The year that Owen Sutherland moved from his home country of Jamaica to the state of California, the entrepreneur had not a single thought in his mind of becoming the owner of a family-run restaurant.
"This guy had this place first and he wanted to get rid of it and he came and asked me if I would like it," Sutherland said. "I laughed at him and said 'what am I going to do with a restaurant?'"
Over three decades later, however, the owner of Lee's Caribbean Restaurant and Market located in a small strip mall on Prairie Avenue and East Hardy Street just across the street from the site of the soon-to-be Inglewood stadium, has every hope of holding on to the business he said has provided for him and his family for 25 years.
Sitting at a simple table with a faux gray marble surface, the man sat with his back to the empty acres of dry dirt surrounding the Hollywood Park Casino. Speaking with a moderate Jamaican lilt, he recounted how his ownership had come to be and, eventually, his thoughts on the massive development project in progress across the street.
The story goes that Sutherland had owned a tailoring business when he lived back on the island. In 1979, in the hopes of providing his five children—four boys and a girl—with an education, he moved to Los Angeles. He had been working in Brentwood when one day he saw an empty space on Crenshaw Boulevard in Leimert Park that he thought would lend itself well to a tailor's needs.
The next morning, on his day off, Sutherland walked into the Jamaican restaurant, then next door to the vacant storefront, to inquire about the space. The owners there put in a good word for Sutherland with the landlord and the rest is history. Almost.
Several years later, Sutherland would expand into a dry cleaning space on West Boulevard in Inglewood, and that's where the man, whose clothes Sutherland used to tailor, persuaded him to come and look at the restaurant. That was 1989.
"He kept on bugging me until I came and looked at it one evening. From there I just go," said Sutherland. But it wasn't easy. "It was so bad when we take it, first. I say, 'Oh I'm sorry I do it.'"
In spite of having paid the previous owner's back rent, a couple additional debts and a little extra cash, Sutherland turned the place around with the help of his sons Dwain and Desmond, then in their 20s.
Before long, with what Sutherland called a "commitment to business" and "setting time and living by it," business soon seemed to be going just fine.
Both Desmond Sutherland and his father recalled the better times when the Lakers and Kings were still playing at the Forum in addition to the venue being a major concert destination.
"This place used to be so busy back in the days. Used to be people coming and going and there was a nail shop and at this time of the morning it would be so crowded," Sutherland said of the restaurant and strip mall in the early 90s.
The race track was still open, too. It was the races, Desmond said, that brought in the most customers.
"When they closed the racetrack down, that affected our business because a lot of the Caribbean and Jamaican guys would go over there, bet on the horses. We were right here and that's where they would come," said Desmond, now 44. "Once that closed down, that affected us. I don't see how that's going to help us with the stadium over there but hopefully—you know. I just gotta be optimistic."
As a result of the race track's closure, Desmond said, business has slowed from a steady stream to a trickle.
In July 2009, plans were approved to begin the massive re-development of the 238-acre plot of land across the street from Lee's Caribbean Restaurant and Market.
The massive project, according to the City of Inglewood's website and its page on the Hollywood Park Specific Plan, included rehabilitating the 120,000 square-foot Casino gaming facility and constructing a massive mixed-use development to contain just short of 3,000 housing units, a hotel, tons of retail and commercial space, and a 25-acre park system.
"There was no talking about a stadium," said Sutherland. "Over there would be a big shopping center with restaurants and stuff and over here would be a parking lot. So we'd either have to rent over there—if we could afford it—or move away."
Rent has already tripled from $1,300 per month when the Sutherlands first acquired the space, to about $3,600.
With a landlord that Sutherland said "turns his back" to building needs—a leak in the ceiling, for example, has existed almost since the Sutherland's take-over, leaving a hole in the ceiling panels—the family rests in uncertainty.
Not knowing the restaurant's future is a common thread between the father and son. Still, the two remain somewhat relaxed and positive.
Just a couple of years ago, amidst health issues, Sutherland sold his house, just a 5-minute drive from the restaurant and very near the Forum, to his son Dwain. Desmond explained that while development for some could mean a struggle to keep their homes due to increased property taxes, it could also mean a great time to sell.
"If you're a homeowner and your property doubles or triples, most people are going to sell because that's not happening every day," Desmond said. "My brother owns his home over there, so in a way that's what he's hoping for just by talking to him."
The dark side
Yet the reality is that without much information from either the landlord of the physically neglected strip mall, or the city of Inglewood regarding the soon-to-come state-of-the-art stadium, the Sutherlands are effectually frozen, unable to make a move.
"Basically we're in the dark and most of these are minority-owned business," Desmond said. "So we don't know. They're fixing up the area. If they're pumping up the area, it's going to affect certain people."
His father–who temporarily moved back to town from his home in Orlando, Florida in order to alleviate some of the burden the family has been taking on with Sutherland's 14-year-old grandson's recurrence of leukemia–echoed the desire for information.
"I get more interest in what is going to happen because I am here and this is where I get my living from," Sutherland said. "My little social security I have, I can't live by that. So if that goes, what do I do? At this age I don't want to work but if I have to, I will. I can't just walk away from it.
The reality is one that the son, who Sutherland said he has called his right-hand man throughout the years, is aware of.
"Eventually we gonna have to move," said Desmond, who said he hoped that if forced to do so the family would be paid to relocate.
"I'm not sure how it works," he said. "But if not we just gotta do what we gotta do."