Simply Wholesome owner Percell Keeling figured out what his restaurant means to the View Park/Windsor Hills community in 1992. On a late spring day — a day that would go down in history as the start to the Rodney King riots — Keeling prepared to close after receiving some unusual phone calls from volunteers offering to stand guard over the store on the east side of Slauson Avenue and Overhill Drive. Rioters were burning businesses after cops were acquitted for beating Rodney King, and rumors were spreading quickly about which business was next.
According to Keeling, a van pulled up and a man entered the store to ask for water. He asked, “Is this a black-owned business?” Keeling nodded. The man left, and sped away with a raised fist in the air. The van’s rear doors quickly opened, and a group of men motioned toward Keeling with the same black solidarity sign. Keeling later learned that they were planning to burn the entire shopping center down because most businesses were not black-owned. They decided to spare it after looking Keeling in the eye.
In the following week, a disproportionate number of Korean and non-black businesses were looted and gutted by fires during the riots. Some businesses with black owners were also casualties of the events. In the chaos of that historic week, Keeling’s business remained untouched among the hundreds of buildings that were damaged in the surrounding blocks.
“That’s when I realized that people were loving who we are,” says Keeling. “I treat people the way I want to be treated. People knew that I hired their son or their cousin. They know we’re for real and that we love the community.”
Twenty-five years later, Simply Wholesome is an enduring presence. It’s impossible to miss the chromatic dark-green exterior and massive steeple. Inside, colorful walls, plants, and old-school chill-out music envelop diners in a comfortable vibe. It’s a low-profile counter-service restaurant, but it’s also a bit of a tropical paradise in Windsor Hills. On any day, customers drink smoothies like the Trinidadian Peanut Punch, or munch on the Jamaican patty: a hot and savory turnover filled with shrimp and crab, or jerk chicken.
Many stick around to hang out with familiar faces, study, or people watch. Local live bands grace the sunny patio on Saturdays at noon, and you never know when the likes of Stevie Wonder or Bobby Brown will drop in unannounced to sing a song or two. These famous patrons visit Simply Wholesome for the same reason everyone else does: to connect with the community while eating delicious food.
Some (including Yelp) refer to its fare as soul food, but Keeling and general manager Apryl Sims insist that Simply Wholesome’s menu focuses on healthy food with a Caribbean spin that appeals to both omnivores and vegans. Most of all, the restaurant is about the customers. “One thing that’s unique about Simply Wholesome is there are a wide range of people,” says Sims. “We get entertainers, clergy, police, gangbangers, firemen — all types of nationalities. Everyone is one and cool.”
How it all started
It was 1981, and Keeling had a problem to solve. As an avid runner and health-advocate, he became tired of driving outside his community in Windsor Hills for a nourishing meal. At the time, Keeling was working as a Jack LaLanne consultant selling protein drinks, juices, vitamins, and sports equipment out of his car.
Keeling previously tried his hand at real estate and worked at a liquor store where he was robbed on his first day at work. With this minimal experience, it took several years to get Simply Wholesome off the ground. It finally opened in 1984, where Hall's Krispy Krunchy Chicken presently resides.
16 years later, Keeling’s landlord threatened to double the rent or evict him. So he looked across the street and realized he could take over the abandoned 1950s Wich Stand. Keeling bought the building just as the Los Angeles Conservancy stepped in to preserve the landmark. Simply Wholesome’s present location opened there in December 1995.
“I needed my own spot, and didn’t want to be in a position where someone else determined my livelihood,” says Keeling. “[At the original location] I did everything right, but it didn’t matter. I was fortunate that my move kept me on the same block.”
Another reason that Simply Wholesome thrives: it’s adamant about differentiating itself with good food, not just the fact that it’s black-owned. “I get really irritated when others interview me and feel the need to single out a successful restaurant in the black community,” Keeling explains. “If this were on the Westside, would you ask me how it would feel to be a black owner? They don’t ask the Asians and Latinos how it feels to have a biz in the black community. For some reason, we always seem to be singled out as a black biz. We happen to be a black-owned biz. But this is simply a health food restaurant.”
A health food restaurant with a standout design, to boot. To be technical, the building is defined by a midcentury modern architectural style called Googie. Los Angeles is full of representations of this futuristic design, which takes inspiration from car culture and space travel. One can see the influence a block west at the United Oil gas station on South La Brea, and a mile further at Pann’s on Slauson and La Cienega.
A community pillar amidst gentrification
Keeling’s staff of 34 range from family and friends to people figuring out a new path or recently released from prison. The long-time regular customers feel welcome, especially with gentrification looming fast and furious. Sims believes the restaurant provides a safe and welcoming space for the community amidst all the change. “Simply Wholesome is a bastion with goodness oozing out. I’m very passionate about having this opportunity to do something I love and continue Percell’s legacy.”
As operations manager, Sims connection with the store started in 1996, during a transitional period in her life. One day, when seated on the patio, she started picking up garbage from the floor and cleaning dirty tables. She ventured into sweeping the floor and even tidying the bathroom. After two weeks, Keeling insisted that Sims work there. Now, over 20 years later, both Sims and Keeling are fixtures at the front of house. They hug regular customers and greet them by their first names.
Yusuf Muhammad, a 64-year-old neighbor that helps reestablish those newly out of prison, eats breakfast at Simply Wholesome every day. “There’s a lack of businesses you can come to and feel at home,” he says. “This is a place I feel at home, and at peace, and safe. I’ve been coming here since 1995.”
Speaking of feeling at home, Sims and Keeling are concerned about rapid changes to the neighborhood. Starting with the housing crisis in 2008, countless businesses and residents moved out of the neighborhood — most not by choice. But Keeling has noticed something else recently: private real estate tours labeling the neighborhood as “an oasis in the desert.” Many new Windsor Hills’ business owners do not live in the neighborhood. Sims worries about her own family. “I feel like my grandchildren won’t be [able to live] on the street my parents worked so hard to build,” she says.
Despite a changing neighborhood, the community’s support remains steadfast. CEO of By Human Design Craig Davis grew up in the neighborhood, and feels a personal connection to Simply Wholesome; now, he sells natural beauty products in the store attached to the restaurant. Davis believes Simply Wholesome’s reach goes beyond Windsor Hills.
“They’re pioneers in this community, providing healthy choices in a neighborhood that doesn’t have good options,” he says. “I remember when the Wich Stand would serve you on the side of your car in 1970s. Now the community has evolved and the ethnic canvas is going to continue to change significantly. And you’ve got a generation of kids and adults that grew up on this food.” Davis goes on to say that he believes the neighbors who grew up here will continue to come back, regardless of where they end up in the larger Los Angeles area. The long daily lunchtime line of regulars, patiently waiting while chatting with their neighbor, would agree.
Simply Wholesome. 4508 W. Slauson Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 90043.