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Expanding Soul Food's Appeal

Restaurateurs in the Valley are hoping to spread the demand for their ethnic fare beyond blacks.

November 08, 2000|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few San Fernando Valley entrepreneurs are banking that they can make a living selling soul food in a region without a whole lot of African American souls.

In places like Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks and Encino, where the black population is less than 3%, restaurants serving soul food are trying to do what the Italians and Chinese have done for years--offer their specialized fare to the hungry masses, regardless of race.

So far, the results are mixed, with some of the longer-established firms making a profit, while some newer ones struggle and others shut down.

Even those who say it's been a struggle insist that the idea is a good one. By taking soul food out of the 'hood and into the 'burbs, they hope to establish new enclaves of customers clamoring for smothered pork chops, Cajun catfish, greens, candied yams and the like.

"White folks eat soul, too," said Harold Hambrick, who helped found the year-old Los Angeles Black Restaurant Assn. "Most of our restaurants draw a mixed clientele. What we want to do is make these restaurants attractive to everybody. You want to attract customers from all over."

While most restaurants in multi-hued Los Angeles do draw a cross section of colors, most soul food restaurants in the Central City rely more heavily on an African American clientele, restaurant owners and diners said.

In the Valley, successful soul food vendors must appeal to a more eclectic group.

Before he opened Angel Lena's Soul Food Kitchen in Sherman Oaks 12 years ago, owner Jerome Moss said his thinking was "stereotypical."

"I thought you had to put soul food in front of black people."

Then he visited one of Los Angeles' most popular soul food stops, Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch in Marina del Rey, and was "blown away" by the lines of people waiting to get in.

"I couldn't imagine anybody selling soul food in the Marina," said Moss, who worked for years for McDonald's before opening up his own eatery.

"I looked at the lines of people waiting to get into the place and they had every ethnicity: Asians, white people, black people, Indians. You had people from all walks of life."

With that in mind, Moss chose a heavily trafficked stretch of Sepulveda Boulevard to open his restaurant--away from the region's largest concentrations of African Americans, but also away from some of the more established soul food diners in the Central City.

"When I came to the Valley, I was not aware of any other soul food restaurant," he said. "That's why I came to the Valley. Can you imagine if M & M's [a popular soul food chain with locations mainly in African American neighborhoods] was across the street? Who would make any money?"

Moss said about half the people who dine in his restaurant are white.

And he said he is making money but there have been lean times.

New Orleans native Monique Patton, who opened Big Mama's Kitchen in Woodland Hills about a year ago, can identify with that.

"The first year of business has been hard--tough," said Patton, taking a break after delivering steaming hot plates of fried chicken, greens and red beans and rice to waiting customers.

"It's been an up-and-down process. You never know how sales are going to end up from one week to the next."

Still Patton does not attribute her rocky start to location. "I think it would have been tough no matter where I was," she said. "The restaurant business in general is a pretty tough place. I don't think the location has anything to do with it. I think this is a great location."

Indeed, figures from the National Restaurant Assn. show that 80% of all new restaurants started by independents fail within the first two years. Moss said the figure is even higher for black-owned restaurants.

Factors such as inadequate capital, poor planning, lack of staffing and promotion, and inconsistency in the menu and the hours of operation can quickly shut down a small ethnic eatery, said Tamika Bridgewater, president of the San Fernando Valley Black Chamber of Commerce.

She said she did not feel that the comparatively small number of African Americans in the Valley "would be the deciding factor" of a restaurant's success. "The problem would be marketing and staffing," she said, noting that one Valley soul food diner closed recently when the owner ran into personal problems and didn't have enough staff to keep the operation running.

Two of the more successful Valley soul food spots, Angel Lena's and Mom's Bar B.Q. House in Van Nuys, said they did little marketing when they opened their doors, preferring to let the clientele build slowly by word of mouth among members of various ethnic groups.

Genevia Fontenette, who opened Mom's 13 years ago, guesses that about half of the diners at her family-run restaurant are white. But, she said, "we get lots of blacks and quite a few Latinos."

Most soul food entrepreneurs said they don't alter their menu to accommodate a non-black clientele. But a few said they did take race into account in making some business decisions.

For example, Moss said he did not make a marketing push for his restaurant in the African American community, thinking that an exclusively black clientele would discourage people of other races from coming in and trying out the place.

Meanwhile, other Central City chefs have begun to test the waters in the Valley.

In August, Steven Perry, longtime owner of Stevie's on the Strip restaurant in the Crenshaw District, opened Stevie's Creole Cafe in Encino.

It is his first restaurant outside the Crenshaw District and is doing "splendidly," a restaurant spokesman said.

That would not be surprising to Moss, who foresees some soul food presence in suburbs throughout the region.

"I would like to know what soul food would do in Thousand Oaks and Ventura County," said Moss.

"If you're wielding the only bat in town, you're wielding a mighty big bat."

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