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Forced Land Sale Imperils 82-Year-Old Watts Legend Hawkins House of Burgers

The state’s transportation department says the business has been occupying land it does not own. Cynthia Hawkins says otherwise

A tilted view of a longstanding burger restaurant in off-white.
Hawkins House of Burgers
Farley Elliott
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

Hawkins House of Burgers, the 82-year-old Watts restaurant institution, finds itself fighting a new kind of post-pandemic threat: the California Department of Transportation (also known as CalTrans). In a series of social media posts over the past several days, the restaurant has laid out a complex property dispute with the governmental agency that threatens to disrupt business for the decades-old restaurant — and could even lead to the demolition of some of the building itself.

In short, CalTrans is attempting to reclaim a portion of the Hawkins lot that officials say belongs to the state transportation agency. But owner Cynthia Hawkins believes that her family’s business is being unfairly targeted by CalTrans over an issue years in the making — and all less than a week after California began to formally reopen following 16 months of COVID-19 restrictions.

On June 21, CalTrans — the government agency responsible for the design, construction, maintenance, and operation of California’s state and interstate highways — served Hawkins with a 60-day notice to remove any structures or personal effects that encroaches onto the state’s property line. CalTrans wants to sell the land, representatives tell Eater LA, but need to reclaim the parcel first, in part because it needs to be assessed before heading to public auction. Hawkins believes the 530-square-foot parcel has been hers for years, and that clearing the area would force her to remove part of the restaurant’s kitchen and bathroom.

Hawkins says the repairs would be costly and, while it would not likely close the restaurant forever, it would force the family-run operation to reconfigure the entire property — a time-consuming process that could impede business for months or more. Besides, Hawkins says, her grandfather James Henry Hawkins bought and built the structure legally in 1939. She also believes the agency keeps changing the terms of any possible agreement, adding that communication has broken down almost entirely.

“We’ve been there for over 80 years, serving joy and everything for this community,” says Hawkins. “They [CalTrans] say they’re working with me, but I haven’t spoken anybody from LA County. Why are they saying that?”

In 2016, Hawkins needed additional parking and leased a lot from CalTrans. She also says that CalTrans wanted that lot back to sell it, but alleges that in 2018, three CalTrans representatives offered her a verbal agreement to purchase it via private sale. “They came out and told me they were going to auction off the property and, possibly, they were going to allow me to keep a smaller portion of the parcel. But they never mentioned to me about an encroachment, ever,” says Hawkins. “The first time I heard about an encroachment was in June. Why is it that I’ve been dealing with [CalTrans] since 2016, but they brought attention to me sooner than that?”

Eater LA reviewed a February 27, 2020 email to Hawkins from CalTrans which stated that the leased lot property must be sold through a public auction (instead of private), to which Hawkins replied, “Im disappointed to hear that you and your colleagues broke our oral agreement. In business, a person’s word is something that should be honored. It shows integrity. I truly hope that you reconsider your decision and do what is right.”

A CalTrans spokesperson says Hawkins knew about the pending sale of the parcel starting in 2018, and sent correspondence in February and June requesting that she remove the structures that allegedly straddle both property lines. The same spokesperson added that the state is not interested in displacing a family business, and simply wants to sell the property. That can’t happen until the land is reclaimed, appraised, and then sent to public auction.

As word spread this week via social media, CalTrans reached out to inform Eater that they have decided to delay the 60-day notice and sale, for now. In a statement, CalTrans shared the following:

Caltrans has leased land to the Hawkins House of Burgers for its parking lot since 2016 and has been working with the owner to resolve an encroachment issue caused when the restaurant extended its patio on to Caltrans’ property. Caltrans is pausing plans to sell the leased property through public auction so we can work with Hawkins on a resolution to help prevent any disruption to the business.

Meanwhile, the Hawkins family set up a put together and even setup a GoFundMe to help purchase the property when or if it goes to auction. They have a $500,000 goal.

This is a developing story.

Hawkins House of Burgers

11603 Slater Street, , CA 90059 (323) 563-1129 Visit Website