] single-origin puritanism" and all the pretension of coffee bars is "just dress-up." But can this model of cheap but good coffee, with the milk-and-sugar takers making up for some of the lost revenue of those who take it black, actually pencil out economically?
This remains to be seen, and so far, Patterson has espoused a model in which he understands that in being so ambitious, Locol may not be an immediate hit in every location they move in to.
The chef, who gave up his role as executive chef at the Michelin two-starred Coi last year to focus more fully on growing Locol, tells the California Sunday Magazine that the first Locol they opened, in LA's Watts neighborhood, is now not quite breaking even despite a lot of initial buzz and it hasn't necessarily been embraced by the people it's most interested in targeting, those who live in the neighborhood. As of last May, Patterson said of the Watts restaurant, "We thought we might do $6,000 a day. We’re doing $2,300, and that just covers payroll." It's unclear if those numbers still hold true, but he and Choi now believe that they can make up for under-performing stores in inner-city areas they most want to break into by opening some in more affluent neighborhoods that are more guaranteed to be busy, which was the hope with the Uptown Oakland location, next door to Patterson's Plum Bar.
But back to Wells, Patterson is still asking, "Why would a reporter from The New York Times fly 3,000 miles to go apeshit on a five-dollar burger?" Of course, Wells was within his rights to review a new fast-food venture from two high-profile chefs, but Patterson seems most confused by the fact that Wells didn't taste what he tasted. "It was like aliens possessed him. I was there all week. The food he described and the food he ate were different, right?"
In the end, the profile of Patterson is a nuanced one, and one that reinforces the public perception of him as an intellectual chef who at once calls Rene Redzepi and Ferran Adria his close friends, but also has a burning desire to address institutional racism through food and create a new, craveable cheeseburger that isn't all beef.
Despite attending annual conferences with these heavy-hitters being canonized for his work in Modernist Cuisine, Patterson says that "innately" he doesn't necessarily belong among them. "We have a lot of affection for each other, and we get along, but that doesn’t mean I’m of that world in any kind of deep way," he tells the magazine. "Maybe there was a lot of searching in vain for an answer that was there kind of all along. That I was never going to fit in anywhere."
Still, he hopes that as a Bay Area restaurateur, and behind the scenes at what could potentially be a new model for fast food, he still has an important role to play.