Kerbey Lane Café: Austin’s Diner
Mason Ayer on How Kerbey Lane Became one of the City’s Most Iconic Restaurants
Written by Jessica T. Brown
Interviewed by Dan Dillard
Photography by Weston Carls
Have you ever thought Magnolia Cafe’s famous pancakes taste eerily similar to Kerbey Lane’s? You’re not crazy. Magnolia’s pancakes are the product of Kerbey Lane CEO Mason Ayer’s mother’s recipe from the ‘70s. She worked at the restaurant when it was known as Omelettry West and later went on to found Kerbey Lane Cafe.
Mason Ayer was practically born to lead the restaurant. As he tells it, "In the late ‘70s, my mom was working at Omelettry with her then-husband, Kent Cole. The guy that ran Omelettry at that time asked my mom, Patricia, and Kent whether they were interested in opening a second Omelettry location. They were young and thought it would be an adventure, so they opened Omelettry West. In 1978, my dad graduated from the University of Texas. Like most UT grads with a degree in government and history, he looked for work outside his major to pay the bills and landed a job as a line cook at Omelettry West. My mom and Kent parted ways, and she and my dad got together and started a restaurant in central Austin. They named it Kerbey Lane for the street that it was on.
"My life story actually coincides with Kerbey Lane Cafe history. Kerbey Lane opened on May 5 of 1980. I was born on Dec. 27, 1980. There are pictures of me at only three days old, taken on New Year's Eve at the original Kerbey Lane location being proudly shown off to the service staff. Kerbey Lane has been a part of my life literally my entire life. Even as a kid, I was proud of the fact that my family owned Kerbey Lane Cafe. At the time, we had one location, but I was so proud of that."
Ayer proudly grew up in his family’s cafe, spending day and night assisting his mother and father with all the mundane tasks required of running a restaurant. But things didn’t go smoothly for the restaurant in those early years. "After a couple years of operating it was clear that it wasn’t going to work out for my parents. They had this successful business, while their marriage was a disaster. They were separated but effectively divorced by 1983. Shortly after my brother was born, my dad moved out. However it was around this time that they were in the process of opening their second location. As a kiddo, I thought it was normal that my parents had this business together and that they didn't live together.
"Looking back on it now, of course, it's a strange situation. In a lot of ways, I'm thankful for the business. Knowing my mom and my dad and knowing how incredibly different they are and how much they can really butt heads...they had to work together to make the business work."
Though Ayer spent much of his childhood in the restaurant, he was also dedicated to his education. When he was younger, he excelled in mathematics at the expense of his other courses. Later on, he chose to focus on his academic shortcomings by studying law. "I wanted to do something that challenged me to use a skill that was historically a weakness for me. I had an absolutely outstanding time at [The University of Virginia]. A lot of people hated law school, but I loved it. It was a beautiful community to be in. In Charlottesville, if you're stressed out about your torts exams, you just walk outside and look at the Blue Ridge Mountains and that sort of helps with that."
Though Ayer loved law school and the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he soon realized law wasn’t for him. "I came back to Texas after I graduated in 2007. I practiced corporate and securities law at a big Houston oil-and-gas-based firm. I didn't enjoy it at all. There are skills I took away from that job that I continue to use today, but the thing I struggled with was this idea that I'm essentially a transaction cost. It just wasn't right for me. There wasn't a sense that what I was doing really was making any kind of impact for good. After two and a half years of practicing law, I started thinking, 'Okay, I don't think I want to do this.' It was not good timing. In 2009 the prospects of getting any kind of a job at that time, even at another law firm, were meager at best. I looked around at my options and decided, 'Well my family has this business that I grew up with. I don't know anything about running a business, but maybe this is something I could do.'"
Ayer recalled, "I had the thought that, Kerbey Lane, even at that time, was an important part of Austin's culture and history. It was celebrating 30 years in business. I had this sense of mission and asked myself, 'If I didn’t do this, would Kerbey Lane be around 10 years from now?' It's tough to take that risk. It's tough to jump. It's hard to know whether or not the parachute's going to open after you jump, and I certainly didn't. I had no idea. But I was unhappy enough with what I was doing, feeling like my life lacked purpose and direction, that I went ahead and jumped, and to this day I consider it one of the very, very best decisions I've ever made in my entire life."
Ayer joined the family business in 2010, when there were four locations. "I basically just tried to make it work. I basically did what came to me instinctually. I didn't know anything about running a business, and I knew that I had a lot to learn. One of the things that I was really clear on from the beginning was centralizing our brand. I really tried to create alignment within our brand. If you lose control of the brand, it can be pretty detrimental to the overall brand. If one location is acting out, it sinks all of the ships. I hired Kelly Detlefsen, who's still with us and does a phenomenal job, as a training director. I can't say enough about what she did in terms of really upping our game when it came to service."
Ayer’s learning curve continued, "My other conflict was our profitability. When I was a kid, we weren't rolling in it by any means. In my first year, we lost $300,000. I didn't even have financial acumen to even understand what that meant. However, we did have some big investments that year. The first big investment we made was opening the fifth location at William Cannon and Mopac. In 2011, we moved from the South Lamar location and it was the most profitable year in the history of the company. We made $200,000, which was a big deal at the time. In 2013, we generated more net income in EBITDA [Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization] than the company had in the previous 32 years combined. We we're on the right path."
Since then, Ayer has launched major initiatives and has tweaked around the edges as well. "We still have the model that works, we have a brand that's really strong, we have a team that really enjoys being here. Our approach to the service industry is just totally unique in the sense that we do things that most restaurants just would never think of doing. We have a great culture. That's a reflection of my parents and of the values they instilled in the organization. It took bringing everything together and getting the organizations headed in the right direction. I couldn't be happier with having made the decision to take the leap from practicing the law."
To say Ayer cares for Kerbey Lane would be an absolute understatement. Not only does he care for his patrons and the service they receive, he also cares about his employees, going so far as to recently enact a companywide anti-smoking campaign to protect workers’ health.
Kerbey Lane has provided Ayer a space for growth, so he tries to pass that along to his staff by mentoring them and encouraging their learning experiences. "One of the things that I've really tried to do with this organization is make it a place where people can learn. While working here, they get a course in reading and understanding financial statements and business management. The ideas that have come out of this are are incredibly powerful."
Today, Ayer is building on his strong family roots and expanding the business.
"We are opening up two locations: one in Mueller, on the ground floor of Texas Mutual's new campus, and another that will be near The Domain. That’ll give us a total of nine locations in Austin. We're in the process of developing another concept, which would be a sister to Kerbey Lane Cafe, with a different emphasis. What we do is great, but I think that there are some things that we would be able to do with this new concept that would distinguish it. I hope that we'll be able to roll that out that in the next 12 to 18 months."
Ayer has a "life is too short" outlook that has served him well. "You spend most of your life working. Only 20 percent of people like their jobs and that's just really sad. I would hate to be in a situation where you're struggling as an attorney, or you're working for some retailer, where you have this idea and you hate your job but the status quo was comfortable.
Don’t do that and do something that you love. I mean, not every day is perfect. A lot of days aren't perfect here. But for the most part, I love what I do because I know that I can impact people on a daily basis. Think about how your idea can really make an impact and remember that as you're struggling to change the status quo."
Perseverance has been a running theme in Mason’s life and has been a major contributor to the success of Kerbey Lane Cafe. At the end of each day, when everyone is tired and worn down, Ayer feels a sense of pride at having gotten through another day of doing what he loves in a place that still serves his mother’s famous pancakes.
To learn more about Kerbey Lane Cafe, check out one of their seven Austin locations at kerbeylanecafe.com.