Take 5 With Otto Wright
The owner of The Local makes a hub of his coffeehouse-cafe-club.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
After careers in high tech and private aviation “ground support” where he attended to the needs of the movie stars and other big wigs who fly exclusive airlines like Oakland’s Kaiser Air, Otto Wright found what he thought was going to be his dream job with another boutique airline. As fate would have it though, it turned out to be the “worst job ever.” Realizing he needed a new gig, the Alameda resident first pursued opening a bar — a long-standing family joke was that he should do just that. Realizing that a novice could quickly lose his shirt running a watering hole, Wright looked elsewhere, specifically to Craigslist. There he found that the Blue Danube cafe (before that, Javarama) in the Masonic Lodge on Park Street that dates back to 1891 was for sale. Wright pounced on the opportunity and soon opened The Local. It features the hipster cafe staples like pour-over coffee, artisanal sandos, brewskis, wine, and espresso drinks adorned with artwork on the foam. But perhaps the most beloved feature is the commitment to local happenings such as poetry readings, live music, open mics of all sorts, board game fiestas, and what not. Simply put, it’s not just another place to get an honest cup of Joe. “It’s a hub for the community,” said Wright.
Why does Park Street need an indie coffee house? After all, Starbucks and Peet’s are within spitting distance.
The Local actually serves multiple purposes. On the face of it, it’s just a coffeehouse like any other, but really it’s a lot more than that. Alameda is very introspective, and The Local is able to provide that space where community-oriented activities happen. We have a kid’s open mic. We just did an open house for the proposed Carnegie Library transformation and 50-plus people showed up. That’s a huge part of what we are. I don’t think that’s what Peet’s and Starbucks are really all about. They’re out to just sell a lot of stuff to a lot of people and keep the line moving.
What are your expectations of customers who spend all day at the Local on their laptops? Can they get away with not making a purchase?
Honestly, I think it would be a mistake for cafes to be anti-device. You just have to be smart about it and recognize that this is how people live and work now. Some of it is kind of controlled by the type of seating you have and whether you have easy availability to electricity. Those are things that can be controlled somewhat. But it’s kind of an 80/20 proposition. Eighty percent of the people who come in to use their laptops and stay for a while are good customers. They buy a coffee to start with, a pastry later, then they’ll have lunch and maybe after a number of hours, a beer. So that one person may actually spend a good amount of money while they’re here. I don’t want to chase those people away. The other 20 percent, they are looking for a cheap place where they can hang out. That’s not to say they’re not welcome. Usually they do get up and buy stuff.
What is the origin of The Local’s famous Maple Bacon Double Latte?
We’ve invented probably a dozen unique items at our store. The Maple Bacon Double Latte is one. I just had maple syrup and we were kind of experimenting with some different flavors and different lattes. I always think of maple with bacon. We thought, ‘Well, wait. We have bacon. Let’s try it.’ It was just a funny experiment, but it turns out it was really good, and so it’s built its own following.
What are some other Local creations?
We’ve invented a whole bunch of things, like the Magic Cup of Health. I created this one specifically for a friend who was suffering from migraines. It has ginger and turmeric and cinnamon and a bunch of other spices in addition to fresh squeezed juices. She said it really helped. It turned into the ultimate hangover cure. Anybody who feels any malady coming now comes in to get their Magic Cup of Health. I have some friends from Zacatecas, Mexico, and I had thought it would be interesting to create a more traditional, custom-made hot chocolate as opposed to using the Abuelita ‘hockey pucks.’ So we started looking at recipes and consulting with my friends from Mexico and we came up with a recipe that pretty much anybody from Mexico will tell you is what it really tastes like in Mexico.
The Local is so popular that you’ve been approached about opening up outposts in other Bay Area cities. What’s going on with that?
I have been asked by people in three different cities if we were interested in coming and opening at another location, and I haven’t decided yet when that will happen. It’s a possibility. What people seem to be looking for is a business hosting community-oriented activities.