Going Locol From the Inside Out
Food Guru Roy Choi on Latest Venture
In this segment, we visit Roy Choi in Watts at his fast food restaurant Locol. As we set up, Roy is making the rounds, talking to people of all ages both inside and out, as if he hasn’t seen them in a decade. It turns out he’s here more than once a week, so this just how it is. This first Locol was created to give 100% back to the community, and it’s providing jobs and healthier food. The burger you eat isn’t just beef, it’s also packed with quinoa. The buns are baked on site, and the waffles are a stronghold. We continue to enjoy Roy’s focused insight into life's pastures beyond being a restauranteur.
Audio interview with Roy Choi.
By Eric Nakamura
Photos by George Ko.
Video shot by Inga Lam and edited by George Ko. Music by Aileen Gozali.
GR: Nice to see you again! So say something about Watts. Why Watts?
Roy Choi: Why Watts. Why not Watts? I think that's more the question, to be honest. Watts needs more of this, needs economy, jobs, healthy food, positive growth. I think it needs to be answered more. Not just from a small little hamburger shop and business, but on a larger, global scale.
Watts is the motherland. It’s the mother ship. It is truly a spiritual language, and the people in Watts are the strength and the core of Los Angeles. When we started Locol, Daniel [Patterson, Roy’s partner in Locol] and I were going to start in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. But then that whole real estate process made everything fall through—too expensive. And then he threw the ball back to me, saying, “Let's start in L.A.”
So I was thinking South Central, but it kept getting deeper and deeper. And I was like, if we're going to do this, we've got to start at the mother. So I call up my friend Aqeela, who's a big pillar in this community. I asked him, “Do you know any real estate agents in Watts or South Central that I could talk to about this project?” And he's like, “You know, I own this building right here on this corner.” Met him right here (on 103rd), and as soon as I stepped on site I was like, “Wow, this is the spot.” Sometimes you feel visions or see things that don’t necessarily come to the eye.
GR: So how do you go from being an ally to the neighborhood; to actually being part owner or owning something here; from being Asian American versus not being African-American? How do you balance all that the right way?
RC: Well, I think it comes down to the individual. I don't look at myself as Asian American or African American or any race. I'm from Los Angeles. I represent the city. When people interact with me they know that. I've done my share of dirt and good in this world. I can command my own respect and communication with people. First it's through the bridge of Aqeela, then getting to know the OGs in the community, and the mothers and the pillars and youngsters, and it's walking through with an open heart and open mind and being human about it.
We spent the first six to eight months not even pushing the business on anyone–just spending time here in Watts to get to know everyone. It was like when I was younger, back in the old days, whether I was low riding, kicking in hip hop or in graf or whatever. It's just being a part of everything from the inside out, so then by the time you come up with an idea, you're already a part of the crew. You come from that world. It doesn't matter whether I'm Korean or black or Mexican or nothing. Because I'm a part of the crew. So once you're part of the crew, you come up from the inside out, and that's how Locol is.
GR: I'm smiling because this is what a good small business is. It’s like Small Business 101. Because does McDonald's or Jack-in-the-Box or 7-11 do that when they open in a neighborhood? They're just trying to make money.
RC: And the economics of what you're bringing up goes even deeper and more corrosive than just that. Because not only are a lot of these fast food companies coming in, buying real estate and then exploiting the community, but they're not hiring from the community either. They're hiring from a fifteen-mile radius outside the community, so they’re not giving money back to the community. But then on top of that they're also poisoning the community.
GR: The poisoning part kind of blows me away because it’s such unhealthy food. Cheap, but therefore they're not angry anymore.
RC: Sedation. Control through sedation. You’re are a smart guy. You've been around for a long time in doing subversive cultural things in this world. I don't know if people are smart enough to completely orchestrate this mind control. I've met a lot of these executives. I'm like, these fuckers aren't that smart enough to pull it off.
GR: It's when everybody is not going to be hungry enough to battle. A lot neighborhoods are messed up that way with alcohol, but also food.
RC: And then that coupled with the fact that you're not providing any investment or jobs. You're stripping resources from the public school system. You're feeding commodity foods within the school as well, then the choices outside the school are also sedated products. And then you, then you introduce alcohol and drugs.
GR: But you're quite right. I would think executives, they don't have the plan but they just want to make money from all of this.
RC: Yeah, they just don't care. I don't think it's like a Mini-Me behind the scenes. It's not that I don't think there is this orchestration. It's just the fact that they don't care about a lot of people in this world. So what happens is the natural effect of that becomes this kind of waterfall. You know, hurt and pain.
GR: Do you feel like you’re disrupting that a little bit by opening Locol?
RC: I think it’s again going back to my heart. I think, yes I think we've definitely disrupted things and thrown a rock through a window. But we're still very small. I don't know yet. I guess what I'm saying is we definitely changed and disrupted things from a conscious level. People are talking about Locol. It raises the awareness, first thing. But we're still only a small burger shop that only makes a certain amount of money a day, that can only employ a certain amount of people a day. So our radio waves or shock waves can only go so far. We're like a college radio station, and our band can only go so far.
GR: But Locol has made national news. You've got national headlines. Another family might open up a small restaurant that's cool and that's great. But yours is national.
RC: We've made national headlines. We've gotten awards. But again it's been a little bit of an ego stroke I think. We don't care about the accolades and awards. We built this project to grow and to eventually be in like five cities by now.
GR: I thought I read that you wanted Locol to be like one of the big franchises but you're going to do it right, healthy.
RC: Yeah you know I mean, this is the type of thing that should grow and has to grow. And so, we're not there yet and we’re a year and a half in. What I'm seeing is that in the first year, the first wave was this national attention. Like, “Wow, like I can't believe this is happening, this is amazing.” And then people go back to their regular lives. I don't know what people's imaginations or expectations were of what Locol was supposed to be. I think with Daniel and my name attached, they were looking for something that was cutting edge, but our food is very wholesome. It’s very down to earth food and we weren’t perfect at the beginning. So I think a lot of folks came in, and they tried it, and they gave up on that.
So all that was a foul effort, but what they don't realize is that this is a lifelong project. You can't just support art at the beginning of someone's career and say like, “Okay well I gave it a shot, but I'm going to go back to,” to whatever. Because that artist may need time to grow right? And if you don't support that cause or that movement, then how's that person going to grow?
It's the same thing with this. One hundred percent of our folks never had a job before, and so in the first six months, it took us some time for our whole ecosystem to establish itself. So in that first wave, I think that national attention may have hurt us because everyone came through, and we struggled a little bit. So everyone just kind of checked this off on a bucket list.
GR: And this is supposed to be the normal life right?
RC: We're at a place where I wish more people would come to see Locol because we're better than ever. We're even better than what we imagined from the beginning. The team is official. You can see back here. It’s efficient, clean, organized. The food is delicious, that the team is thriving, the community is inspired with kids, families, and teachers come in. We have everyone from the community, everyone from gangbangers to teachers. It's starting to become like a true staple of Watts and a place of hope and imagination and also of consistency.
GR: What is the impact of Locol? Just to this general area–half a mile radius. I see you walking in and first thing you do is you talk to your friends out there. It's like you’re a local. It's a really weird thing to see.
RC: I'm so honored to be a part of Watts. Anyone who's watching this, who is from Los Angeles will understand what I mean. You can’t just walk into the community of Watts and be like, “I'm here.” You got to earn your respect. You got to be welcomed into this community, and for me to be welcomed into this community – the way that I have, the way that Locol has, the way that Daniel has, in our whole community, within our organization, and for us to earn this, it’s incredible. So what we do is, we try to honor that every day and the impact this has on this community.
Watts is broken down into four housing projects, and then it’s broken down over this square mile area where it's split by a railroad track. It's got a lot of history: this is one of the first communities that African Americans from the south came to. They built the bones in the history of Los Angeles right here. It's also the grounds of the legendary Peace Treaty of ‘92. Whenever you talk to anyone about Watts, you talk that uprising in ’65, but also you just talk about it on the street level. You cannot talk more about Watts without knowing it. So by understanding the structure of the city, you have to understand that we're in the Jordan Downs community of Watts.
GR: Watts always had a bad rep in the media.
RC: We’re in the heart of the it, we're on 103rd and Grape Street. So we're right here in the middle. The other section across the tracks is the Nickerson Gardens.
GR: These are all names that I've heard of in a negative light...
RC: And then over this direction you have Imperial Courts. And then you have the other project here. So you have this layout. What we're trying to do is create a peace movement where these borders no longer exist, and create a place where everyone is welcomed. So even though we're in this section of Watts, what we're trying to do with Locol is create this message across where everyone in Watts is welcomed.
So we're starting to see it. It takes time. We’re in a year and a half. We're still getting a lot of folks from the Imperial Courts coming over. We're starting to build bridges with Nickerson. Beyond the projects we have the community, the houses on the streets in the neighborhoods, the nonprofits, the community workers, the school, the students, everyone being involved. We're also a resource center. People do events here and parties here. We have bike riding clubs, farmers markets. We have high school kids doing summer programs and internships here in the kitchen. So really the impact has been very strong here to Jordan High School, to Joyner elementary, all the way to Wilmington, back through the 107th, all the way up to about 98th Street. This section right here down to Alameda has been really supportive and grown with Locol. Now our next quest is to continue that going out. So we have to continue out toward Central and Avalon and Broadway up through the 80's, all the way down through Compton. So we want to get continued support from Long Beach, Compton, Lynwood, Southgate. They are not that far. Compton is just about seven, eight minute drive from here.
GR: You need to make another Locol in those areas!
RC: Right now we've got to get this one up, thriving a little more, and I think it's not too far for anyone from Long Beach to Lynwood, to Southgate, to Hawthorne, to South Central to come to support. Because again this is a one-of-a-kind thing. I mean for not only healthy food, but also a place where families can relax, get free internet, surrounded by the community. The ownership of this brand will never see money from the store. Whatever money the store makes will always go back into the community. Whoever runs the store will always be from the community. So that ecosystem in that model is something that is not new.
The good people of the community are very keen to see that this is not bullshit, and you see that in the folks that come through. They hear about Locol, they're skeptical of it, they walk in, they see it, and it's the real thing. So when folks see that, it's really a true blessing to be honest. I see their eyes and they're different reactions you get, like expressions from older people who have gone through the struggle. A lot of folks will come and you see in their eyes, “I never thought something like this would happen in my lifetime.” So you see the true youngsters and G’s that come through, and you see in their eyes, and they're like, “Well alright. You know, I’ll support this shit no problem.”
GR: That’s cool. As a small businessman, I just caught you saying there's no profit.
RC: This store. It's designed to make profit of course. I hope this thing makes millions and billions of dollars. I hope the money is flowing, but that money's going to go back to the community. It’s not going to go to us as owners. Hopefully as Locol grows, we’ll have other stores that serve as revenues centers for us as owners of the business. But the stores that are in the inner cities, that are built within communities that need us the most at this point of life, those will be built as community centers. So if we expand to other cities, if we expand to West Oakland or East Oakland, those stores are going to be built so that when we pay people really well, we provide jobs skills, we provide a place of safety and growth and education, and then if the store becomes profitable, obviously the investors will get payback. And that money will go back into rebuilding whether that's providing more jobs, giving raises, providing programs for young kids or whatever the case may be.
GR: Is that the business model from the get-go?
RC: It's the business model from the get-go. I mean why else would we do this? If we’re only in it for the money, there’s no reason to build a Locol in Watts.
GR: But since you’re into this, I’m assuming that your other businesses do well enough.
RC: People think you're balling, right? People think like they see in a fancy magazine, they think, “oh my god look at that shit,” you must have a 57th floor or have Park Avenue, and they think you're over here, but the reality is you're actually grinding just to exist right? Because you're driven by the art.
GR: Yeah, driven by the art, I love that.
RC: The restaurant business is the same way. Any restauranteur that tells you they're balling is lying. That's the fallacy that people see. They see the outside. I'm not saying it's a horrible life; I'm just trying to tell you about the reality of the business. When people walk into a busy restaurant, all they see is the people. They see every table packed, they see wine glasses worn out, they see all this movement and action and they're like man, this guy must be living on a yacht.
GR: But working eighty hours.
RC: The reality is that stuff fuels the energy for it to exist. So yes, you come out on top a little bit, but you have three bad days all of the sudden, and you know you've got to dig deep and then come back up.
Everything lives on that precipice. So even when you are doing well, let's say your gallery is selling piece, after piece, after piece, but that's not forever right?
That's what Locol is, so maybe one of my restaurants is doing well or another one is doing okay. But it's chess pieces. This one's doing really well, this one's kind of just getting by, this one's a little bit above getting by, but then this one is a project I love. And so the goal is not to make money but to do something really good. So all of it makes sense. If you're only in the restaurant business to make money, then you end up becoming like pop music. I don't want to call any restaurants out but, they're just…
GR: They're restaurants that are just templates. The same in every city. You're not even using local ingredients in your neighborhood where you are at. Like, “How did you get that fish in this part of the country?”
RC: It's basically dumbing everything down. And I don't know; I go through that struggle a lot as a creative person. If I just dumb things down a little bit, maybe I'd be a lot richer. And then you look in the mirror. I can’t do that but then you see these restauranteurs and restaurants that are doing so well and you’re just like, “What the fuck?” If I just dip down a little bit, but I can't do that. I can’t.
GR: So when you come to Watts, what are the sites like? What do you see and where do you go aside your own place?
RC: There’s a tamale place. A truck right here on Wilmington that I stop by. Tamales Elena and Watts Coffee House which is right across the street on Wilmington and 103rd. Go there for the waffles and for the chicken wings.
GR: But you have waffles and chicken here.
RC: We do, but you got to support of course.
We go to Reggie’s Mart right next door right here for the slushies. They do the slushies right here. There's local barbecues all around if you walk through the projects on the weekend, everyone be walking the streets and all kinds of people cooking.
GR: They welcome people? How does that work?
RC: You can walk through it, but you're not walking through Jordan Downs unless you're welcomed into Jordan Downs. In most cases, unless you have a bridge in Jordan Downs you’re not going to be able to find that place.
GR: So you're that bridge.
RC: Either I’m that bridge, or Nani (an employee at Locol) or Rob (Locol manager) right there is that bridge. These guys run real deep; this is Rob’s street right here. Rob is the king of this street. Locol has built that respect, that honesty, that trust so that we're able to walk through this community and we're able to do it as a part of this community not as an outsider.
GR: You’re a true ally.
RC: Yeah, I could walk through here and get a sausage or get a waffle.
We also support Hawkins House of Burgers on Imperial. Over by the Metro station, which is right here on 103rd over by the towers, there are a lot of people that set up right there as you get off the Metro.
GR: As a small business guy myself, if I lived here, I'd want to open something on my own right next door.
RC: You should open a comic book shop.
GR: Have you inspired anyone else to open businesses?
RC: We're trying man! That’s why I do these interviews. Anyone who’s got talent, we give this place as a place to express themselves. One of our youngsters did tie dye shirts. We would give him our Locol shirts and he would tie dye them. Anyone doing music, we try to give them a platform and support them. Little 100 is coming up right now from here. They just came out with an album. We’ve got another youngster from this neighborhood who’s really starting to hit it big, 03 Greedo. Anyone that does artwork, we put it up. The art on the wall right now, that guy's got a crazy story. He never did art before and he woke up one day and just started painting and that's the art that came out on the wall.
We aspire to give anyone a platform. But you understand, the reality is that a lot of folks honestly don't have money still right now. We're still in a phase where folks that don’t have the capital build, to build the initial start up plan. We're still one step away from that, that entrepreneurial kind of bootstrap system. But Locol is slowly providing a place for that to exist.
The next phase is for Locol to thrive and provide more jobs. Then, more businesses will come. They’ll hire more folks in the community, and all of a sudden you have not just thirty people that have steady income, but fifty people, and that continues to filter down. Then people can start showcasing their own stuff.
Another entrepreneurial thing we started was an ambassador program. Deevo here and other ambassadors set up shop next door, and they work as a bridge to the community. Their services were so fantastic that we've been thinking of creating a tourism program. When you have a lot of folks coming to Watts, many have never been here before. I told them they could create a souvenir shop. So, they're going to build a souvenir shop with like the ones you see in New York where you get a little Statue of Liberty. But we've got Watts Towers and a Locol Statue. I want to invest and give them a golf cart or something, or Segways. That way they can do Watts tours, so that they can show someone who grew up having a certain stereotypical news-driven image of Watts the reality of how beautiful it is.
We’ve also got 3 Worlds Café coming up. It’s a smoothie shop.
You know who I've met out here recently? Clement comes here often.
GR: Clement is a curator who comes from the Japanese American National Museum.
RC: Yeah, he comes out here because he’s visiting a Japanese artist that works with wood planks. He makes these hold and pull long boards. His studio is just down the street from Locol.
But if you’re asking how Locol can grow, I think it’s getting likeminded folks to come and collaborate with us and use our space and our movement as a place where we can do that. Maybe it’s the Japanese American National Museum or Giant Robot or whoever doing installations here. We have poetry nights here. I want to create things where you could showcase stuff so it forces people to come out and take a look. Not only are you coming for the good food and the good mission, but also maybe you get to see our friend David Choe’s new work. Whatever the case, it drives people to come here and spend money. I'm not trying to be on some soapbox or trying to lecture anyone, but every penny we’ve spent here makes a difference.
GR: Everyone’s looking for places to donate money. However, you know when you donate somewhere that money is going to someone else’s pocket. It gets filtered down. Maybe every dollar you spent is really worth 5 cents. That’s really sad.
RC: Yeah. At Locol, every dollar you spend actually provides a job, for Deevo, for Nani, and more. On top of that, if there’s money beyond their payroll it goes into our programs. It goes to redeveloping the streets or providing free meals to folks that can’t pay for it.
GR: You do free meals?
RC: We do that a lot. We do it during school year. We do free ice cream on Tuesdays for the kids. When we have a surplus of food, we cook it off and words travels real fast in Watts. If we put out a signal and say, “We will give you a free meal,” a lot of folks that really need to come over and grab a free meal. Again, this is a family community. So if one day somebody doesn’t have money, we can help that person out that week. And maybe next week that person has some money, and then that person will come out and support Locol. That’s truly how it goes down.
GR: When I'm listening to you talk, I feel like you're here every day, but how often are you here?
RC: It depends on the week, but I'm here at least twice a week. I'm involved every single day, 24/7.
GR: I noticed Locol is going out and doing events. You've been keeping busy. Why travel and bring Locol around all of a sudden?
RC: We were trying to stay away from the food trucks, since we really wanted people to come out to Watts. But as we were growing, we saw the effect the food truck could bring. The population that comes eat at Locol is split in half. Half of the customer base is from the community, right? Local. The other half is from all over LA and Orange County, even out of state. When they land at LAX, they actually come right over here. From reading about it, thousands of people who have never been to this community came to Locol. When you watch that interaction of people coming to Locol for the first time, it’s a beautiful thing.
So, I decided to take this beautiful thing and bring it to people since a lot of folks are working and can’t get out here. We started bringing the truck to the streets of the West Side, Hollywood, everywhere. You started to see the same beautiful interaction. We started booking parties, events, festivals. This year we did FYFF, Arroyo Seco, and Red Bull (soap box races). People love it. People love our foldies, our cheeseburgers, our Agua Frescas. Plus, we’re cheap and affordable. You should book a Locol chef for your party.
GR: What's a foldie exactly? Did you name it?
RC: I named it a foldie because when you see it, you know it’s right. It’s slang.
It's a stuffed taco filled with a sprouting bean mixture, cheese and then some sort of salsa verde with meat or without. We fold it and we crisp it up and it kind of spills out and gets all crispy on the outside. It eats like a monster taco from the Jack in the Box but it's all natural.
GR: Sprouted bean? It sounds like you’re working to choose a select type of ingredients here.
RC: What we’re doing here is to add up the flavor while being cost-conscience. That comes from Daniel’s mind. If our food costs four dollars, you pay four dollars. In other words, we have to figure out how we can get this depth of flavor without breaking the bank. We stock grains, juice vegetables, use the leaves and stems, and create layers and layers of flavor. We smoke oil and do all kinds of things to add flavor without adding cost.
GR: Is there anything you learned food-wise locally? Was there a certain kind of food that you brought here or took away from here?
RC: A lot of the menu’s influenced by the area. I learned that not everything your way is the right way. You might take something that’s technically right, but then you have to listen to the community and it morphs into something better because it fits the taste buds of the community. We make our breakfast sandwiches our way. We make the burger our way, our chilli, our waffles, our shrimp.
GR: Is the menu just enough for what you need or it’s still evolving?
RC: I think the menu’s spot on. I’d love to introduce things like salads, but that would be a little bit later.