Four months into a profitable start, the owners of South LA Cafe sent out an SOS to their nearly 10,000 Instagram followers.
“Help us keep South LA Café open!” Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace posted to the café’s page on Sunday. “Can you commit to sending us $10 or more just for the next three months to keep us on our feet?”
The eatery, on Western Avenue near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, had been making money since the first day it opened its doors in November, turning a 10% profit every month over the next, the owners said. Patrons came for the coffee but returned for the culturally conscious events, the safe space that celebrates blackness and a vibe that emanates “for us, by us.” Early talks had begun to expand to two more locations.
Then came the coronavirus outbreak. Orders rained down from the governor and mayor to shutter dining spaces. By the end of March, the sudden public health crisis was touching every facet of life.
Overnight, business at South LA Cafe dried up by 70%. The couple had to furlough nine employees. Some of their customers lost their jobs too.
“It hurts our hearts, but it also activates this sense of urgency,” Celia Ward-Wallace said. “We have our capes on our backs, and we’re fighting to save our people and the cafe.”
Before the coronavirus made its deadly march through communities across the country, upending lives and stalling the economy, something remarkable was happening south of the 10 Freeway.
A region that had long felt ignored by the development boom reshaping neighborhoods across Los Angeles was experiencing a renaissance in community-owned cafes, coffee shops and co-working spaces — especially among a new generation of black entrepreneurs.
There’s Hot & Cool Cafe, Harun Coffee, Swift Cafe and the Metaphor Club, a sort of black WeWork. All are clustered in Leimert Park, the epicenter of black arts and culture. Then there’s Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen on the western edge of South L.A. in View Park. Farther south, tucked in a former bread factory in Hyde Park, sits the co-working and cultural hub Vector 90, as well as Sip & Sonder coffeehouse in Inglewood.
All of the establishments are unapologetically black, the owners are proud to say. Now, the pandemic and the panic that it has incited are threatening to undo the years of economic progress they made in South Los Angeles.
“All of us are worried about the businesses that just got started,” said Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents parts of South L.A. “We don’t know what will happen going forward, and, frankly, we don’t feel good about it.”
Each bricks-and-mortar business is part of a larger ecosystem. It’s a symbiotic relationship, in which they depend on vendors to supply fresh pressed juices, pastries and other merchandise. When one local business suffers, they all do.
Harris-Dawson said that businesses in his council district are more vulnerable in times of economic uncertainty. Even in good times, they are operating on razor-thin margins, he said, leaving them with less cash in reserve to operate during a downturn.
And many of these entrepreneurs do not own the buildings where their businesses operate and have a hard time meeting the requirements needed to qualify for small business loans and other financial assistance programs.
So the councilman has tapped into city funding for his district that was earmarked for various culture heritage activities, most of which have been canceled because of the risk of spreading the coronavirus, and redirected it to pay 18 local restaurants to prepare and deliver nearly 3,000 meals to meet the urgent needs of the district’s seniors.
“We hope this helps,” he said. “But frankly, we don’t know.”
The backbone of South L.A.
Small businesses have long been the backbone of South L.A. Barbershops, hair salons and beauty supply stores filled the holes left behind when businesses fled after the 1965 and 1992 riots.
Today, few national retailers dot the landscape, with South L.A. long stigmatized by those bursts of violence. The disinvestment has lasted generations.
But the construction of a light-rail line connecting Mid-City to Los Angeles International Airport and the rise of SoFi Stadium have revived interest in South L.A. Developers are building high-rises, luxury housing and upscale restaurants. Wealthier residents, many of them white, are moving in.
All of the changes have left some longtime residents, many of them black and Latino, feeling as if the new amenities aren’t for them. And for some, the rise in gentrification served as a sign that this was their last chance to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality.
The first to take the leap was Tony Jolly, backed by his wife, brother, and a close family friend. The team initially thought to open a coffee roastery in South L.A., but after seeing the dearth of healthful food options, they decided to open Hot & Cool Cafe in April 2018.
The cafe’s bestseller quickly became a $15 vegan soul bowl — a dish of collard greens with plant-based chicken and macaroni and cheese. Like at a few other establishments in the neighborhood, a portrait of the late South L.A. rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle hangs on the wall.
The vibe of Hot & Cool changes depending on the event, but it always feels a bit like Wakanda.
It can be transformed into a club, as when Nigerian American rapper Jidenna premiered his album there in August. It can be a place of worship, as when people pack the place during singer Rickie Byars’ Sunday devotional. And it can become a lounge, like on Tuesdays, when there is open mike night, or an exercise studio, like on Saturday mornings, when an instructor hosts “trap yoga” in an upstairs event space.
Now, with the coronavirus forcing the cancellation of gatherings of almost any size so people can practice social distancing, business has dropped 80%. The family moved to the takeout and delivery options.
Jolly had to furlough all seven employees at Hot & Cool. The family works for free.
Asked how long he can keep this cultural hub open, he sighed.
“As long as our landlord is lenient,” Jolly said. “And we’re looking to tap into some of this stimulus money that every business owner in American is running to. But I don’t know.”
On the other side of Crenshaw Boulevard, four Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers have cultivated a community for black creatives at the Metaphor Club. The monthly membership of $99 includes access to a workspace, professional development programs, and free coffee and espresso.
Next door is MetaFlow, a rental space that had hosted such things as Black Lives Matter meetings, art exhibits and services for an Ethiopian church. In recent months, the frat brothers also opened MetaLab, a podcast studio space and creation lab.
Then cases of Americans coming down with COVID-19 began making headlines. The brothers shut down operations at all of their locations in March, days before the directives came from Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom. They wanted to protect their members.
The frat brothers are financially fine for now, co-owner Lawrence Ross said, but he worries about what will happen if they are forced to stay closed past June. Like many of the other businesses in South L.A., Ross and his partners are coming up with ways to serve the community’s needs post-pandemic.
“If our members need information on finance, mental health and wellness, then we’re going to help get them through this,” Ross said.
It’s not just the new kids on the block who are suffering. South L.A. institutions, such as soul food restaurant Dulan’s and creole kitchen Harold & Belle’s, have seen a huge declines in sales as well. In many ways, their resilience through decades of booms and busts provides hope that these newer businesses will make it through, some have said.
Down in Inglewood, Sip & Sonder coffeehouse celebrated its first anniversary Wednesday with a day of events — all streamed online.
There was a morning of breath work followed by a night of jazz. The performers all wore masks and gloves. A couple having a virtual date traded cutesy messages in the coffeehouse’s online chat.
It was part celebration, part fundraiser, said owners Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas.
“We’re raising funds to keep the coffeehouse going once we ride this ‘rona wave,’ ” they said in a flier made for the event, using the nickname that Black Twitter has given the coronavirus. “Let’s make it to year two.”
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