Ventress McCallum, whose M&M; soul food restaurants were a local institution, was shot and killed outside his Ladera Heights home, leaving family members, employees and customers to wonder Thursday who would kill the popular figure.
McCallum, 54, was shot Wednesday night and died soon after at a local hospital. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Capt. Ray Peavy said it was unclear whether McCallum's slaying was a random or premeditated act.
"It could have been a robbery. It could have been personal. Someone may have followed him or been waiting for him," Peavy said. "We're looking into a host of possibilities, but it's just too early."
Family members said McCallum -- who was known as "Venni Mac" -- had kept to a weekly ritual since opening an M&M; in Las Vegas about a year and a half ago. He would spend the beginning of the week in Las Vegas, then return to Los Angeles every Wednesday to spend a few days overseeing his other restaurants.
"We will remember him as a great provider, a true brother and a leader who provided for his immediate family, extended family and the community," said McCallum's sister, Theresia McCallum of Long Beach. "He helped his employees find housing, get a car or buy furniture -- whatever they needed to take the burden away and live."
McCallum had returned to his home on Radlock Avenue around 11:30 p.m. after visiting at least one of his restaurants, Peavy said. He was alone. Witnesses told authorities that they heard five or six shots. Sheriff's investigators believe McCallum was shot after he got out of his Lincoln Navigator, and he was found lying in the street, a short distance from the vehicle, with multiple wounds to the upper body.
McCallum was rushed to UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, where at 11:59 p.m. he was pronounced dead.
Investigators found shell casings near his body, indicating he might have been shot at close range, investigators said. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Lt. Jack Jordan said an unspecified amount of money was taken.
On Thursday, family and friends gathered at McCallum's home to offer condolences and remembrances. They stood solemnly as family friends, with a hose, bleach and broom, scrubbed the bloodstains from the street.
"It's outrageous that a brother is gunned down in his own driveway," said Lewis Logan, a Ladera Heights resident who visits the restaurant two or three times a week. "He was in the midst of his prime. One of the best and brightest of this community is gone."
The restaurant chain was started by McCallum's sister, Mary McCallum-Stewart, in Los Angeles in 1968. She had left the family home in Jackson, Miss., and was known as Mississippi Mary. That nickname inspired the restaurant's name: M&M; Soul Food Restaurant.
She was one of seven siblings and helped one of her younger brothers, Ventress, open an M&M; of his own in Los Angeles. He later opened restaurants in Lakewood and Carson. Two more exist under other ownership in Leimert Park and South Los Angeles.
After Mary's death in 1998, McCallum was the driving force behind strengthening the restaurant's brand to combat local competitors, Theresia McCallum said. As part of that process, McCallum prefaced the restaurants with his name, "Venni Mac," and started expanding, eventually taking the franchise to Las Vegas.
"He cherished M&M.; It was his life," said Diane Artiaga, a former M&M; employee who stopped by the Ladera Heights eatery to pay her respects and help the staff. "He was motivated to carry on his sister's legacy."
M&M; employees carried on McCallum's legacy Thursday by continuing to serve customers fried catfish, smothered chicken, collard greens and cornbread.
"This is the way he would have wanted it," said Carolyn Jones, who has worked as an M&M; waitress for 20 years. "He always said, if anything ever happened to him, open his business."
Throughout the day, customers stopped by to offer condolences while others called to see if the news reports they'd heard were true. Bright blue and yellow balloons were tied to patrons' chairs, and a wreath hung over a large framed photo of McCallum. Draping the photo was a yellow bow with the words, "Ventress We Love You."
Myisha Dean, McCallum's niece, said she decorated the restaurant in honor of her uncle because "he liked to show off and be seen."
McCallum was known for doing things "big." Above his photo in the Ladera Heights restaurant were the words "Be Original," which Dean said he mounted to remind customers there was only one M&M.;
In a letter McCallum wrote to his customers, he envisioned taking the business to the next level with a full bar and live music. "His loss brings a lot of hurt," said Roy Peete, a regular customer who paid his respects at the restaurant the best way he knew how: by ordering his usual meal of baked corn, dressing, cornbread and black-eyed peas. "He met everyone with a smile."
McCallum is survived by his wife, Donna; two sons, Ventress Jr. and Ashanti; three sisters; and one brother.