By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Celia and Joe Ward-Wallace are the married co-founders of South LA Cafe in South Central Los Angeles.
CELIA WARD-WALLACE: We’re residents of South Central Los Angeles. We’ve been together for 25 years. This cafe was a big dream of ours, and we had taken the whole community on the journey with us. They saw how challenging it was. It was not easy, and we didn’t have all the funding we needed. We ran out of funds at some point and went into crowd funding. And then we ran out of those funds…
JOE WARD-WALLACE: We were basically doing a reality show and didn’t know it.
CELIA: By the time we opened, they had been following us, and they were so excited that we really were off to the races. That was in November and December of 2019. So just four months before the pandemic. In that time we did 17 community events. We had mental health panels, open mic nights, family game nights. We were just rocking and rolling.
JOE: We even had two chess masters, and we had a chess match. It was amazing. To get one master to come to your event is amazing in itself. We had two.
CELIA: I was tracking COVID, so I saw that it was coming. It’s very hard when you just open a restaurant to have to tell your partner, “Hey, this is not looking good. We’re probably going to have to close down.” Joe was in quite a bit of denial until the NBA shut down. I think that was a turning point for a lot of people.
JOE: That was the night for me.
CELIA: And then shortly thereafter, Gov. Gavin Newsom said we were going into lockdown. We very quickly had to pivot because we had everything on the line. We launched an online ordering app so people could order and just do pickup. We transitioned to launching our outdoor patio. Luckily we were tech-enabled, and so we were able to communicate with our community and let them know the new way we were doing things. But it was definitely hard. We had to furlough everybody except one employee. We had sales drop 70 percent. We were struggling for sure.
JOE: It seemed like 100 percent to me. I didn’t think we were doing anything.
CELIA: We had to expedite our plans. We had to start pulling out some of the business verticals that we had thought we might do a year or two into it. We had to make them happen overnight. I do attribute that to our background in doing business together for quite some time. I come from coaching and consulting. We had some additional skills up our sleeve that I think other new entrepreneurs or business owners don’t often have.
But we still were scared to death. I mean, we really did think this could be it. We put tons of money into it. We were up to our eyeballs in debt, and here we were looking like it wasn’t going to happen.
My husband had this really brilliant idea that we should start something we called our South LA Grocery Box. At that time, people didn’t want to go to grocery stores. Our community was the most at risk for COVID and having the worst outcomes. We were trying to provide an alternative to the grocery store. So we designed this $35 grocery box. You could buy it for yourself, or sponsor one for a neighbor in need.
JOE: In hindsight, we should have charged more. But we were just trying to get it out quick and take care of the community.
CELIA: The price is part of the success, though. We had tons of people who were buying them. Ariana Grande had made a commitment to choose us over Starbucks. We had been on the Beyoncé Black Parade Route. We had landed on the covers of the LA Times and Washington Post. We had a lot of really amazing, once-in-a-lifetime press. Because of that, and because we had this initiative where people could sponsor this grocery box, and George Floyd’s murder and all these people wanting to take action and give back, we got flooded with people wanting to sponsor these grocery boxes.
The grocery giveaway has just taken on a life of its own. I think it has really struck a chord with people. I mean, there’s a lot of people doing food distributions, but on top of it we have this visibility, and we have this buy-in from a lot of people watching, and they share it and they spread the word. We’re at week 71, and we’ve fed over 70,000 people in our community. We’ve been able to do that through small donations, through individuals, and through larger donations and grants.
Now we’ve launched our own nonprofit, the Slac Foundation, to help with the fundraising to continue the grocery giveaway indefinitely as one of our primary community programs. This is our community. We live here. Joe was born and raised here, and I’ve been here for over three decades. We literally live five blocks away from the cafe. We’ve been living in a food desert. The pandemic brought it to so many more people’s attention, but it was always here. That was part of why we started the cafe and market, because we wanted to provide fresh, healthy, and affordable food.
JOE: In a really nice way.
CELIA: In an excellent-experience way. The pandemic was the impetus to push us deeper into our mission and our calling. We had what it takes to make it happen, but it really was miraculous.
JOE: I get extremely exhausted, extremely stressed, by the time we’re about to do each giveaway. And I want to tell you that the people in line receiving the groceries really, really energize me every week. By the end of the giveaway, I am recharged. I don’t know how—if you believe in a higher power, that’s the only explanation, because I am recharged from the energy of those people receiving those grocery bags.
CELIA: We’re also trying to present an alternative business model to the status quo of exploitation and extraction. We’re a working, living, breathing alternative model of what a sustainable business could look like that is powered and fueled by the community. It’s this co-creative dance that we’re in with the community, where we say, “When you support us, it allows us to support others. When you invest in us, we can invest in the community.” They give it to us, and we give it back.
What fuels me is knowing the community needs and desires and wants us. They need us to wake up each day and do this work, because we’re presenting an alternative. We’re presenting a model for a way to potentially fix what’s been broken for far too long in terms of inequity and injustice in the community.
JOE: I’ve had other jobs where you go, “Oh, wow. That’s rewarding.” I’ve worked for the NBA. I refereed with the NBA. I was a fireman. Those are dream jobs. But I just feel like I was tolerated in those jobs. I had so much to give, and my brain was always working on ideas, and they just tolerated me. These were like, “Be a fireman and do what you have to do.” Here I’m celebrated for my ideas and the things that I do. And I can do them immediately. I can make the decision to change the color of the bag. I feel celebrated here, and that wakes me up every day.
We have two ladies living in the same community who hadn’t seen each other since elementary school. They both happened to be visiting our coffee shop on the same day and hadn’t seen each other in 40 years. And they were in tears. They were hugging. I mean, drop the mic. That’s why I built the cafe—for the community to come together.
CELIA: We’re doubling down on our vision, and we want to be one of the largest and best employers of local people in the South LA community. We want to have more locations, more cafes, more markets, employ more local people—providing opportunities for people to not just make minimum wage, but make a living wage.
JOE: And then when people leave us, it’s like, “You worked for South LA Cafe?” That’s enough to get them hired already by the next place. Not that we want them to poach our current employees! But I want our people to be that hireable.