New cafe aims to uplift South LA community through healthy food and outreach programs

Jose Cardenas
Nov 5, 2019 · 5 min read
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The sun shines on the sign of South LA Cafe as the new day continues. (Photo by Jose Cardenas)

While the room still smelled faintly of fresh paint, the owners and staff of the South LA Cafe made sure the layout of the space was spotless. They moved chairs and tables around and put up decorations to reinforce their urban high-art aesthetic, all of which either came from local stores or was donated by neighbors.

As they bustled around the space, Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace were preparing for the upcoming city inspection — something that would bring them closer to realizing their long-held dream of owning a cafe. From drip coffee and muffins, the idea for the cafe evolved into a family-owned business focused on building community and combating the food shortages families in the area experience.

For Joe and Celia, both co-owners of the upcoming South LA Cafe, this inspection is the last step toward finally opening the cafe doors and initiating their big community outreach plans. For the past few years, they have seen South Los Angeles slowly develop into a food desert due to distant food sellers as well as gentrification from larger, more corporate businesses that have pushed people out.

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Co-owners Celia and Joe Ward-Wallace are ready to face new challenges as the opening nears. (Photo by Jose Cardenas)

Together, the couple found that the best way to fight back against these issues and give back to the city they grew up in was to open their own space, South LA Cafe.

The plan is for the cafe to function as both a market and a community outreach program, especially since it sits in front of a charter school and at the major intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Western Avenue. The owners plan to serve fresh, organic food that they believe bigger markets have not provided, including fruit and vegetables.

A look at their menu shows cold and hot drinks, healthy snacks, baked goods and a South LA Cafe special, the South LA Freeze, a hybrid between a milkshake and a frappuccino with whipped cream.

When it comes to outreach, South LA Cafe plans to be the kind of gathering place that uplifts the community. The owners want to connect those in need with food and water, the youth with education and safety and the unemployed with job training and resources.

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Barista Tajah Huerta-White learns how to make the different hot drinks on the menu. (Photo by Jose Cardenas)

“A food hub is what it is going to be. I told my wife, ‘Let’s make this bigger than a coffee shop,’ and now it is its own thing,” he said.

For Joe, who was born and raised in South L.A., owning a small coffee shop is a dream he’s been holding onto for the past 20 years. But as he saw the need for something more in his community, that dream expanded into a large corner space and a local market for people to seek safety and refreshment.

As the inspection approaches, he paces around the work area, forming a schedule for further clean-up and more phone calls. Meanwhile, his wife teaches the newly hired barista about the different kinds of coffee.

Joe wears a smile and a black shirt with the cafe’s logo emblazoned across his chest, nervous for what city officials will say but confident in the work everyone has put in to make this cafe a reality.

South LA Cafe has now passed the inspection that occurred Thursday and the owners say the soft opening will take place on Tuesday.

The two plan to use the soft opening to introduce themselves and spread the word to the community about their business and their goals. The owners want to get people through the doors through word-of-mouth, which is how they want to share their plans to serve the community until they reach the grand opening in December.

Once the cafe is in full swing, Joe and Celia plan to include photograph galleries, poetry events and gatherings for beginner artists and writers. Celia also wants to set up a small community library where patrons can take and share books written by locals and marginalized authors. The cafe has even received help from organizations like The Free Black Woman’s Library to build on these activities.

By putting together their own resources and gathering additional funds through crowdfunding, the two were able to develop the cafe space and will be able to bring in local artists and organizations to contribute to the cafe’s future events.

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Artist Mohammed Mubarak’s painting commemorating late activist and rapper Nipsey Hussle will hang in the cafe. (Photo by Jose Cardenas)

South LA Cafe will be a spot where black and Chicano communities in the city can feel safe and seek out opportunities of employment and artistic expression, Joe said. The owners said they’ve hired people from marginalized communities as well as the formerly incarcerated to reinforce the welcoming environment they want to build for others.

“From a spiritual purpose, all of the good energy of the universe was pushing me and telling me that this was my purpose and that this is what I am supposed to do,” she said.

Celia, an L.A. native, spearheads the community organization aspect of the business. She said she grew up with community work as the norm throughout her life because her parents were union organizers. Starting a business has been stressful, but their values of spirituality and social justice pushed them forward, Celia said.

“It has tested every bit of ourselves and our relationship, as well as our families and bank accounts,” she said. “However, if it hadn’t been so clear that the community had been dying for something like this, we would not have gotten this far.”

As they continue to prepare for the soft opening and then for the grand opening in December, Joe and Celia said everyone is waiting for it with bated breath and giddy excitement.

“It all feels so aligned,” Celia said.

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To further their brand, the owners created South LA Cafe merchandise. (Photo by Jose Cardenas)

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News and views from South Los Angeles.

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