Some Black-owned restaurants in South Los Angeles play a special role in their local communities, especially in a pandemic that is suffocating parts of the local economy.
Two such establishments are Mel’s Fish Shack, located in the Crenshaw District, and Hot and Cool Cafe, in Leimert Park.
Mel’s Fish Shack is providing free meals for the elderly every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It is part of a program in collaboration with council members Herb Wesson of District 10 and Marqueece Harris-Dawson of District 8 that aims to respond to the pandemic.
Georgette Powell, the owner of Mel’s Fish Shack, has a long history of giving back to the community. Since taking over her father’s restaurant 23 years ago, after she graduated from the University of California at San Diego, Powell has done everything from providing food for people without homes to checking in with seniors who lack a social support group. She also partners with nonprofits like First to Serve, which provides transitional housing and supportive services to vulnerable populations in South Central Los Angeles.
“These are my people so I’m going to do my part to keep advancing the neighborhood and this community,” Powell said in a recent interview inside her restaurant, wearing a mask as she chopped collard greens and prepared for the day’s opening.
Hot and Cool Cafe also participates in the meal program to feed the elderly created by council member Harris-Dawson, but owner Anthony Jolly expanded the program to provide meals to those seniors in his district that do not qualify for the program.
Jolly also supplies the electricity to a community fridge, located outdoors to the left side of his café, that provides free and nutritious food to Leimert Park residents who lack local access to grocery stores and fresh produce.
Since first opening Hot and Cool Cafe in 2018, he has taken into account the needs of the community. He expanded his vision of opening a coffee shop to include healthy and even vegan meals, and he created a stage to host events ranging from live music to spoken poetry to town halls by local politicians.
“You can’t say you’re part of a community and then not be,” Jolly explained.
The aid these establishments offer highlights their close relationships with local residents and reinforces the important role small businesses play in their communities.
Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said that small business owners often hire locals and spend money locally, both of which can help to generate wealth in their community.
“If you’re a Black-owned business, often the jobs you created are in a community that is disproportionately Black, so those jobs are likely to be held by African Americans,” Fairlie said. He emphasized that this can have a positive domino effect in narrowing the overall racial wealth inequality gap.
Customers of Hot and Cool Cafe agree. Alexis Arenella, a former Leimert Park resident, makes an effort to support local businesses whenever he is in the area. As a musical artist himself, Arenella appreciates the platform the cafe gives to showcase local artists and musicians.
“It’s important to keep the vibrant culture going,” Arenella said.
An elderly Leimert Park man who only gave his first name, Reeves, reflected on the difference in attitudes between corporations and local businesses like Hot and Cool Cafe.
“Corporations may interact with the community as a whole, but their main goal is to make money,” Reeves said. “But Hot and Cool allows people to come in, have their book clubs, host meetings. They give back so I believe they’re part of the community upkeep.”
Despite the push to provide normalcy, business owners are painfully aware of the added financial pressures the pandemic is causing. Jolly says his business has lost somewhere between 80-90 percent of its business.
A movement to “buy Black” sought to alleviate some of these financial pressures common among locally-owned restaurants in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests. Kat Hong, an editorial assistant for the restaurant recommendation website The Infatuation, created a spreadsheet that circulated on social media, detailing the locations and hours of Black-owned restaurants in Los Angeles.
Both Jolly and Powell stated that they experienced a surge in business following the online call to support Black-owned restaurants.
Powell attributes that interest, as well as its established reputation in the community, to helping Mel’s Fish Shack stay afloat. Similar calls in the past would result in a surge in business that often died down shortly after. This time, Powell noted, the surge continues two months later.
Still, she acknowledged that some newer, less-established Black-owned restaurants could close for good since Black business owners typically lack opportunities to network and learn how to succeed in their neighborhood.
“It’s difficult to develop an infrastructure to withstand the test of time,” Powell said. “We stumble into our businesses without the education or a full understanding of the entire food chain we’re dealing with.”
Professor Fairlie emphasized the importance of resources when explaining why minority-owned businesses might be particularly vulnerable in an economy weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of minority-owned businesses tend to be smaller, have less employees, have smaller facilities,” Fairlie said. “They started at a lower revenue and lower sales level.”
In a recent national study on the pandemic’s effect on minority-owned businesses, Fairlie found that 41% of Black business owners and 32% of Latino business owners in February had closed their businesses, either temporarily or permanently, by April. That compares to 17% for white business owners.
As some businesses reopen, Fairlie cautioned against assuming there is an economic recovery. Closed businesses need to invest money to reopen after weeks of lost revenue. Many fail to return to the same level of activity they had prior to the stay-at-home orders.
With the number of COVID-19 cases remaining fairly high in Los Angeles, and many people staying home as much as possible, the financial pain prolongs for already struggling restaurants.
Fairlie warned that larger, more established restaurants are more likely to have the resources to weather the reduced revenue while others, particularly Black and Latino-owned restaurants, may face more struggles down the line, especially if the government discontinues aid to such small businesses.