By Darlene Donloe
Q&A WITH JOHN CLEVELAND
BALDWIN HILLS — It’s a blisteringly hot day in Los Angeles and Chef John Cleveland, the owner of Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills, and his staff, are busy making a number of meals for take-out, including the restaurant’s signature hand-stretched pizzas.
Admittedly, Cleveland is sweltering underneath his black bandana mask brought on not only by the heat outside but by the huge, blazing, wood-burning pizza oven at his back.
The heat doesn’t slow his momentum. His cool personality and unflappable spirit keep him on task.
When the pandemic hit Los Angeles, forcing restaurants to close, Post & Beam was hit hard.
City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson and his office organized the emergency senior meal program to help some of the most vulnerable in Council District 8. The program partnered with local eateries and allocated funds to provide free meals to senior citizens 65 and over.
Post & Beam was one of the restaurants. The program officially ended June 12, but Post & Beam continues its efforts through donations from the community.
Last year when Chef Cleveland became the new owner of the popular Black-owned eatery, he was over the moon. In July 2019, he was handed the keys to the kingdom by founding owners Brad and Linda Johnson and founding Chef Govind Armstrong, who opened the restaurant in 2011.
Cleveland, Johnson and Armstrong had worked together for years to make Post & Beam what it is, a beloved part of the Black community known for its atmosphere, its diverse clientele, its open-concept kitchen, its food and its jazz on Friday nights.
The California comfort food restaurant, located at the end of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza parking lot, was clicking on all cylinders until last spring when COVID-19 forced restaurants to close.
Since then, Cleveland, an Oakland native, has had to pivot, cutting the restaurant’s hours and opening for pick-up and delivery. The restaurant’s patio recently opened for limited service.
Although business has picked up recently, Cleveland, 37, and his wife, Roni, who have 3-year-old son named Miles, still find the time to give back. He recently participated in the enCourage Kids Foundation’s “Serving Up Smiles at Home,” a virtual fundraiser that brings participants inside the kitchens of renowned chefs and virtually guides them step-by-step, in real-time, with a hands-on cooking lesson.
Contributing writer Darlene Donloe recently interviewed Cleveland of Post & Beam about his career and the difficulties of keeping a restaurant open during a pandemic.
DD: When you took over, it wasn’t long before COVID-19 hit. How did you have to pivot?
JC: COVID is interesting. When it hit we were just coming off Black History Month. That’s a good time for business. The shutdown of the dining room hit us hard. We’re lucky to have people here who supported us. Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson’s office helped us through the transition with the senior meal program. We provided lots of meals for seniors.
We’re still like a mom and pop shop. I still do the books, the menus, the scheduling. It’s a lot to take on with a 3-year-old son who has some health condition challenges. We had to have some very strict disciplines due to his chronic lung disease. Balancing child care and this situation has been the biggest challenge.
DD: How much has your business changed?
JC: For the most part, we don’t do a lot of marketing and advertising. It’s word of mouth. When we went down, it knocked us back at least 20% of our sales. It was devastating. We had weeks where we had nothing going on at first. I had to let go of all of our staff. It took five weeks to get our [personal protection equipment] going.
DD: Why did you want to own Post & Beam?
JC: Owning a restaurant was my father’s dream. I’m in love with dining and being at a table and dining with my family. I met my wife [Roni] here. She’s been on this journey with me from the beginning. I didn’t want to cook all over L.A. I just wanted to have an identity my son could latch onto.
The business community and South L.A. are stronger than people realize. I thought as an entrepreneur, I could make a difference.
DD: Is feeding seniors important to you?
JC: We have a lot of seniors in the community. It’s important that they get something nutritious to eat. We are doing Garcetti’s emergency senior meals response and task customers with donating to the program so we can keep doing this. They can donate one, 15, or 100 meals. We match it.
DD: Has the menu changed since you took over?
JC: That’s one thing I was excited about. It’s a menu that is seasonally motivated and allows changes and evolution. We change with the seasons. There is some alteration. The staples will never go away. Govind’s dishes are amazing.
DD: Last month you participated in Black Restaurant Week. Why was that important?
JC: I think everything Black is important. I’m Black and my family is Black. This restaurant is Black-owned. I’m excited about being involved with the community. My wife, Roni, and I are from here. My thought is that we can all bond and break bread together. That’s what we all should be doing.
DD: Your restaurant is known for dishes that are seasoned with fresh herbs and seasonal fruits that are grown from your own garden. When you go out to eat, are you always critiquing the food?
JC: I’m super simple. I’m not picky. I like simple food that is cooked well. I don’t like elaborate, busy presentations. I’m really into traditional techniques done in a very cool way. We try to go to places in the neighborhood as a date spot.
DD: There are tons of restaurants in Los Angeles. Why should people come to Post & Beam?
JC: It has the vibe and the energy that you can’t create everywhere. It’s because of where it is. Look at whose operating it. The staff that serves you is from South Los Angeles. The experience represents South L.A.
DD: You recently received a Los Angeles Times Gold Award. What does that mean to you?
JC: To be my age and get an award for living your dream – it’s surreal. I’m living my best life. I get to cook food and to get an award, that’s amazing. I’m privileged to get to learn from them.
DD: Talk about Brad Johnson and Govind Armstrong.
JC: They are the reason I came to Post & Beam. I was looking to get guidance from a Black man who had done it the way I wanted to do it. I get to go over menus and talk to Brad about how to grow a business. To get it from Brad and Govind is a real big win for me.
Post & Beam is open during the week from 4 to 8 p.m. It is closed on Mondays. Orders can be made through the restaurant’s website at PostandBeamLA.com.