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Why LocoL Failed In Watts, According To Watts Locals

The exterior of LocoL in Watts, South L.A., on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, a day after LocoL announced it was shutting down the businesses retail food operations and moving to catering. (Caleigh Wells for LAist)
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What happens when well-meaning outsiders with big ambitions collide with the harsh reality of neighborhood tastes and economic pressure? Consider LocoL a case study. After two-and-a-half years, the South L.A. restaurant has closed its doors to customers and will survive only as a catering business.

Celebrity chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson had a bold idea to bring affordable, healthyish food to Watts. The heavily Latino and African American neighborhood has few dining options aside from corner markets and fast food restaurants, and it's often referred to as a food desert.

But Choi didn't want to simply open a restaurant or even a chain of restaurants. He wanted to start a revolution. He promised to open a million LocoLs around the country. Instead, he opened three: the Watts flagship, another one in Oakland and an outpost inside a Whole Foods in San Jose.

(Caleigh Wells/LAist)
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The business model was founded on hiring residents from the neighborhoods where LocoL opened — a tantalizing prospect, especially in Watts. The unemployment rate here is 9.8%, noticeably higher than the L.A. County average, and the median household income is $25,161, significantly lower than in the rest of the county.

LocoL had a splashy launch in January 2016. The restaurant featured cute characters and a menu of burgers, sandwiches, bowls and "foldies," the chain's version of a taco.

Located on 103rd St. near the corner of Wilmington Ave., it was the only sit-down, non-fast food restaurant in Watts, apart from the coffee shop down the street. Business started well but the food didn't resonate with residents.

"It's like they put a menu in there [that] they're trying to force down our throat," says Randy Lowe, who owns the liquor store down the street. "Instead of tacos, they had foldies. We don't know what a foldie is. We don't eat foldies around here. We eat tacos."

Employee Rob McCovery, who lives down the street and loves working at LocoL, says he gets it. "It was good food, healthy food, but it was the type of food that the neighborhood couldn't adjust to, that the neighborhood never experienced — and they tried and they didn't like," he says.

LocoL store manager Gwendolyn Etta, who makes most of the food, is more positive about the menu. "Once they try the food, they love it," she says. "It's just getting them in here."

The burgers cost $6, the same or less than what many similar restaurants around Los Angeles charge. Even so, LocoL couldn't hold its own against the burger, fried chicken, taco and pizza joints in the vicinity.

"You're born on Burger King, McDonald's. You can't compete with that, not in this area. I'd rather go pay 79 cents for a cheeseburger," McCovery says.

(Caleigh Wells/LAist)
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Joyce Vicarao, who works at a shop down the street, echoes that sentiment — and her uncle owns LocoL. "You can get like a full meal for like three dollars at Burger King or McDonald's. Over here, in LocoL, you can't really get that," she says.

LocoL says it's not cutting hours or workers. McCovery says they hope to change the menu and open again, maybe as soon as a few months from now.

"We ain't going nowhere," he says. "LocoL'll be back. Just gotta take the time and get things right."

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