An Unlikely Duo Brings Fast Food and Jobs to Youth in Oakland

Photo by Audrey Ma.

What happens when celebrity chef Roy Choi, of Kogi BBQ truck fame, and chef of the Michelin-starred Coi restaurant Daniel Patterson, team up for a “revolutionary fast food” joint?

LocoL is their healthy and affordable restaurant concept. Their first storefront opened in Watts earlier this year, and they opened an Oakland location last week in Uptown, a business district just north of downtown and a few blocks from public transit.

Choi is most well-known for his Kogi tacos, a Korean-Mexican mashup. He’s since expanded to other restaurants including Chego, Alibi Room, A-Frame, and POT and Commissary at The Line Hotel. Patterson is a Bay Area chef whose restaurants include the two Michelin-starred Coi in San Francisco and Haven and Plum Bar in Oakland.

Photo by Audrey Ma.
Roy Choi. Photo by Audrey Ma.

Two years ago, Patterson attended the MAD Food Symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark where Choi gave a talk about hunger (“A Gateway to Feed Hunger: The Promise of Street Food). Patterson already had the idea of bringing healthy fast food options to neighborhoods dominated by liquor stores, where healthy food was scarce. “I thought, man, it would be great if there was a fast food restaurant that could serve real food to create taste memories for kids, but I didn’t know how I could do that, and I knew I couldn’t do it by myself,” Patterson said in an interview, sitting outside the Oakland LocoL store on opening day. “I knew that he was the guy to do this with.”

Patterson approached Choi and told him about his idea, and Choi was on board. Patterson flew down to Los Angeles and had lunch with Choi, “and that was that.”

Before LocoL, both chefs started nonprofits focused on teaching urban youth how to cook. Patterson founded The Cooking Project and Choi had 3 Worlds Café in L.A., which is funded by Dole. “Kids are just so excited to be exposed to things,” Patterson said. “You give them something good, their eyes light up. In a way, that’s what LocoL’s about too.”

Their work with youth is intentional. Though their first Oakland location is in a busy intersection off of Broadway Avenue—not exactly a food desert—all of their staff are from East Oakland, according to Patterson. Bringing jobs to impoverished neighborhoods has become a key component to their vision.

“The Bay Area is very wealthy, and everyone thinks that everyone’s got a job,” Patterson said. “The fact is, there are a lot of people who don’t have jobs, a lot of people are hungry, and don’t have money. We’re trying to connect the community to jobs.”

An Oakland LocoL cashier. Photo by Audrey Ma.
An Oakland LocoL cashier. Photo by Audrey Ma.

On opening day, the staff were friendly, smiling, and excited. Employees from the Watts restaurant had driven up from L.A. to be a part of their sister restaurant’s opening day. All together, they brought a level of energy not felt in most food establishments in the area. LocoL hired rapper and community organizer Bambu De Pistola to do some of the outreach to youth in East and West Oakland. “It’s not so much bringing our message to them, but to bring their message to us, talk to them, tell them we’re coming and ask them what they think,” Patterson said.

Both Chefs Patterson and Choi have the confidence, following, and financial backing to keep LocoL going, especially in areas like Oakland where rent is going up. They turned the former Plum Restaurant space into LocoL, next to the current Plum Bar. They are leasing the space, but didn’t seem too concerned about the rising rent in the Bay Area that’s pushed out many local restaurants.

When I asked them what would happen once a lease is up and if the rent increases exponentially, Choi said: “If it does, it doesn’t matter because the brand exists. When that happens, we’ll cross that bridge if we have to. Hopefully, the brand will be so strong it will rejuvenate the brand rather than hurt it.”

For Choi, his experience with Kogi made LocoL possible. “I would never be able to interact with the public if I didn’t have Kogi. It was the pathway to be able to cook for thousands of people on the street, to connect virally to the public, and become kind of a cultural imprint on their lives. That definitely prepared me for this as we built a brand.”

As for developing what they’re feeding folks—it came down to similar palates and mutual respect between the two chefs. What’s unusual is two seemingly disparate chefs, joining forces to create a fast food menu.

Brekkie Egg in the Hole, French Toast Holes, Yogurt and Granola, Fresh Fruit, Coffee and Green Juice. Photo by Audrey Ma.
Brekkie Egg in the Hole, French Toast Holes, Yogurt and Granola, Fresh Fruit, Coffee, and Green Juice. Photo by Audrey Ma.

“We knew we wanted fast food, so automatically, we asked, ‘What is the anchor?’ Burgers. From there, it easily led to other things,” Choi said. They have their “burg” section of the menu, including a burg, veggie burg, and chicken burg. They have foldies, a quesadilla-like item, for $3. They have “brekkie” sandwiches like egg in the hole and French toast holes. Burgs are $5 as are breakfast sandwiches. Coffee, iced of hot, and agua frescas, are $2. Nothing is over $7. The Uptown Oakland menu items are $1 more than the Watts store due to the location. They plan to open another in East Oakland, and prices there will be comparable to the restaurant in Watts.

The two chefs easily gave props to each other when they started talking about their cooking.

“We have a palate that’s very similar in a lot of ways in terms of how we use herbs and spices and acidity and what we like,” Patterson said. “For me, when I tasted Roy’s food, I knew we’d work well together. Because that’s the thing about chefs, you can say whatever you want, but the truth is in the food.”

“Likewise, when I ate at Coi for the first time, I just knew we’d be able to cook together very well,” Choi said about the partnership. “Even though we’re cooking totally different food. You see it in music too, two totally different musicians, but if they connect, they connect. Like Bon Iver and Kanye. They seem different, but you can connect.”

The LocoL founders will be busy in the coming years. They plan to open several more locations in the upcoming year, including one in East Oakland, a commissary in West Oakland, one in the Tenderloin and another one in L.A. In the future, they want to expand Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, D.C., Ferguson, Chicago, Philadelphia and beyond.

At the end, it comes back to the basics—feeding people. “I’m a cook,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of people that no one’s feeding. Not just in terms of nutrition, but emotionally and spiritually—we’ve kind of taken a lot of communities in our country and taken everything away.”

Daniel Patterson in the kitchen of Oakland's first LocoL. Photo by Audrey Ma.
Daniel Patterson in the kitchen of Oakland’s first LocoL. Photo by Audrey Ma.

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CAAM Board Member Hanson Li is Founder and Managing Partner at Salt Partners Group, a food and beverage investment and holding company that co-founded LocoL.