By Darlene Donloe
Since the 1990s, the Watts Coffee House has been serving delicious soul food accompanied by a relaxing cup of java with a side of community and history.
Operating out of the Watts Happening Cultural Center (also known as the Mafundi Building and Robert Pitts Westminster Neighborhood Center), the Watts Coffee House is owned by chef Desiree E. Edwards, 60, a South Los Angeles native who, at the time she was presented with the idea of occupying the space, wasn’t looking to open a restaurant.
Following the Watts Riots of 1965, the Watts Happening Coffee House became a place for Black artists, activists and residents to exchange ideas and make art in service of the larger project of uplifting Black Angelenos. It hosted the Watts Writers Workshop, the Watts Prophets and other cultural and political activists.
By 1967, there was a move to close the Watts Happening Coffee House due to public health concerns.
The Watts Happening Coffee House, which attracted celebrities and local Black Panther Party members, was known for it poetry readings and musical performances. Also in 1967, U.S. Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, California’s first Black member of Congress, helped secure monies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help fund the construction of a new community center at the current location.
In 1995, Edwards was offered the neighborhood space to run her catering business and to revive the Watts Happening Coffee House.
“Back then I was a caterer for the Watts Health systems,” said Edwards, who received a degree in business from Cal State Fullerton. “The building was closed. Harold Hambrick, a visionary and my mentor, came to me and said they wanted to reopen it. They wanted a sit-down restaurant for the community. I was apprehensive at first but when they opened the door, it felt like the place embraced me. I’ve been here ever since.”
Born from the ashes of the Watts Riot, today the soul food restaurant, closely linked to the area’s cultural and political activism, is also a unique, community coffee shop located in a historic area. It is one block south of the Watts Towers and three miles from the traffic stop that sparked the unrest.
Part of the LA Conservancy, Watts Coffee House now serves as a community hub and performance center for locals who enjoy soul food surrounded by walls covered in 1960s memorabilia, African American-themed movie posters, photos, jazz album covers and other items from South L.A.’s rich cultural history.
Edwards calls the coffee house, “a restaurant museum.”
“I call it that because our walls are full of history,” she said. “All of them have something to do with music. We have the Watts 103rd Street Band, the Whispers, and more. Our history needs to be shared. A lot of people didn’t know the Whispers were from Watts. It’s important we share our history with everybody.”
Over the years, Edwards has trained community members interested in working both the front and back of the coffee house.
“People from the House of Uhuru would come every day and get trained,” Edwards. “Six people came through and got jobs. When one guy first got here he was unfocused and had a bad attitude. Now he is a professional chef.”
Edwards said one local kid is at a culinary school and studying at USC.
“He has worked in some of the best kitchens in the states,” she said. “That’s what it’s about. We’re here to serve food, but also to serve the community.”
Edwards beams with pride at the work they’ve done beyond the food.
“I’m proud to say we’ve been a good foundation,” said Edwards, a third-generation entrepreneur. “We’ve done a good job. It’s not all about money. We’ve empowered people. Our ancestors pioneered this.
“I take full responsibility for what we put out into the community. When someone comes along and says their kid wants to be a cook, that’s good. I’ve even taught some how to make Kool-Aid.”
As a symbol of her culinary beginnings, Edwards, self-taught, still has the Easy Bake Susie Homemaker Oven she received for Christmas in 1967 on display.
“It was my first personal oven,” she said. “I remember making cheeseburger hamburger helper. I really thought I was cooking. My babysitter was a professional cook. I watched her.”
The Watts Coffee House menu hasn’t changed much since its inception because the soul food items are customer favorites.
“All food has soul,” Edwards said. “If it’s good to us, our soul is happy. But the thing about greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and black-eyed peas and red beans, if you think about it, the majority of nationalities eat that same thing.
“Rice is a staple across every nationality. You can’t go wrong with a pot of greens and some cornbread. That’s some good eating. You can make some friends.”
Edwards begins her day in the predawn hours.
“I don’t have a microwave,” she said. “We cook here. We don’t reheat. I make enough to last the whole day.”
Menu favorites include salmon croquettes, French toast, grits, shrimp and grits, chicken wings, bacon and more.
Over the years, the South L.A. institution has become a home away from home for some customers.
“I know most of my customers,” Edwards said. “I like when I go to a place and they remember me. Some come and just sit and nurse a cup of coffee. I don’t care if they only have a little money.
“We treat them like they are spending a million. People drive by a lot of places. They don’t have to come here. Some come just to use the wi-fi. I don’t mind.”
Edwards credits her mother and grandmother for grounding her and demonstrating that community support and kindness are what really matter.
She said kindness bears out when people drop off items at the Watts Coffee House to be given to the needy. She too has donated shoes and backpacks to children for school.
“People come and give me stuff,” said Edwards who volunteers for A Chance for Children and for the Harold Robinson Foundation event Pedal on the Pier. “There is a story behind everything.”
To Edwards, this is not a job.
“It’s my heart and my soul,” she said. “It has grown on me. It’s been my teacher. It’s been my motivation. It’s a driving force for me to help people.”
Before living her dream as a chef, Edwards, who originally wanted to be an attorney, worked in banks, customer service, selling auto, home and life insurance, and even had a balloon business before destiny took a hand.
As fate would have it, it turns out Edwards is doing what she was destined to do.
“I recently realized that I wrote in my high school memory book that my dream was to own a restaurant,” she said. “I don’t remember writing that. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
When she first opened the Watts Coffee House, Edwards, admittedly wasn’t active in the Watts community, but that soon changed.
“You can’t have a business in the community and not participate,” said Edwards, who is on the board of Loving Hands Community Care. “You have to support the community.”
She encourages everyone to “get busy” in the community.
“Get off of social media complaining about stuff and become active,” she said. “Let’s make some things happen. If more of us work in the community, we could be powerful. We have to be more proactive in our community, especially with our kids. You have to give back. I’d be a failure if I didn’t do that.”
Watts Coffee House, is located at 1827 E. 103rd St. in Watts.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.