Before opening Ms. B’s M & M Soul Food, Beverly Brinson was on the run. She was fleeing an abusive husband, and in 1974 she took a bus from Mississippi to Los Angeles with only $17 dollars to her name and two small children in tow. She was a young, scared mother looking for a better life. Her first stop was Inglewood, an African-American and Latino working-class neighborhood with tree-lined streets, affordable houses, apartments, and the iconic Randy’s Donuts.
Within two weeks, Brinson had a job at Pacific Bell. In 1990, she learned the restaurant ropes from her godmother at M & M’s Soul Food, a small sit-down spot in Inglewood. She took over the business a year later and moved it into its present drive-thru location in 2008, rebuilding it as Ms. B’s M & M Soul Food.
Brinson’s restaurant is a short walk from the forthcoming Rams and Chargers NFL stadium. And even though she’s been serving Southern food to the neighborhood for 25 years, Brinson is unsure of whether or not she’ll be able to stay.
Nothing would make her happier than to keep serving her signature short ribs, mac and cheese, oxtails, and cornbread to future stadium attendees, but she’s losing hope. She started looking for a new space when her landlord told her he was shopping around the building in July. Says Brinson, “He told me he wanted to do a month-to-month lease for a restaurant, which is ridiculous. Basically, we have no home. But I’ve been here forever.”
In 2015, construction began on the Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park, or LASED. The unfinished stadium is an awesome sight. A dozen towering cranes dot the construction area, the biggest and boldest structure for miles. It sits on top of a dirt lot next door to the historic Los Angeles Forum, where NBA legends like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wowed the world throughout the 1980s.
Since Los Angeles hasn’t had an NFL team since 1994, the new stadium represents a homecoming. Inglewood is experiencing the same dynamic. For many decades, the neighborhood’s Fabulous Forum was the home of the Lakers, Kings hockey, and the women’s professional basketball team, the LA Sparks. All teams left the Forum between 1999 and 2001 and now play at the Staples Center in Downtown LA. When these teams left, the local restaurants and residents felt it.
Even though fewer people were coming to the Forum, Bourbon Street Fish and Grill owner Derrick Brown held onto a steady stream of local customers from the neighborhood and the local racetrack, Hollywood Park. For 25 years, he’s called Inglewood home. Louisiana food is in Brown’s blood; his family ran the legendary Southern restaurant 5C’s near Slauson and Western. Brown opened Bourbon Street Fish and Grill in 2000. Business was fine until Hollywood Park was closed in 2013.
“That hurt the business,” says Brown of the demo. “We had racetrack employees and trainers come in a lot, and we developed relationships with them over the years. We’re also horse players and we own horses. So when a trainer won a race, they would order for employees, and we would celebrate with them. But that business is gone.”
Inglewood’s recent investment windfall didn’t start with the NFL stadium. It began when the Madison Square Garden Company bought the Forum from the Faithful Central Bible Church in 2012. The sports and entertainment organization spent over $70 million to remodel the legendary arena, which reopened in 2014. The venue went from hosting one event in 2010 to an average of 12 performances per month, with headliners as varied as the Eagles, Arcade Fire, Shakira, and Childish Gambino. The Forum’s vendors are some of LA’s hippest, including Coolhaus, La Brea Bakery, Cole’s, and Carney’s. But these concertgoers often eat elsewhere. Just across the street, the corporate steak chain Sizzler has seen its revenue almost double since the Forum’s reopening.
The new Forum, which seats 17,500 people, has had a significant impact on the neighborhood. But there’s so much more on the way. The NFL stadium is only a portion of the total 298-acre LASED development. When complete, the complex will include a stadium big enough to hold 100,000 attendees for concerts or football games, a 6,000-person performing arts venue, 780,000 square feet of office space, 890,000 square feet of retail, 300 hotel rooms, 2,500 residences, and public parks, walkways, bike paths, a conference center, and a number of new restaurants.
Then there’s the addition of not one, but two NFL teams. The Inglewood stadium will host twice as many home games in one season. The 2028 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies will take place at LASED. And while some Inglewood restaurants are betting on a goldmine, others are on edge.
Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen and Bourbon Street Fish and Grill are playing the long game toward the stadium’s opening in 2020. Both proprietors are active in the Inglewood community. Brown bought his building in 2000, and Dulan’s owns two out of three properties that house the popular soul food restaurants. Both Brown’s and Dulan’s ownership status is a considerable advantage as gentrification expands beyond the city limits and the NFL clock ticks toward its impending opening in two years.
Brown’s no-frills Bourbon Street Fish and Grill has a clear view of the NFL stadium. He and his partner plan to expand next year in anticipation of the stadium’s completion and build a split-level restaurant and market.
Brothers Terry and Gregory Dulan are co-owners of Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen, and they have a multilayered approach. Like Brown, the Dulans would like to expand before the stadium’s debut, and before the new Metro line starts running down Crenshaw Boulevard toward the stadium. And though the Crenshaw and Century Boulevard locations aren’t near the stadium, Gregory Dulan believes all three stores will be impacted by the stadium and new public transportation line. But ownership is the key.
“For restaurant owners to own their own property is very rare, and you’re at an extreme advantage especially in this climate of escalating rents,” Dulan said. “It gives you a security that other restaurants may not have. When others are pushed out, they’re out of business.”
Dulan’s other strategy is to stay as involved with the NFL stadium as possible. He’s able to do that with Turner/AECOM Hunt, the contractor overseeing the development and community-outreach efforts. This endeavor has plenty of moving parts, including meetings where residents get updates about construction progress, or job openings. Turner/AECOM Hunt estimates that construction alone is expected to create more than 3,000 jobs, and Inglewood residents receive priority placement. Occasionally, stadium employees are treated to a catered meal.
In late June, LASED invited Dulan to cater the stadium’s topping-out ceremony. Topping out is a builder’s tradition, a celebration of the last beam being placed atop a structure. He brought on 75 young people from the Crenshaw High School football and cheerleading teams, and culinary students from the nearby Dorsey High School to help feed more than 2,000 people.
Michelle Ballard, VP of community and citizenship with the LA Stadium, heads up outreach to the surrounding community. An Inglewood resident, she personally knows a number of restaurant and business owners, including Dulan. Since construction commenced, Ballard has invited restaurateurs to cater LASED events that include construction workers, staff, and press junkets.
Dulan believes the LASED efforts are positive. “They’re very community-minded, and they want to do good for the city of Inglewood, and surrounding cities. They are reaching out to vendors, they reach out to restaurateurs, they provide jobs for minorities. I think they’re trying to be a good citizen and will provide a huge benefit for this entire region. It’s going to be a benefit and a boost for LA and Inglewood.”
Even though Dulan sings LASED’s praises, he also recognizes the gentrification that comes hand-in-hand with the stadium isn’t good for everyone. “There’s been a tremendous boom with real estate prices going through the roof, with people becoming millionaires overnight from real estate. I appreciate it, but it also brings some degree of displacement with folks that are being pushed out,” he says.
To the west of the stadium site sits a dilapidated strip mall with limited food options and restaurant spaces that haven’t been upgraded for decades. Some tenants are busy, but many, like Lee’s Caribbean Restaurant, have seen better days.
Owen Sutherland, 70, opened Lee’s Caribbean in 1992. As a tailor, Sutherland never thought about opening a restaurant until a client talked him into it. He’s weathered many neighborhood changes over the years, but right now he’s concerned that his landlord wants to push him out in hopes of charging a higher rent, though Sutherland is reluctant to speculate about his landlord’s motives.
But Sutherland’s rent just went up, and the landlord wants him to take care of repairs out of his own pocket. There’s no long-term lease in Sutherland’s future, so he wonders about the landlord’s plans: Is the landlord reluctant to put additional money into the property because of a future sale? Is the property on the development route?
Like Bourbon Street Market and Grill, most of Sutherland’s customers came from the shuttered Hollywood Park, and he’s been struggling to bounce back since its 2013 closure. He keeps an exhaustive schedule that starts at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. “I’m at this age where I should retire, but I’m still alive and kicking.”
In his soft Jamaican accent, Sutherland recalls the time when business was brisk, and customers came regularly for his signature oxtail and jerk chicken. Many of his regulars have moved away from the neighborhood, pushed out by higher rents. Many still return for those dishes, but for how long?
Meanwhile, Brinson is concerned about the status of Ms. B’s M & M Soul Food, but still has a business to run. As friends and regulars pass by, they lean in for an embrace as she flashes a smile, or cracks a joke as airplanes pass overhead. Ms. B’s and the stadium site are less than four miles away from Los Angeles International Airport, so the planes appear strikingly close as they make their final approach.
Brinson doesn’t even notice the sound. Her mind is focused on other matters. The stadium’s completion date looms, but running an LA restaurant comes with its own challenges, no matter the neighborhood. Brinson already witnessed Inglewood’s transformation throughout the 1970s. Her children were part of the school systems integration. She also watched white residents flee Inglewood when African Americans started to fill positions in the police department and city council. Now white renters and buyers are returning in droves.
Brinson clearly sees the potential future dollar signs, but also watches as her friends are priced out of Inglewood. She hopes she isn’t next.