LocoL Watts, A Soft Opening in a Hard Neighborhood Goes Beautifully

Location, location, location..  

That is said to be a major key to success when opening a restaurant. 

So where does Roy Choi open his newest venture, LocoL?  On 103rd, a street that during the 1965 Watts Riots became nationally known as "Charcoal Alley" and not for the coals used to grill steaks, but for the burning cinders of the torched buildings by African Americans pushed to the brink by mistreatment from law enforcement. To top that off, to defy the location, location, location pundits, it's a half block from Grape Street, which the mere - and threatening - mention of so often has preceded mayhem.  

But, on a dreary Monday afternoon, that location, 103rd and Grape, across the street from the Jordan Downs housing projects,  mighta been the most joyous, grateful and satisfied corner in this whole city.

"This is so good for the community," said Bow Wow,  a fixture in Jordan Downs, who is employed by LocoL as an "Ambassador".  The ambassador duties?  Well, let's just say Bow Wow, like any ambassador, represents the territory to other territories in a positive manner.

Some were in line to eat, Others were just hanging out, happy to be part of a celebration in a community that has seen so much sadness come its way. One of them was Daude Sherrills, who along with his brother Aqeela  - a prominent gang interventionist and owner/partner in this restaurant  - was one of the architects of the historic 1992 Watts Gang Peace Treaty. 

"This is what a community development business is all about," said Daude as he held court with old and new friends near LocoL's patio. "Plant the roots of the business deep in the community.  It won't tip over that way. There are 36 jobs here, and 99% of the workers are from Watts.  This is great."  

On Saturday, at LocoL's back patio, Nardo, another Jordan Downs stalwart who is employed here, was telling customers "It's a soft opening", He turned to a reporter he's known for decades who had chided him for that lingo.  "Hey, I'm learning the restaurant language."  

LocoL, which bills itself as a "revolutionary fast food restaurant", is the brainchild of Roy Choi and famed San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson. The next restaurant is set to open in SF's gritty Tenderloin district..   There's even one planned near the notorious Nickerson Gardens, a mile away from 103rd Street. . 

This is from Choi and Patterson  

"We are a company where the chefs think about what to feed you. Where the chefs think about how to take care of you. We fundamentally believe that wholesomeness, deliciousness and affordability don't have to be mutually exclusive concepts in fast food. We believe that fast food restaurants can truly empower the communities they currently underserve. We believe that the giant corporations that feed most of America have degraded our communities by maximizing profits over decades. We believe that chefs should feed America, and not suits."

Monday, one of Local's managers, well known as "Ready", was moving through the crowded restaurant with the ease of a maitre d' at Spago, greeting old friends, chatting up new ones.  "It's great to see you,"  "Welcome to LocoL." "Enjoy your meal." 

The line of customers went down Anzac Avenue for nearly a whole city block.They were not disappointed. 

"I'm not going to Burger King or McDonalds or Carl's Jr, anymore," said Dion Mangram, a life-long resident of Jordan Downs.  "This is my new restaurant, It's healthy and delicious and reasonable."  

Indeed, a fried chicken sandwich was four bucks and I'm craving it as I write this.   I might go back tonight.  Now, when I got to Watts  and I go often - LocoL will be my spot.

A local chef, Nancy Silverton, was at LocoL Monday afternoon and she raved about the hamburger and the chicken sandwich, but also about the concept. "This is delicious. I applaud Roy This is really something very special for our city."    

Inside, Roy Choi beamed when he saw a reporter who has covered Watts for 25 years.  They did a hard double-clutch handshake and - to the naysayers who doubted he could ever open on 103rd Street - he triumphantly roared  "Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em." 

It was the most beautiful restaurant opening I have ever attended.  And as tasty and healthy as the food is, LocoL is about location, location, location.


The Bad Ass Peacemakers of Nickerson Gardens

Tending the Gardens

On a recent evening outside the gym at Nickerson Gardens in Watts, a boom box fills the air with the sounds of a jazz flutist. Big Hank Henderson walks over to his GMC Yukon with the shiny 24-inch rims and pulls out one of his jazz compilations. He tells the boom-box man to put on the Les McCann–and–Eddie Harris cut “The Generation Gap.” It’s a fitting jam.

For two decades, Big Hank Henderson, 49, and his ace partner Big Donny Joubert, 46, both raised in the projects, have been reaching out to a younger generation of youth and young men in Watts, urging them to avoid gang violence, stay in school and pursue their dreams. Naturally, in this rough neighborhood, they have been through many heartbreaking disappointments and countless funerals, but without these two powerful men, the situation would be far worse.

“We all about Watts, period. Not just Nickerson Gardens, but all of Watts,” says Joubert, sitting on a folding chair in front of the gym’s entrance. “All these guys and girls deserve to graduate and be all they can be. Gang violence is a disease.”

“To me, Donny and Hank are community heroes,” says Sheldon Cruz, policy administrator for Los Angeles’ Human Relations Committee. “They do all this work to help the community and they do it for free on their own time.”

Cruz recalls how back in 2003, when he came to Nickerson Gardens, the relationship between the project and the LAPD was very low. “Hank and Donny helped rebuild a rapport with the LAPD,” Cruz says.

In March, the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which patrols Watts, played a basketball game in the Nickerson Gardens gym against a team from the projects. Ten years ago, that would have been unheard of.

“I can vouch for Hank and Donny that they are doing a great job,” says the LAPD’s Jerome Walker, of Southeast Division.

Congresswoman Janice Hahn, whose was the councilwoman for L.A.'s 15 District includes Watts, often dealt with the peacemakers.

“They can calm things down because they have the respect of everybody in the neighborhood,” says Hahn. “Hank and Donny are making a big difference.”

“If more urban neighborhoods had individuals like Donny and Hank, who selflessly work toward providing a better place for young people to grow up and achieve their goals,” says Gregory Thomas, a community interventionist who is also devoted to ending the violence, “then Los Angeles would be a better place for all of us to live in.”

Henderson and Joubert come to their maintenance-department jobs at the projects at 7:30 a.m. and get off at 4:30 p.m. Then, after working out on a bench press and a speed bag, they hang out around the gym, offering advice, refereeing games, breaking up an occasional fight and just making sure things are calm. They usually leave around 9:30 p.m. But that doesn’t mean their day is done.

“It never ends,” says Henderson, a man of few words who normally stays out of the spotlight. “We can be home at 1, 2, 3 in the morning and get a phone call that there’s some trouble, and we are right back here.”

Both Henderson and Joubert are quick to point out that they are not alone in their quest to keep the peace. There are many others involved. One of them is Dameian Hartfield.

“To put it simply,” Hartfield says, “they do way more than the average person to help the community in a positive way.”

For all the nice words that everyone says about them, what the two could really use is some help.

“We can’t do this alone. This is a huge problem,” Joubert says. “Get us some computer programs. Some afterschool programs. When you have nothing to fall back on, what are you gonna do? You are going to get in trouble.”

When Henderson’s jazz CD plays out, the boom-box man walks it back to him. Henderson tells Boom Box to put the CD back in his Yukon.

“But keep your hands where I can see them,” Henderson says, smiling just a bit.

On his way back, Boom Box says, “When I get my Caddy, I ain’t even gonna let you sit in the front seat.”

Joubert chimes in, “That’s okay. Hank rather be in the back seat anyway.”


Big Donny up front, Big Hank scooping 

Big Donny up front, Big Hank scooping