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Hungry for Business : South-Central Restaurants Struggling to Lure Back Cross-Town Customers After Riots

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the wind is right near Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, the aroma riding spirals of smoke from Woody’s Bar-B-Que is enough to put a gluttonous gleam in even a vegetarian’s eye.

“If you live in Southern California and have never experienced real barbecue, I think you’ve been cheated,” said Woody’s owner, Woodrow “Woody” Phillips, grinning broadly and leaving no doubt where he thinks real barbecue is served.

Woody’s is among a select group of African American restaurants that sit atop the lists of places specializing in certain cuisines--Creole, Jamaican, Southern, barbecue--but these days the lines of customers at Woody’s carryout-only shop are not as long as they once were.

Even in good times the food business can be a tough game, but several landmark restaurants in South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles have been struggling with an intractable factor beyond increased competition and the sputtering economy--lingering echoes of the 1992 riots.

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Restaurants were hard hit in the aftermath of the riots, and they have faced a more difficult road back. Bricks and mortar needed to rebuild some businesses were not as difficult to come by as the confidence and sense of security white--and black--suburbanites need to return to African American neighborhoods.

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“We do rely on bringing our clientele to us, whomever it is,” said Al Honore, one of the owners of Harold & Belle’s Creole restaurant on Jefferson Avenue. “We get clients from all over the state.”

But Phillips said that “since the civil unrest, we don’t have a lot of that business that used to come down.”

The story is much the same at Harold & Belle’s, where showing up without a reservation a few years back would have meant at least a two-hour wait--if you were lucky.

Gagnier’s of New Orleans in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza has seen its business grow slightly over the past few years, but patronage from white customers has nearly dried up.

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Several other restaurants report sharp declines, pointing out that both African American and white customers from outside the area are not coming in numbers as large as before the riots. But the drop in meals served to whites is more noticeable, they say.

“Our business was supported 45% by nonblacks,” said Sanford Bragg, who runs JAnet’s Original Jerk Chicken Pit with his wife, Janet.

“A good part of our business up to 1992 was at night,” said Bragg. “As a consequence of the riot, we lost a significant portion of that nonblack business, and our night business dropped 20% and continues to slide.”

And the slide has proved too steep to survive. JAnet’s plans to close this week.

Inside, a wall is covered with glowing reviews from The Times, the old Herald Examiner, Sunset magazine, L.A. Magazine, the L.A. Weekly. There is also an award of excellence from restaurant critic Paul Wallach and a photo with critic Elmer Dills.

But all the praise heaped on the distinctive menu, and the fact that it sits across the street from a police station, could not stanch the financial hemorrhaging.

While he lost money in the business, Bragg said he is “richer for the experience. We hired young people from our community. Several earned college degrees. I take great pride in that. And I value the relationships we’ve formed with all kinds of people.”

If Los Angeles’ African American neighborhoods have one genuine commercial export product--magnets for capital coming from outside the community--it is the succulent variety of foods offered up at a dizzying array of distinctive restaurants.

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Customers come from throughout the Los Angeles area, San Diego, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara to overindulge in the smoky ribs, chicken, hot links and beef slowly cooked over oak logs at Woody’s, the seafood platters and file gumbo at Harold & Belle’s, the jambalaya and etouffee at Gagnier’s of New Orleans and Edouard’s.

“Some folks from the Bay Area still fly down just to have dinner with us,” Honore said of Harold & Belle’s, which is slowly recovering from a nearly 30% drop right after the riots.

The recovery began when television news coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial left little or no room for stories “describing the inner city as a war zone,” he said.

“I’m not saying it’s entirely the fault of the media, but you’ve got to understand that people pay attention to what they see and hear,” said Honore. “You naturally will not go where you think there will be a problem.”

At Edouard’s Restaurant, specializing in Creole and Cajun dishes, on Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood, owner Edouard Gauthier said his business has been in a downward spiral since the riots, and 1995 will show a 25% decline from 1994.

“I just think we’re fighting the racial separation thing, the crime thing, the fear, more than we’re fighting the economy,” he said.

Edouard’s is less than a mile east of the Forum, but he might as be light-years away for the few customers he attracts after games.

“When you come up this way, you’re in a different zone,” he said. “White people are afraid of blacks. A lot of people won’t say that.”

He said he would not go out to eat in parts of town he considers unsafe, “and by the same token, some people won’t come here.”

Yet the perception of safety so often bears little resemblance to reality, said August Gagnier, who runs Gagnier’s with his wife, Charlena.

A year before the riots, John Singleton’s film “Boyz N the Hood” showed a cold-blooded street gang execution filmed in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza parking lot.

“Nothing like that has ever happened in this parking lot,” said Gagnier. “This has to be one of the safest parking lots in the city.”

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But that bloody bit of film business, compounded by the riots the following year, took its toll.

If Gagnier once died a little from a film, he is now prospering because of them.

Since former Los Angeles Laker Earvin (Magic) Johnson’s movie theaters opened in the shopping center earlier this year, his business has taken off--despite the loss of white customers.

“We don’t see the white clientele we used to,” he said, estimating that up to 35% of his business was white before the riots. “I dropped to about 5% right after the riot, and it has remained pretty much at that level.”

But Gagnier’s overall business grew about 8% in the last year, he said, largely as a result of the new multiscreen movie complex.

“When ‘Waiting to Exhale’ came out, it filled the theater and filled me up,” he said, smiling. “ ‘Dead Presidents’ also gave me a boost.”

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While he is happy that his business is beginning to grow again, he said that “it should have been building all along, not going down.”

Phillips at Woody’s Bar-B-Que has also seen his business slowly begin to move back toward preriot levels after having dropped about 15%.

He was opening a restaurant in Las Vegas, where he had planned to branch out, when the riots erupted in Los Angeles.

“I drove right back in here and kept my operation open,” he said.

“We didn’t have electricity for three days, but it was safe. A lot of people told me it wasn’t, but the people working here--police, firefighters, paramedics, utility company workers--they had to eat.”

Relatives warned him that his place might be burned. “Then they’ll just have to burn me up inside,” he told them.

His catering business has helped sustain him through the lean times, he said, with large orders from Downtown and Century City law firms. He also catered banquets for the first time this year for UCLA’s and USC’s football teams.

His Christmas business was up a whopping 25% over last year, and New Year’s Day is traditionally one of his busiest, he said.

“People eat a lot of ribs and order a lot of party trays for New Year’s,” he said. “I have to open. The public demands it.”


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