SPOTLIGHT ON L.A.: South LA Café serves up coffee with a cause

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Joe Ward-Wallace just wanted a hangout spot.

He wanted to be able to go somewhere close to his home to get a muffin and some coffee in the morning.

What he didn’t want was to have to travel out of his neighborhood to enjoy both.

After circling his neighborhood in search of just the right coffee shop, he came up empty. What he was looking for was nowhere to be found in the area.

“I wanted to be able to ride my bike to somewhere in my own community to get a muffin and some coffee,” said Ward-Wallace, co-owner of South LA Café with his wife of 25 years, Celia Ward-Wallace. “There was nothing. I mean nothing.”

The reason there was “nothing” is because the area in which they lived was considered a food desert, devoid of fresh, healthy food options for its predominantly Black and brown residents.

Self-described “serial entrepreneurs,” with multiple businesses, Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace, the parents of two daughters, decided the natural next step for them was to solve the issue themselves by opening a coffee shop with healthy choices in the heart of the neighborhood they love and grew up in.

“We thought, what would be a product that people want and need every day,” said Celia, a community activist who also worked as a community director in parks and recreation for the city of Los Angeles. “We determined coffee because there were no great shops in this neighborhood.”

But Joe, a retired firefighter, insists it wasn’t just about food. He and Celia wanted a safe haven for community members to gather and build a connection.

“Gentrification was happening and we wanted to get ahead of it,” said Joe, who now roasts his own coffee beans. “We just decided it was the right time to open the café. Some people thought we were crazy.”

Undeterred, Joe said he and Celia decided to take a leap of faith.

“I was overwhelmingly excited about opening the café,” Joe said. “There had to be thousands of people who wanted the same thing. I’m not a fortune-teller. I just believed there had to be others who also wanted it. 

“We had 827 customers on our grand opening day. We had to close down, restock and open again. We had two items and a drink. Everybody was waiting for this place. It was standing room only.”

Celia said the café has become like the local “Cheers.”

“We know most of our customers,” Celia said. “About 50% of our customers are returning and 50% are new. We have become a destination. We are known for being welcoming. This was created for you by you.”

The Black-owned, woman-owned, and family-owned South LA Café, which is also a cultural center and boasts an adjoining market, is located on Western Avenue near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and serves up much more than just its traditional fare. The buns, tea, salads, sandwiches and coffee come with a side order of social consciousness.

That was always the ultimate goal, they said. The shop’s intent was always to serve up much more than coffee.

The café was such a hit, Joe and Celia, who consider themselves “privileged,” opened another location at Kaiser Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Medical Center last October. There are plans to open two more cafes this year and two more are already confirmed for next year.

The way Joe and Celia look at it, they are giving back to and building up the community through coffee.

“It was definitely a goal,” Celia said. “I’m a child of community organizers and revolutionaries. My family focused on women’s rights and civil rights. I live and breathe knocking on doors and carrying picket signs.”

The café’s mission is to serve its community, fight racial and economic inequality and provide equal access to food.

Various events are held at the cultural center, including community coalitions that talk about Black/brown unity and how to keep the community strong. There are also various panels on mental health, chess tournaments, art shows and even open mic nights.

“We created a space to be modular,” Celia said. “We have a wall that opens and closes all the way that divides the center. We can meet in the back and have coffee in the front.”

“It’s a culture we’re building,” Joe added.

“We actually started partnering with other organizations to provide social service through our food distribution,” Celia said. “Everything we do, we do through partnerships. We invite those who are the best at what they do. We want to be a one-stop shop for what our community needs. We are actually a coffee shop in disguise.”

Joe and Celia also created the South LA Community Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of South LA Café that aims to break the shackles of systemic oppression and inequality by creating, building, and empowering an equitable, healthy and sustainable South Los Angeles community for all people.

“We heard Oprah had a big grant for $3 million,” Celia said. “While looking into that, we found people wanted to fund organizations in South L.A. Between becoming a nonprofit and being a for-profit, we can reach out to more of the community. It was a no-brainer.”

“With [the foundation], everything we do is through partnerships,” Joe said.

“Ten percent of the profits go into the foundation specifically for the food distribution program,” Celia said. “That’s coffee with a cause. We have deepened our work. One hundred years ago, the area we live in would have been white. Now it’s a Black/brown community. There is an inequity that we see every single day. People don’t have an education or health care. We live in a food desert. We want to do our part.”

When the pandemic hit, Joe and Celia decided to start a once-a-week grocery giveaway with bags of healthy food worth $35. They were able to provide the food through sponsors and donations.

“On those days we distribute 200 bags of groceries,” Joe said. “That impacts 1,000 people. We can feed five people per bag. We want to show corporations that it can be done.”

Joe and Celia said that people buy the $35 bags of food for themselves, as well as for others.

Joe said the grocery giveaway means a lot to him because there was a time when he himself was in line for food.

“I remember being 10-13 years old and being embarrassed to be in a line for food,” Joe said. “My mom told me to do it, so I did it. I was embarrassed. They didn’t treat us so well. They acted like they were doing us a favor. 

“I remember being homeless for six months. Have I been hungry? Yes! God gives you experiences. Now I make sure what I’m doing looks nothing like that. We go out of our way to make sure people feel good about being in line.”

In addition to the grocery giveaway, Joe and Celia have a work force training program called The Café Academy, The Innovation Incubator, an entrepreneur training program, and a business development program called The Impact Accelerator.

“To be of service, that’s what human existence is all about,” Celia said.

“Every single night when we go to bed, I tell me wife, don’t pinch me,” Joe said. “I don’t want to wake up. It’s going along just like God’s plan.”

South LA Cafe is located at 1700 Browning Road, Los Angeles, 90062.

“Spotlight on L.A.” is a feature profiling little known places within the city. To propose a location for “Spotlight on L.A.,” send an email to dwanlass@wavetv.net.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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