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In land dispute with Watts landmark Hawkins House of Burgers, Caltrans reconsiders

Cynthia Hawkins stands in front of Hawkins House of Burgers
Cynthia Hawkins says her issues with Caltrans date to 2016, when she began leasing a small triangular section of state land next to her restaurant for $300 a month to use as a parking lot.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Cynthia Hawkins was in disbelief.

After a year spent keeping her family’s 82-year-old restaurant open through the pandemic, the owner of Hawkins House of Burgers in Watts suddenly found herself embroiled in a new battle for survival — this time with the California Department of Transportation.

On June 18, Hawkins received a letter from Caltrans officials notifying her that a portion of her building was encroaching on an adjacent state-owned parcel. She was told she had 60 days to remove a portion of her building that includes a corner of the restaurant’s kitchen.

“It’s completely ridiculous,” she said. “We’ve been here for over 80 years, on the same property, and now you’re telling me I have to tear part of my building down?”

A Watts institution and popular Black-owned business, Hawkins House of Burgers was built in 1939 by Cynthia’s father and grandfather.

Leaning Tower of Watts burger at Hawkins House of Burgers
The Leaning Tower of Watts burger from Hawkins House of Burgers.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The men relocated to Los Angeles from Arkansas in the 1930s, spending their savings to purchase land at the corner of Slater Street and Imperial Highway and construct the two-story home that houses the current-day restaurant and corner market.

Cynthia, the youngest of 14 children, now operates the restaurant with help from her two daughters and three grandchildren, making Hawkins House of Burgers a fifth-generation business.

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“My whole family has grown up working here,” she said.

Hawkins said her issues with Caltrans date to 2016, when she began leasing a small triangular section of state land next to her restaurant for $300 a month to use as a parking lot.

In 2018, representatives from Caltrans notified Hawkins that they intended to sell the property and asked if she was interested in purchasing it. “Absolutely,” Hawkins replied in one document.

Fernando Palma
Executive chef Fernando Palma prepares orders inside Hawkins House of Burgers.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

But after Caltrans performed a new survey of the parcel, the issue grew more complex. The state said that a portion of Hawkins’ business was too close to the property line and that it would need to be cleared — requiring the removal of part of the building — before it could be appraised and sold at public auction, even if Hawkins was the eventual buyer.

“That property is considered excess land, meaning it benefits the state to sell it,” Peter Jones, the public affairs officer for Caltrans, told Fox 11 News.

For Hawkins, the thought of losing part of her family’s historic business was far more alarming than giving up a few extra parking spaces.

“All this time and the encroachment was never an issue,” she said. “To spring it on me and tell me I have to dismantle my building, it’s an insult. We’re a staple in this community. We feed people who are hungry. We give scholarships. This doesn’t just affect me. It affects the whole community.”

The Whipper Burger from Hawkins House of Burgers
The Whipper Burger from Hawkins House of Burgers.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

After Hawkins shared details of the ordeal on social media, concern quickly spread among longtime customers and fans. A GoFundMe page was launched to raise funds in hopes that Hawkins could purchase the property outright.

“It’s a travesty,” said Gregory Jones, a lifelong Watts resident and Hawkins regular. “This is the one burger place we got around here, and now they’re trying to take that away.”

The story also caught the attention of Jay King, the Sacramento-based chief executive and president of the California Black Chamber of Commerce and member of Caltrans’ Small Business Council.

After a cousin who lives in Las Vegas sent him a news clip about Hawkins’ dilemma, King figured he could help with what he said was a very unusual situation.

“Cynthia is a brave woman because she’s out there standing up to the Big Bad Wolf,” King said. “But you have to realize that Caltrans is such a massive operation, they might not understand the severity of what’s happening.”

After reaching out to Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin and Hawkins, King said he feels confident that the issue will be successfully resolved, even if the exact details haven’t been finalized.

“I let [Cynthia] know that it’s being handled, and that she doesn’t have to worry about her business being jeopardized. We’re still in the first steps right now, but I’m confident the parcel will end up where it needs to be.”

Earlier this week, Caltrans issued a statement that read: “Caltrans is pausing plans to sell the leased property through public auction so we can work with Hawkins on a resolution to help prevent any disruption to her business.”

This isn’t the first time members of the Hawkins family have had a showdown with the state. Cynthia said that in the early 1970s, her father — James Henry Hawkins — was approached by government officials seeking to buy out properties in the path of the future 105 Freeway.

The elder Hawkins, however, refused to sell, and the family business remained standing.

Amid her own ordeal, Cynthia Hawkins said she won’t rest easy until she has an agreement with Caltrans in writing, or at least a more concrete sense of the state’s plans.

“They’re saying they’re trying to work out a solution. We’ll see,“ she said. “I can’t just take their word for it at this point.”

Meanwhile, she’s been humbled by the show of support this week, including messages of encouragement from state legislators and shout-outs from radio personalities such as Kevin Nash and Big Boy.

“It’s the power of the people. [Caltrans] wouldn’t care otherwise,” Hawkins said. “It was our customers that kept us going through the pandemic and now through this. I’m grateful for that.”


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