Six months ago, Kyndra McCrary opened Swift Cafe in the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park. McCrary worked with a nutritionist to bring a healthy menu to the neighborhood, which was served in a bright, cozy dining room within walking distance from historic craftsman homes. Longstanding residents praised McCrary’s food: As two online reviewers put it, they “want more healthy options in my neighborhood,” and Leimert “deserves clean, healthy, delicious food.” All was well. Then the pandemic arrived.
“I’ve had people ask why am I still open,” says McCrary. “When I go through the neighborhood, all the gates are shut down. It’s desolate over here. It’s really sad. Businesses were already being impacted because of construction. It’s still weird, very eerie, like a movie or something.”
McCrary initiated a meal prep and delivery model last week, but is struggling. “I think it’s even harder because I’m a startup,” she says. “I own a catering company and the cafe was slowly but surely picking up momentum. It was my catering company that was keeping everything together. Once this happened, every single catering job canceled. People still place orders, but it’s not like it was before.”
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s “safer-at-home” order was issued on March 15, with California governor Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place guidance coming two days later; the directives required restaurants to close all dine-in areas, and limited resident movement. Since then, every restaurant in Los Angeles has felt the impact of the pandemic, and had to make the hard choice between temporarily closing or potentially putting their staff at risk to continue serving their community.
South LA consists of 24 neighborhoods within 51 square miles, including Crenshaw, View Park, Compton, Inglewood, Watts, and many points in-between. Historic restaurants like Woody’s Bar-B-Cue and The Serving Spoon are going through massive challenges right now, as are some area’s latest additions.
Four months ago, Ajay Relan and Yonnie Hagos partnered with producer and actress Issa Rae from HBO’s Insecure to open Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen in a stunning split-level space next to Inglewood’s City Hall. This is Hilltop’s second location — the first opened in View Park in 2018, and both were consistently packed. Both pivoted to delivery and takeout for the time being. “Business is 80 to 90 percent down from where we usually are,” says Relan. “It’s crazy to think this has been only two weeks. It’s like Groundhog Day.”
Relan and Hagos were preparing to open their third Hilltop location across town in Eagle Rock, but the entire project is now on hold. “That’s been a long journey and climb,” says Relan. “We’re now at the goal line and that’s kind of on pause indefinitely.”
As Congress passed the $2 trillion stimulus bill last week, restaurateurs and workers hoped there was relief ahead. But Relan frowns on the idea of loans from the Small Business Administration, which is the package’s primary tool for getting small businesses back on their feet. “SBA loans are a nice gesture, but our businesses don’t want to take on any type of debt.” says Relan. “We’re already a low margin businesses.”
In the meantime, “we’ve been having proactive conversations with our landlords and bankers” Relan says. “We’re hoping that when the powers that be put together these solutions, but it’s unclear what’s going to happen.”
Venture over to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall, and it’s mostly empty, with the only activity coming from Post & Beam, Taco Bell, and the adjacent Hotville Chicken. Co-owners Kim Prince — the niece of André Prince Jeffries, who owns the original hot chicken restaurant, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, in Nashville — and Gregory Dulan opened Hotville in early December, and in hot-chicken-obsessed Los Angeles, it became popular right away.
Though business has dropped since the pandemic began, Prince still sees regulars come through the door, or pull up for curbside service. “Not using the dining room is the part I miss the most,” says Prince. It “was a home away from home, where they hear country and blues and escape for a spell. That aspect I put a lot of energy into it, so we had to repackage that. But I’m seeing the same customers.”
To adapt, Hotville has been offering delivery via Postmates for the first time, and in the face of the challenge posed by the pandemic and the resulting economic shock, Prince’s outlook remains positive. “This COVID-19 is something that I’ve got to beat,” Prince says. “I’m not going to let it win when it comes to my business, my health, or my employees and customers health and safety.”
Prince says that she prayed for a miracle to stay open — which was delivered by LA city councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose office launched an emergency coronavirus-related pilot program for 18 family-owned restaurants in South LA. Since March 23, Harris-Dawson has asked area restaurants including Hotville, Swift Cafe, Hot & Cool Cafe, and Dulan’s Soul Food to serve meals to seniors throughout Harris-Dawson’s district. So far, the initiative had produced more than 3,000 meals.
All Los Angeles restaurants hope their customers will return, but Hilltop’s Relan sees their businesses as something essential for the community. “We’re optimistic and positive for — not if, but when — things go back to normal,” says Relan. “But who knows what is that normal going to be? Small businesses are the backbone of this country, and restaurants make up a large percentage of that.”