A full plate
Lisa Olivia Fitch | 8/22/2012, 5 p.m.
"A single bracelet does not jingle"--proverb, Congo
Yams, rice, corn, black-eyed peas, peanuts, okra, melon and other crops came to America hundreds of years ago, because slave traders shipped their human cargo complete with their native cuisine, in order to keep them alive.
Later, on plantations where the master ate the bacon, ham and sausage from "high on the hog," slaves were given the fattier parts of the pig. And while the folks in the big house ate turnips, the slaves got the tougher greens.
But something special happens when you slowly simmer ham hock leftovers with turnip greens. Now, that's some tasty soul food, what we've come to know as a labor of love from grandma's kitchen.
To supplant a day in the kitchen duplicating grandma's recipes, particularly as the summer heat rises in the kitchen at home, a number of soul food restaurants offer diners these special, one-of-a-kind of tastes. And although the restaurant business can be an entrepreneurial nightmare, it seems Los Angeles has one of the fastest growing restaurant communities in the country.
"It is a very tough business," Post & Beam owner Brad Johnson said. "You have to deal with all the issues that face so many small businesses--recruiting, turnover, management, a thin profit margin, expensive real estate. They all add challenges, and L.A. is a highly desirable market."
Johnson is a friend of Ken Lombard, a partner and chief information officer at Capri Capital Partners, which recently refurbished the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.
"We had formerly done business together, and he approached me with the idea three years ago," Johnson said. "He gave me a tour and told me what the plans were for the future of the mall.
"It didn't take a lot of research to realize that there is a fantastic community surrounding the mall with the choices for sit-down dining few and far between."
Post & Beam actually integrates the look of the post and beam style architecture of the nearby homes in Baldwin Hills, plus it gives visitors a little taste of mom's home kitchen. Chef Govind Armstrong is a native of Inglewood, but was raised in Costa Rica. Owner Johnson is a product of Harlem and Manhattan. Together they have designed a unique menu and restaurant.
There are some southern touches--short ribs, collard greens and ham, black eyed peas--but the cuisine is classified as "California farm-fresh seasonal," and Armstrong sources a lot of ingredients from the garden and Saturday shopping at the Crenshaw Farmers Market.
"It's not a typical setup," Johnson said. "We have an exposed kitchen and a wood burning oven. It's really a food experience."
Johnson explained that Chef Armstrong's California fresh approach brings in the whole idea of farm-to-table. Vegetables, herbs and fruit are grown on the property.
"It's familiar food, but also upscale," Johnson said. "With a little bit healthier approach."
Verona Burks has been working seven years at Dulan's Soul Food Kitchen and attributes the success of the business to the founder, Adolf Dulan.
"I think our success is basically because of his personality," she said. "He's caring, sociable and never turning anybody away."
Dulan, started his first business, Hamburger City, back in 1975. It was located on King and Crescent Heights Boulevards. Then there was Dulan's on Crenshaw, and in 2001 he opened a takeout, cafeteria-style service to keep up with the trend in the restaurant business. It is located at 3249 W. Century Blvd. near Crenshaw.
Dulan's on the Crenshaw strip is still open, but the focus is more on catering and repast events than operating a daily restaurant. It is managed by Adolf's son, Greg Dulan. Sunday Brunch is still a big hit there, but is offered on special occasions only.
Dulan's Soul Food Kitchen has two Inglewood locations, 202 E. Manchester Blvd. and 3249 Century Blvd. Together they employ 40 people, who join the more than 1,000 full-time and part-time employees who have worked with the family business over the years.
All of Dulan's children also grew up working in the family restaurants. Adolf's two daughters, Tiffany and Danielle, operate Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch in Marina del Rey. Sons Jeff and Terry are presently researching plans and ideas for opening additional restaurants.
"Verona, everybody has to eat," Burks remembers Adolf saying. "And if the food is good, they'll come back."
The benefits to serving cafeteria-style include reduced overhead, which allows for serving larger portions at a reasonable price.
Customers do rave about the overflowing takeout order boxes.
"We don't do canned stuff," Burks said. "It's all from scratch, and we serve healthy portions."
Although the cost of everything is going up, groceries included, Burks said Dulan is determined to keep the business going, although his profit margin may not what he prefers.
"But to Mr. Dulan, it's not so much about profit, but staying in the community is important to him, to keep the business open for his children and make sure we can continue to provide good food at a decent price."
"This is one of the hardest businesses around and they fold fast," said. Beverly Brinson, owner of Ms. B's M & M Soulfood. "The restaurant business is not about the money at all. You have to have a love for it--the food, the people. I think that's where the 'soul' comes in."
"Not everybody can run a restaurant, because you come across a lot of stuff," she added.
Brinson came to Southern California from Jackson, Miss., in 1974 with $17 in her pocket and two toddlers. She initially worked for Pacific Bell and only helped her godmother Mary Stewart, the founder of M & M's, in the evenings after work.
When Mary moved on to another venture, Brinson inherited the business, which often is confused with several other M & M's in L.A. county.
"There's no relation," she said. "They are all independently owned, but I'm the best in the West. We have survived because we have excellent food and excellent service."
The restaurant was originally located on East Manchester Blvd., but moved to 801 E. Manchester two years ago.
"I wanted a drive-through location," Brinson said. "We (maybe) the first Black soul food drive-through."
There are a variety of Black-owned restaurants spread throughout the Los Angeles area, "jingling" together to make a sweet, comforting sound--soul food. From Marina del Rey to Lancaster, Angelenos can find uniquely prepared African American dishes. Although, as a business market, restaurants are historically difficult to launch and sustain, soul food restaurants fit in a market niche all their own ... and they seem to thrive because as Brinson said, "People gotta eat!"