Inside LaRayia’s Bodega, a vegan cafe and shop wedged between a panadería and a hair salon, the vibe is hip and millennial-friendly.
Glass bottles hold cardamom-scented almond milk coffee drinks and freshly squeezed green juices. Customers can buy plates of warm jackfruit tacos topped with diced mango and cilantro. The only thing that isn’t Westside are the prices; everything (except T-shirts, crystals and candles) costs between $1 and $5.
“Healthy food is so expensive, and it doesn’t have to be,” said LaRayia Gaston, who opened LaRayia’s Bodega in Westlake in August. “We want to address everything — food injustice, food waste, homelessness, giving people a second chance. I wanted to kill multiple birds with one stone.”
Four years ago, Gaston founded Lunch on Me, an organization that brings 10,000 vegan meals a month to homeless communities in skid row, Venice, Watts and Compton. One Saturday a month, she organizes a block party for inhabitants of skid row, where they can grab a plate of salad and vegan mac and cheese, do yoga, get their hair cut.
With LaRayia’s Bodega, Gaston aims to provide job training to at-risk youth and provide a place where people can buy healthy packaged snacks, such as bags of freeze-dried raspberries, gluten-free herb crackers or sea salted-veggie chips, for $1. (They can cost about three or four times that at other retailers.) A small menu changes daily — chili with cornbread, tacos with rice and beans and plantains, vegan crab cakes with salad. Gaston likes to sprinkle edible flowers on everything.
Gaston offsets the shop’s low prices by persuading companies to donate products — Revive Kombucha, La Colombe coffee, Nature’s Path Foods and Love Crunch cereal have donated items. She sells fruit contributed by stores that would otherwise throw it out for being “imperfect” — two pears, two apples or two oranges are $1. She uses donated cans of beans, packets of tortillas and boxes of pasta and rice to whip together meals.
Gaston, the oldest of eight children of Puerto Rican Caribbean parents, began cooking when she was 7. She grew up in New York, where she worked at a restaurant owned by her uncle, and was affected by the plight of homeless residents.
“I was 14 and watched my uncle throwing out food, when I saw a homeless man rummaging through our trash,” she recalls. “It was hard for me to see someone doing without while so much was being wasted. I couldn’t turn away from it.” She now supports herself by taking on freelance graphic design and branding projects.
“I know what it is to be resourceful,” she said. “When you are working with nothing, you know how to use what you have. My focus with the bodega is not about getting rich. It’s about giving opportunities.”
LaRayia’s Bodega, 2713 W. 6th St., Westlake. Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to midnight.