Take a moment and try to visualize a typical day at the Serving Spoon, a soulful breakfast diner in Inglewood. While sitting at the long counter in a wooden chair, look at the massive silver spoon that rests above the kitchen expediter window. The old-school 1990s-looking stereo sits high in the room and cranks R&B from its speakers; servers bounce between tables singing Toni Braxton lyrics, as do some of the customers. It might be 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, but it feels like a family gathering.
Table 3 orders two rounds of “light-skinned mimosas,” while the woman sitting at Table 1 devours eggs, grits, French toast, and salmon croquettes. An African American woman gives instructions on how to pay the bill to her 5-year-old granddaughter. According to the elder, “You gotta teach them young.” At the end of the long counter, a man dining solo says a prayer over his grits, sausage, and scrambled eggs before carefully clearing his plate. All the while, co-owner Angela Johnson walks through the room to check on her customers and eyeballs the plates for consistency and quality, just like her father did decades ago.
As a central restaurant in Inglewood’s sprawling historic community, the Serving Spoon focuses on a single intention: the spirit of service. Because of this, it remains one of Southern California’s most beloved diners, where some of the region’s fastest short-order cooks sling combination platters with specific names for each dish. The Jerry comes with three pancakes and three chicken wings. The J.C. — after co-owner J.C. Johnson. — gets you a waffle with meat, or without. Then there’s the Monique with one egg and a choice of ham, bacon, or sausage, with either grits, rice, or potatoes, and bread.
The Monique is named after a former Serving Spoon server Monique Hall, who worked at the restaurant for decades. Hall trained another former server, Meme Woods, when Woods was first working at the restaurant. According to Johnson, the two former servers built the emphasis on service that seeps through every element of the Serving Spoon. Owners Angela and husband J.C. Johnson adapted this into their operation after taking over the business from her father, Harold E. Sparks, in 2004. As Sparks’s only child, Angela was a constant presence at the Serving Spoon for years, having spent mornings and afternoons learning how to keep up with the crowds or cajole the cooks into quickly preparing a dish. Though the Serving Spoon opened in 1983 to a neighborhood that welcomed it, the location has witnessed massive changes over the years, including the construction of SoFi Stadium less than three miles away over four years.
Those who frequented the Serving Spoon over the decades remember Hall and Woods serving platters of soulful breakfasts and lunch. “I’m talking Sheneneh [a character from the 1990s TV show Martin] with the dookie braids, the big hoop earrings, the long nails, and blonde hair,” Angela tells me. “That was [Monique’s] style, and she was one of the most genuine people you ever want to know.”
“Meme and Monique are the reasons why we just do some of the things that we do,” Angela Johnson says. “If we were out of something, [Monique] would run across the street to get it or down the street to Smart & Final. Whatever you needed. Both Meme and Monique, what they brought this hall was the spirit to serve. They took great pleasure in it. And Meme, she always said, ‘I was born to do this, so that’s what I do.’”
Ask co-owner C.J. Johnson to define that “spirit of service,” and he’ll reverberate the actions and mindsets of Monique, Meme, Angela, and current Serving Spoon staff. “Service is who we are, it’s what we do,” says Johnson. “There comes a point in life where you realize that it’s not about you, where true fulfillment and purpose is only accomplished by moving outside of the self. Not only has [service] been something my wife and I entered early in our marriage, which is now going on 36 years: that serving was imperative.”
That longstanding commitment to serving the community almost came to a halt one year ago. Despite its robust takeout menu, being inside the Serving Spoon is part of the experience; since indoor dining was shut down in March 2020, the Johnsons have been trying to manage the shifting county and state regulations. In November 2020, when county officials eliminated on-site dining due to COVID-19’s second wave in Southern California, the threat of the Serving Spoon shutting down permanently felt imminent. Angela launched a GoFundMe campaign in December 2020, in hopes of raising $75,000.
During the GoFundMe campaign, the spirit to serve was directed right back toward the Serving Spoon. The Inglewood community showed up and donations poured in; within a few days, the GoFundMe reached $25,000. Angela’s fundraiser video message came across the Twitter timeline of Melissa Whitworth — whose spouse is Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, recipient of this year’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his charitable works — while scrolling through the social media app.
“[Angela Johnson] has the heart to serve and has done so many for years and years,” says Melissa. “They’ve always been the ones to step up for Inglewood. Now it was time for us to step up. I heard Mrs. Angie’s heartbreaking plea and texted my husband on the field, but he wouldn’t get [the message] until after practice. I told him about the Serving Spoon and said, ‘When you’re done with practice, I’ve already made the decision that we’d give [the Johnsons] what they needed.’ I called the Rams and in 30 minutes they had J.C. and Angie on the phone. I said, ‘We’re not gonna let you close.’”
The couple donated $50,000 to the Serving Spoon’s fundraising effort, bringing the total raised to $75,000. The Johnsons closed the restaurant for two weeks, paid their staff for the time off, returned, and let customers eat for free on that reopening day. The donations were enough to keep the restaurant open while light shined on the restaurant through local media coverage. In April 2021, Rep. Maxine Waters invited the Johnsons to be virtual guests during President Joe Biden’s Joint Session of Congress. The attention and donations allowed Serving Spoon staff to return, and the Johnsons to continue to serve the community.
The overwhelming donations and attention proved a lot for the Johnsons, but Angela felt the only way to continue was paying it forward. “We saw that [the community] did that. So now we’re gonna do that for you. During Christmas, we usually give away stuff. We feed people, we give away gift certificates during the holidays.” On January 6, the Rams, along with Pepsi’s Dig In program, which supports Black-owned restaurants, paid for hundreds of diners to eat for free. From 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., the Serving Spoon had a line that wrapped around the corner.
The sponsorship ties and financial support are one thing, but the Serving Spoon developed an organic connection with NFL fans throughout the season. The Sunday crowd is particularly robust, and was so on January 30 when the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl by defeating the San Francisco 49ers in a tight NFC Championship game. “[It was] organized chaos-type of crazy with all hands on deck, and no slacking,” says Angela. “People come in here trying to get food and take home, to the game, or tailgating. They order shrimp and grits, wings and waffles, they order everything.”
Angela’s father believes this connection came together because of how people are treated. “It goes back to treating people the right way,” says Sparks. “It’s easy to be kind. Say ‘have a nice day,’ and it might not mean something to you, but it will mean something to someone. Let people know and feel that you can care.”