Listen to the story
Read the story
Throughout South Los Angeles and the surrounding neighborhoods there’s a growing community of underground home chefs who sell food on Instagram. One of those chefs, a guy who goes by the name Mr. Fries Man, specializes in loaded french fries.
I’d been following Mr. Fries Man Instagram for a few months, admiring his photos of french fries, or at least the tips of fries peaking out from underneath extravagant mountains of seafood and meat covered in rich creamy sauces. Intrigued, I decided to place an order. I called the number on the Instagram account and ordered a trio plate, three flavors over one order of fries: Steak Teriyaki, Lemon Garlic shrimp and snow crab, and buffalo chicken.
The woman on the phone told me to text her my email address so she could send an invoice and after I paid I got another text telling me to drive to the Smart and Final parking lot on Redondo Beach Blvd. in Gardena, park near the wall, and look for a gray Pontiac Grand Prix.
I pulled into the lot, saw the Grand Prix idling, and a man and a woman sitting inside. I parked and walked over, said “are you Mr. Fries Man?” The guy nodded and asked me my name. Then he reached into the back seat and pulled out a styrofoam container with my name written on it and handed it to me.
This was the first time I’d ever bought french fries from a guy in a parking lot. And I had a lot of questions. Mainly who is Mr. Fries Man? He wasn’t the guy who handed me my order. The real Mr. Fries man is a guy named Craig Batiste.
Batiste runs the business out of a small two bedroom back house in Gardena where he lives with his fiance Dorothy Morales and their three kids. Sunday through Thursday Batiste works at Pepsi, where his shift starts at 3 am. After work he heads straight home to start cooking. Morales usually starts prepping at about 6 am and at some point in the morning Batiste will post that day’s menu on Instagram. Then the phone starts ringing.
The menu changes constantly, but there’s always at least five meats available. According to Batiste, it’s a long list: “Buffalo shrimp, buffalo chicken, bbq bacon ranch, chicken green chili enchilada, shrimp snow crab lemon garlic, teriyaki pineapple express, Philly cheese steak cheese fries, steak fajita, jerk chicken, jerk shrimp, and that’s not even all of em,” he said.
And then there are the specialty fries which pop up sporadically on the menu from shrimp crawfish scampi fries to pork belly adobo and fiesta corn fries.”
With his thin goatee and closely cropped hair Batiste looks like a stockier version of Cuba Gooding Jr. He told me I’m the second person who’s told him that. “I love eating as you can tell,” said Craig. “I ain’t fat but I ain’t skinny. You gotta be comfortable with your skin.”
I spent some time with Batiste and Morales recently and saw them at work in their tiny kitchen, taking phone orders. Standing over a small deep fryer, Morales covered cubes of chicken in flour for the buffalo fried chicken fries. When she and Craig first started they only had two of these small fryers “because we didn’t really take it so serious. It’s like yeah right no one is really gonna order and then orders started coming in” she said.
In the beginning, they were only open one day a week and they were selling mostly to friends and family. Morales had been laid off from her job as a medical technician they needed some extra income. At first, it was just an idea he tried out for friends. “First fries I made, I put BBQ bacon ranch chicken, said Batiste. “I said, ‘I got another one for you, shrimp enchilada fries.’ They loved ‘em. Next thing you know I had pizza fries, buffalo chicken and lemon garlic fries.”
Business was slow at first. But then two things happened that changed everything. The first said Craig, was the hashtag.” I started posting in Instagram and one of my buddies Devin said ‘you gotta use hashtags, that’s gonna get the followers up,’ I said man I don’t believe in that crap. And then I started doing it and next thing you now followers started coming in I said you know what this is getting serious.”
Craig would post a photo of some fries and add as many as 30 hashtags, things like #fries, #bestfries, #goodeats, #greateats, #Compton, #Watts, #LongBeach #Carson, #Miami. He also started tagging foodie celebrities and other nearby home chefs, people like Taco Mel who sells tacos and burritos in South Central. “My buddy Taco Mel he came by and got some fries and posted it and I woke up the next morning had three thousand new followers,” he recalled.
Craig started connecting with other home chefs through Instagram. People like Real Trap Kitchen who will be featured on the new cooking show hosted by Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg. There was also Chef E Dubble, Bleu Kitchen, Delectable Home Cooking and All Flavor No Grease a guy named Keith Garrett who sells $18 quesadillas out of his front yard in Watts, and has 58,000 Instagram followers.
According to Batiste, all these chefs cross promote each other’s businesses through social media. “We all support each other. We swap a plate, you bring this one I’ll bring that. It’s like a secret society, a food secret society.”
The second spike in business came Thursday September 8th. The phone started ringing at about 1 am. When they woke up the next day, the orders were flooding in.
A rapper named Nipsey Hu$$le, who has over a million followers on Instagram, had shared one of Mr. Fries Man’s posts on his feed. Since then Mr. Fries Man has reached 38,000 followers on Instagram and to keep up with all the new business he had to upgrade to an industrial grade deep fryer, who he named Big Bertha.”She’s my baby!” said Batiste, “Shout out to Bertha my deep fryer!”
Big Bertha is behind the house on a small concrete patio, where I met Barney who goes by The Barney Rebel on Instagram. He was cooking fries.
“I don’t just cook fries. I rap as well and do a whole lotta other stuff but Monday, Wednesday, Friday, you can catch me here in Gardena with Mr. Fries Man cooking fries and delivering,’ said Barney.
Barney and everyone else who helps out with the business work for free. Barney says he volunteers because he believes in his friends vision. “I just wanted to support it and we’re having a good time while we working, doing something that we love doing and I feel like that’s what life’s about. You’re supposed to be doing something you love doing instead of stressing over things that you have no control over.”
By the end of the day Batiste’s house had filled with family and friends. Another home chef stopped by to swap plates. Everyone was having fun despite the 103 degree heat. Batiste was starting to look a little tired as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. But when I asked him about it, he stood up straight and said he never gets tired.
Rolling her eyes at him, Morales laughed and Batiste turned up the Curtis Mayfield song on the stereo. There were still two more pick ups to go before they would eventually sell out of fries and call it a day.