food Locol is a Righteous Answer to the Wrong Question
Editor's note: Among many other things, Tunde Wey is a cook and writer who hosts pop-ups across the country, a dinner series called Blackness in America. This essay represents a continuation of that conversation. See also his last contribution: Bad Hombres, Bad Dreams.
I. Men Who Fix Things
There’s a necessary concoction of good intention and hubris that propels men, those of us socially instructed to be masters of the universe, fathers and philanderers, to attempt improbable things, fueled exclusively by the idea that we can do anything, and do it better.
This notion, which welds a narrow respect of history with a grand vision for the future, is the motor that propels San Francisco’s startup princes, populist political animals, self-important writers and vanity-begotten chefs.
In the summer of 2013, under a Copenhagen tent teeming with the most acclaimed food professionals — that is, chefs and food writers — from around the world, Roy Choi gave a presentation at the MAD conference, a TED-style food symposium.
Dressed in a black T-shirt, “Stüssy” boldly stylized in gold across his chest, a flat-brimmed L.A. cap and camouflage pants, the Southern California chef spoke to the shadowed and quieted crowd, his voice trembling from anxiety and emotion.
Rattling off a series of dismal statistics, each more successively disheartening, Choi talked about the dire condition of the south central Los Angeles community. Of poverty, childhood hunger, curbed access to healthy food, dim education prospects. Of anemic civic participation, disintegrating households and prevalent violence.
Despite being inoculated from these desperate vagaries of non-Hollywood Los Angeles, which he was describing, Choi felt indicted by his proximity.
Warning of injustice as a universal threat, he exhorted his affluent, conscience-afflicted audience of food people to leverage their resources and act: “So why do I say all of these things at a food conference with the best chefs in the world? Because I really believe that chefs can do anything.”
A year later, Choi returned to the MAD conference stage, this time with another chef, the Bay Area’s Daniel Patterson. They had a big announcement to deliver to the expectant crowd.
Inspired by Choi’s talk the previous year, Patterson had approached Choi and together they decided to start a new restaurant, Locol, as a response to the challenge of food access in underserved communities.
Talking to the Copenhagen faithful, Patterson’s presentation locomoted through the perils of large scale commercial food production — evident in the sorry quality of prison and hospital food, and complicit in falling standardized test scores of children.
“Roy and I are going to open a fast food restaurant... a lot of them,” said Patterson. “So we’re going to open two… and then a year after that, like a million.”
Copenhagen roared its approval with hoots, claps and whistles.
In January 2016, Choi and Patterson opened the first location of Locol in Watts, followed by a second one in Uptown Oakland a few months later and a third outpost in West Oakland after that. Their gumption, already rewarded by investors, was met with unrelenting media plaudits. The legend of Locol was made before most had even bitten into its burger.
Steeped as we are in the beloved hetero-superhero narratives — reinforced by fables of David, who sunk Goliath with a single stone, and the fictive characters of John Wayne, pacifying America’s enemies — the story of Locol almost wrote itself. Scrappy upstart company incites a food rebellion, taking on the evil fast food industry by providing competitively priced, better-tasting and healthier alternatives, all while offering livable-wage employment in economically deprived communities of color.
This month, Locol’s first Oakland outpost closed after a year of business, and it is time to meditate on this tough morsel:
Locol is an imagined solution, designed to overcome the wrong threat.
II. It’s Not The Economy
The locations Choi and Patterson proposed to open — Oakland, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Ferguson — are characterized by the misfortune of color in America. In these communities, issues of poverty, hunger and access to nutritious food are exclusively about race.
What many Americans see as the problems with the fast food industry are greedy and bad corporate actors — McDonald’s and its ilk — working for profit at the expense of vulnerable communities. The prescribed antidote, then, is the installation of good actors (presumably Locol), armed with better intentions and food, valuing community over gain.
But this is a dangerous minimization of the facts, lacking a larger racial analysis and the admission that racism, not some aberrant market failure, is the culprit in the deprivation of communities of color.
Absent a critical racial lens, the current incarnation of Locol, its lore perpetrated by the media and celebrated by capital, only exists to preserve intact — while obscuring — the incumbent power paradigm. As long as wealth and power are controlled from outside the community, mediated by benevolent forces who only accept employee applications and service customer orders, then the status quo — an edifice of oppression, aloof in its appearance — remains unbothered, managed by a revolving cast, each doing little except claiming loudly at doing a lot.
What Choi and Patterson have achieved thus far is a masterclass in populist fervor whipping, unintentional but spurious nonetheless. After elevating the enemy (Bad Fast Food) to magnificence, they ingratiated their cause to the community, assuming its language and iconography, less as a declaration of solidarity than an attempt at equivalency. They were the underdogs, just like Watts.
They recast themselves, without self-awareness or irony, as minnows, swimming on the beleaguered side. The expert combination of these story elements stirred in everyone — writers, readers, diners and funders — a primal response to this archetypal drama: Locol, this contemporized food allegory, the love child of two privileged men who could amass more resources than most ($2 million by some accounts). The potent narrative burst pleasure-packets into our brains and inspired the groundswell of goodwill that Locol rode from Copenhagen to California.
Yet Watts, and communities like it, are the bait conveniently folded into our heroes’ stories, black and brown grist for the American mill which continues to churn out lighter winners and darker losers.
This characterization of Locol would be unfair if America was a racially equitable polity, unburdened by history and exploitation, where our best actions existed apart from time and space. But this is America of Two Thousand and Seventeen, burdened by the consequences of an opportunistic present and unresolved history.
III. Context is King
Watts was designed and contoured by racism. It was incorporated on the blatant, frothing bigotry of segregation and redlining, which prescribed Watts as the only community in the area where Black folks were allowed to reside. During the wartime years, Watts sang a false siren song promising jobs and peace, as it beckoned migrant southerners, fleeing Jim Crow terrorism, to its munitions and aircraft factories — a lure that transported Black workers from the confederate frying pan into the northern fire.
Racism forged Watts’ 2.2 square miles, packing it tight with Black bodies, rubbed raw against each other, desperate in the dire and concentrated poverty, abused by the obstreperously racist police department and raked by an abysmal public schools system. That metaphorical conflagration erupted into real flames of discontent in August 1965, presaging the smoking scenes to come in other major American cities like Newark, Chicago and Detroit. The Watts people rebelled, and for an infamous five days, Watts wore fire. Thirty-four people died, a majority of them Black and from law enforcement bullets.
Five decades after the Watts rebellion, the neighborhood demographics have changed considerably. Watts is now 70 percent Latino — many of the Black residents found their way to the Inland Empire. The hue of the residents might be a few shades lighter, but that hasn’t helped much. Nearly a third of Watts households are on government food benefits. Unemployment estimates range between 12 percent and 15 percent — higher than during the rebellion. According to the Los Angeles Times, only 2.9 percent of residents 25 and older have a four-year degree and the median household income is $25,161.
As long as communities of color continue to be denied proper opportunities to education, wealth and safety, even as their labor and culture are exploited, we cannot celebrate any interventionists, restaurateurs or ride-share profiteers, who purport to solve a problem they have largely misunderstood, as they present a false insinuation that the larger system is agnostic in its distribution of gains and losses.
Parading traditional, for-profit business models — characterized by the separation of ownership and labor — as a remedy for upending historical racism is only self-aggrandizement dressed as altruism.
The only legitimate starting point to begin the process of reversing the structural racism that animates our communities is a shift of power and resources.
For Choi and Patterson, this means a complete transfer of capital, labor and land assets — wealth — to the communities they suggest to serve. This is the solution that moves to a more cooperative and restorative paradigm, beyond the tokenism of the fast food franchise model, which extracts disproportionate value from its host community with the same unflinching exploitative capacity as corporatism.
Or else nothing changes.
And if nothing is changed, then Locol should either leave Watts, Oakland and its other proposed communities, or shed its narrative of change — to join, in relative obscurity, the other locally owned (spelled without flair) businesses without a public point to prove, already hiring from the community, paying taxes and offering services, healthful and saccharine, as is their prerogative.
So to Messrs Choi and Patterson, and all the other well-intentioned boodles of fixers: run the jewels!
Tunde Wey is a cook and writer furiously working to impress his Nigerian parents. RIP Prodigy: "Ain't no such thing as halfway crooks." Instagram: @from_lagos Email: email@example.com