South LA Cafe comes to the Natural History Museum

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Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace grew up in the neighborhood where they opened South LA Cafe, bringing healthy food and creating a community hub. Photo courtesy of South LA Cafe.

When Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace opened South LA Cafe, they were tired. Tired of waiting for fresh, affordable food options to come to their neighborhood. So they decided to make it happen on their own. In November 2019, they opened a bright, cheery 2,200-square foot cafe at the corner of Western Avenue and MLK Boulevard. But South LA Cafe has never been just about the food. 

The Ward-Wallaces are on a mission to fight racial, social and economic inequality. And, as they like to say, they're doing it through "coffee, community and connection." Their next big project sets them amid dinosaur bones and the butterfly pavilion, overseeing the Natural History Museum's entire food and beverage program, including a new cafe that opens this week. Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace are the subjects of this week's "In The Weeds."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

South LA Cafe

Celia Ward-Wallace: I was inspired along with my husband and partner Joe Wallace to open up South LA Cafe because we are residents of the community. My husband's born and raised in South LA, and I grew up in the community, child of community organizers. We were raising our own children here in this neighborhood. And while we had the privilege to drive outside of our community for food and safe places to gather, we saw that our residents, our neighbors, people all around us didn't have access to those same opportunities and didn't have the same level of privilege. They were having to go get fast food every day. And when they wanted to do grocery shopping, there was nowhere to go. They were facing racial discrimination and harassment oftentimes by the police, and they felt unsafe in their own communities. There wasn't a lot of opportunity for the community to gather and build that connection that's so necessary and vital for a healthy community.

Joe Ward-Wallace: We started noticing gentrification happening at a rapid more rapid pace in the community, and we wanted to get ahead of it. I was getting close to retiring, and I said, “What would be a better time than now?” So we just took a leap and opened up the cafe. What I love about this neighborhood is that I still feel the community. I still speak to my neighbors. I know my neighbors. When things go wrong it seems like this neighborhood just steps up and we take care of each other. To me, it often felt like the forgotten neighborhood. It's kind of in the middle. It's between the USC group that's pushing over from the east, and the Crenshaw-Leimert area that's pushing from the west. Dab in the middle, it just seems like it's forgotten. The kinds of foods that dominate this area are not necessarily healthy foods. It's basically a food desert.

Between the USC campus and the Crenshaw/Leimert areas of the city, Joe Ward-Wallace says he feels like it’s “the forgotten neighborhood,” which was further impetus to open the cafe in this location. Photo courtesy of South LA Cafe.

Affordable avocado toast and the best coffee

Celia Ward-Wallace: We're coming up on our 20th wedding anniversary this summer. We met in 1997 and fell in love pretty instantly and began dating immediately. And we had one business or the other one community initiative or the other over several decades, and we've experienced a lot of highs and a lot of lows, lots of success, but also a lot of failures. We were lucky to be together for over nine years before we started having children and so we had a whole lifetime of experience together and building our friendship building our partnership before becoming parents together. We are so blessed to have two daughters, Ava and Leila, who are beautiful community leaders. 

[Our daughters] are our advisory board. They've been founders with us developing the concept behind South LA cafe and our market and now our foundation in our hospitality company. They have been involved in every inch of it. And they're a huge part of what we do and they're a huge part of our “why” it was always our intention that South LA Cafe be more than a coffee shop. We envision it as a market and a cultural center. We very quickly once we began the process of opening up South LA Cafe, the coffee shop, there was a very small space nearby in the same mini mall that was previously a supermarket, a little mini market. And Joe came home one day and said, “This mini market is closing, but we have the opportunity to open up our own South LA market. What do you think?” And as he likes to say, he thought I was going to say, “You're crazy,” but at that moment the light bulb went on in my head. And I said, “This is an opportunity for us to extend our mission, and extend this impact into our community. What better way to provide access to fresh, healthy and affordable food than having a mini mart and on top of everything that we're doin?”

So we have this amazing market next door, we have the coffee shop, but the coffee shop is always meant to be a gathering space, a cultural hub. When you come in, there’s black and white everywhere with beautiful photos of the South Central community, as well as a mural of Nipsey Hussle painted by a local Black Panther elder. Recently, we started roasting our own coffee in house on site with a completely 100% emissions-free green roaster that Joe roasts every day. We have the most amazing, delicious coffee. And it was always our intention that our coffee would be super accessible for all types of people, whatever their coffee palates were. So whether you're just looking for a great cup of drip coffee, we have a $2 regular cup of coffee. And whether you're looking for a double espresso of the finest-quality espresso you can find, we have that for those people as well. 

We saw avocado toast all over the west side, but not in South LA. If you go anywhere on the Westside for avocado toast, you're looking at $12 to $18 for a couple pieces of avocado toast with radishes, or something with microgreens. But at our location, we came up with one piece of avocado toast for $3 or a two piece piece for $5. If you get all the works – cheese and tomatoes – that’s $7.50. And if you get eggs on top, you can get out of there for $10

Joe Ward-Wallace: And if you live in Los Angeles, if you went to LA Unified, you have to have our delicious coffee cake. Every kid that went to LA Unified knows what that coffee cake is. It is the original, we use the exact formula.

South LA Cafe goes to the Natural History Museum

Joe Ward-Wallace: In January, we embarked on this new venture with the Natural History Museum, which is a major deal.

Celia Ward-Wallace: We're taking over as the food and beverage and catering provider for the next 10 years.

Joe Ward-Wallace: We're making a blueprint for how things are done. And what I mean by that is that normally, it's the big companies that get these kinds of contracts. They're the ones that are assumed that they're the only ones that have the infrastructure to pull this off. Sort of a David and Goliath that we came along, we put together our pitch deck to them just like the big companies did. And we won the contract.

Celia Ward-Wallace: One of the benefits of this opportunity for us is our first project – renovating the existing frill restaurant on the bottom floor of the Natural History Museum and selecting and bringing in a brand new operator. We went about a very rigorous process to interview the best-of-the-best in our community and beyond. There was no contest. The number one team that beat everybody else out for this opportunity is John and Ronnie Cleveland, who are the owners operators. 

John is the head chef at Post and Beam, which is a James Beard-Award nominated restaurant located in Baldwin Hills. We are working very closely with them on an exciting new concept. We also are going to provide in-house concessions as well as special event vendors. The exciting thing for us is we have built a network of the most amazing high-quality chefs and restaurateurs from our community that have been looking for opportunities to break into the cultural institution space, but for far too long, have been kept out because of problems with equity. So this is not just an opportunity for our organization and our families to grow, but it is an opportunity for us to catapult the economic impact and social impact in our communities with those around us.

The Neighborhood Grill by Post & Beam at the Natural History Museums is part of the community-based food service program managed by the newly formed South LA Cafe (SLAC) Hospitality. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.