Sunday, February 7, is shaping up to be the most unusual Super Bowl to date. With coronavirus regulations still in effect, Super Bowl LV will host only 22,000 fans in Tampa’s nearly 66,000-capacity stadium. Here in Los Angeles, county Supervisor Hilda Solis encouraged residents to “avoid super spreader Super Bowl parties” as residents throughout the region tune in to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs go head-to-head for the championship ring.
Over in Inglewood, SoFi Stadium sits empty. Though it opened in September 2020, the pandemic prevented the $5 billion stadium from being used for its full purpose. There are big plans for its future, however, including the next Super Bowl in 2022, the 2028 Olympics, along with a steady stream of conferences, events, and concerts at the massive hub, which includes a sports arena and entertainment complex. This complex sits at the former site of Hollywood Park and its empty lots, a stone’s throw away from the Fabulous Forum.
Before SoFi Stadium’s completion, Inglewood was in flux. The mostly Black and Latino historic neighborhood had been immersed in change, and the stadium lent a heavy hand in its momentum. Home prices throughout Inglewood skyrocketed 63 percent in 2019, with new residents moving in and longtime residents being pushed out of their homes and communities. At the same time, new businesses keep cropping up to focus on the two NFL teams, their fans, and their money. As gentrification moved in at a rapid pace, some well-established Inglewood restaurants also hoped to prosper in the post-pandemic era with the Rams and Chargers.
Back in 2018, Eater LA took a detailed look at Inglewood restaurants adjacent to the unfinished SoFi Stadium, to see how they were preparing for its completion. Over a two-month period that year, we spoke with the owners of Ms Bs M&M Soul Food, Bourbon Street Fish and Grill, Dulan’s Soul Food, and Lee’s Caribbean Restaurant. During this time, a pandemic was not in the realm of American reality and an NFL-infused gold rush was on the way. We’ve touched base with these businesses to see how they are riding the pandemic out; each shared very different circumstances in early 2021.
Bourbon Street Fish and Grill
Bourbon Street Fish and Grill owner Derrick Brown had ambitious plans before 2020. Brown’s restaurant has a clear, front-row view of the massive silver stadium tunnel, and he hoped to redesign his lot by building a split-level market and restaurant for the new crowds. But now, Brown says his 21-year-old business is in trouble: he has not received any grants, funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or bank loans. He’s surviving mostly out of his own savings and what little business comes his way. The last few weeks have been particularly heartbreaking, as an employee who worked for Brown for 17 years passed away.
“It’s been a huge decline for us over here,” says Brown. “Things are not looking good. I’m a good-spirited person, but things are not picking up for us. Prior to COVID, business was okay. But now, we’re probably 75 percent below what we would normally make.”
Ms Bs M&M Soul Food
Beverly Brinson opened Ms Bs M&M Soul Food in 1991. Her business used to reside two blocks away from the Forum, until she found an improved location — and better landlord relationship — on Hawthorne and Imperial Highway in October 2019. Brinson made sure to bring her Mississippi license plates and place them on the walls. She also has a cozy outdoor patio that’s far better suited for pandemic dining, although her last location was blessed with a drive-thru. When asked how she was doing in early 2021, she replied, “I’ve been an entrepreneur for 40 years, I’m just trying to get back on board and be the best in the west.”
Brinson’s optimism shines through even as she speaks about the difficulties of last year. “The pandemic messed us up completely,” she says. “I’ve been stealing from Peter to pay Paul, I’ve had to let people go, I’ve had to cut hours. We’ve been doing bad. Because they opened back up the outside dining, hopefully that’ll help us.”
Her original location was a short five minute walk to SoFi Stadium, and the building remained empty for over a year. Brinson received phone calls and messages last Thursday, January 28, as her former building — which had her picture on it — was being bulldozed to the ground. This land is now a future site for another Starbucks. But Brinson loves her new spot, which can still collect crowds on the way to SoFi off the 405-Imperial exit.
“Once people know that we’re up and running again, we’ll be okay,” hopes Brinson. “They just got to know we’re here.”
Lee’s Caribbean Restaurant and Dulan’s Soul Food
Though Lee’s Caribbean Restaurant owner declined to be interviewed for this story, his business is still running. When speaking with Owen Sutherland in 2018, he shared that his rent kept increasing, yet the landlord would not pay for repairs. Back then, Sutherland had no long-term lease and wondered aloud about the landlord’s plans. Being a tenant is a challenge in any part of Los Angeles, let alone one across the street from SoFi Stadium.
But property ownership isn’t always a prerequisite for success. Even though Brown owns the Bourbon Street property, nothing could’ve prepared him for a massive downturn in business while the entire state shut down and hospitals continue to overflow with coronavirus patients. But Dulan’s Soul Food owners hold the deed for two out of three locations in South LA, and Terry Dulan reports his business is doing well.
“Before the pandemic everything was going very well,” says Dulan. “We had a dedicated customer base, they were coming, business was continuing to grow. The future looked bright and we were excited to see what the new stadium would bring.”
In anticipation of the stadium’s opening, Dulan bought additional seating at the Manchester location by expanding into the business next door. But the business took a hit during the early pandemic as he closed for 10 days last March. Before LA County developed guidelines to protect workers and customers from coronavirus, Dulan studied practices from South Korea, brought in a deep cleaning team, built plexiglass barriers, a takeout window, and established a sanitation protocol for their cafeteria-style soul food restaurant. But the new indoor seating area remains unused.
“It’s probably going to be a year and a half or maybe even two before I get to use [the new dining room],” Dulan says. “I was timing it to go with the stadium so I have a brand new floor, brand new seats, bathroom, everything, but haven’t been able to use it. It’s just sitting there, so that kind of hurts.”
Dulan also observed a change in behavior since sheltering-at-home became the norm. “Business picked back up, and I realized that people also wanted to get out of the house,” he says. “You can’t sit in the house all day and you have to eat. We sell comfort food, so people were buying two and three dinners at a time and meal planning for an entire week.”
Ultimately, Dulan believes in his restaurant and customer base. “We have very loyal customers. But we haven’t been able to tell at all if the stadium’s going to help us. It’s too early to tell.”
SoFi Stadium is going through changes as well. The former mouthful of a name Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park is gone. The development as a whole is Hollywood Park, and the stadium is SoFi Stadium with SoFi as the centerpiece. Food vendors aren’t finalized yet, and with inactivity ruling the day, the complex proved useful for events like the community mobile food drive throughout 2020, where organizations like the LA Rams, the City of Inglewood, LA Regional Food Bank, and LA County coordinated and distributed 25,000 meals to families in need. SoFi was also a voting site in the November 2020 election.