In January 2016, California chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi opened the doors to their fast-food restaurant Locol. In its menu alone — peppered with “foldies” (folded tortillas), grain- and tofu-infused burger patties, and fresh juice — the concept would be considered unorthodox. But adding to the Locol mystique was the mission: a belief that wholesome food, served cheaply, could create job opportunities and serve the nutritional and social needs of any community, but especially in ones that lacked in food choices.
This week, Patterson and Choi revealed that retail operations would cease in Watts, the chain’s original location and its spiritual home, and that the space would become “a catering event space.” As a fast-food chain, Locol is now effectively dead: Its two Oakland locations have already closed — Uptown in 2017, and West Oakland earlier this year — and its San Jose outpost, located inside of a Whole Foods, is closed as well.
In a statement, Choi says, “We are here and still cooking our delicious soul food for all,” and also notes that “We are trying to survive.” Choi tells Eater that the possibility of a Richmond, California, location for Locol, which the company teased this spring, is “still on the table.” But as it stands, customers cannot walk into a Locol and get a burger or a $1 coffee. Diners no longer have access to the original Locol dream — at least for now.
Choi and Patterson revealed their plans for a fast-food chain with a heart at the 2014 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. The year before, Choi had gone on the same stage to discuss the lack of food access in South LA and to challenge the all-star chefs in the audience to do something about hunger at home, to reach the customers often excluded from high-end restaurants. Choi was back with a plan. “We’re going to tackle the fast-food industry,” Choi said on stage, standing next to Patterson. “We’re going to build a concept that will have the ideology and heart and science of a chef but the relevance of McDonald’s. And we’re going to do it in America.” The LA-based Choi would go on to promise a 99-cent burger, a fast-food restaurant that wouldn’t “poison” its customers, a place where “maybe you didn’t even know what Locol was coming in, but when you come in, it makes you feel good about yourself.” The press was quickly intrigued by the idea of two chefs versus the American fast-food juggernaut.
The first Locol opened in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in January 2016, a location integral to proving the Locol thesis. The grand opening party attracted hundreds, including Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, to the small space. In the next few months, Locol saw busy lunch services and visits from prominent politicians like Maxine Waters and Bill Clinton. Jobs were created. A few months later, in May 2016, Patterson and Choi opened a second location, this time in uptown Oakland. It was a promising start.
But by the end of the year, there were signs things weren’t right. A December 2016 profile in Los Angeles magazine revealed that Locol’s “target audience [wasn’t] lining up” for its food. Then in the first week of 2017, dining critic Pete Wells dropped his now-infamous zero-star New York Times review of the Oakland location. (There was swift and severe backlash to the goose egg, culminating with the late Jonathan Gold naming Locol Watts the LA Times Restaurant of the Year in a food media troll for the ages.) It’s of course impossible to quantify how much damage had actually been done by the Wells review, but it certainly didn’t help the year-old chainlet.
In a March 2017 profile, Patterson revealed that Locol experienced some financial troubles prior to the review, but argued that the course had been corrected with menu changes and a new food truck and catering operation in LA. Locol opened a bakery in West Oakland in March 2017, then followed that up by announcing that its coffee program would be formally spinning out into a new business, Yes, Plz. The coffee world took note.
But very little that followed suggested Patterson and Choi ever reached the operational stability needed to make the far-reaching brand they dreamed of. In mid-June 2017, Locol suddenly closed its uptown Oakland store and relocated operations to the bakery: A statement on social media called the uptown Oakland closure “planned,” implying that shutting down the project at the end of its one-year lease was always in the cards. At the end of 2017, Choi and Patterson announced a “hiatus” for the Watts and West Oakland locations, with the plan to reopen in early 2018 having made “adjustments, improvements, and tweaks to our stores.”
Prominent voices had started to question the mission itself. The capstone to the Oakland closure was a searing San Francisco Chronicle op-ed by chef Tunde Wey. “Locol is a righteous answer to the wrong question,” was the title, and Wey eviscerated the very premise of Locol, a for-profit business with a social mission. “[R]acism, not some aberrant market failure, is the culprit in the deprivation of communities of color,” he wrote. Locol’s market solution as a for-profit business, “characterized by the separation of ownership and labor,” presented as a “remedy for upending historical racism,” was merely “self-aggrandizement dressed as altruism.”
This year, it seemed like things would change for the better. The Watts and West Oakland locations reopened after the hiatus after all. And a new partnership with Whole Foods, announced in January 2018, offered a potential springboard the brand needed to finally scale. It would all start, though, with a single Locol operating out of a Whole Foods in San Jose.
It’s easy to see why the partnership appealed. With plenty of locations and experience working with smaller brands, maybe Whole Foods could help Locol reach far more people, more quickly; if Locol had cropped up in Whole Foods across the country, maybe that could fuel the stand-alone locations in places like Watts, or bring Locol and Whole Foods together into neighborhoods like it. “It brings our audience into their stores, and exposes their audience to our culture,” Choi told Eater SF when Locol made its Whole Foods debut in January. “If, in five years, this relationship creates a bridge where Whole Foods can open in Watts or West Oakland or the Tenderloin, that creates a situation where those neighborhoods who don’t normally have access to healthy food can have it.”
At this point, it’s hard to see what path is left for the two California chefs in their battle against America’s fast-food machine. “The truth is we ran out of money after a strong 3 y[ea]r run, [ we’re] figuring out next steps, [and] are still not out for the count,” Choi said on Twitter yesterday, in response to several articles about Locol’s end. “Even at this stage we stand united w[ith] our communities.”
That Locol needed Watts more than it seems Watts needed Locol — investor Stephen DeBerry told the LA Times that many in the neighborhood simply didn’t want to get in their cars for its fast food — was perhaps the fatal flaw. Watts provided the credibility Locol needed when the New York Times criticized its Oakland outpost for its bougie location and its uneven food; Watts was the reason that a partnership with Whole Foods could square with the Locol social mission. “Watts, and communities like it, are the bait conveniently folded into our heroes’ stories, black and brown grist for the American mill which continues to churn out lighter winners and darker losers,” Wey warned back in 2017. It’s not true that Locol did no good in Watts; it’s just that Watts did so much for Locol.
Plenty of other chefs go to conferences, build empires, and launch quick-service projects they hope to expand across America. But Choi and Patterson stuck their necks out and tried to make real change: “What if every high-caliber chef told our investors that for every fancy restaurant we build, it would be a requirement to build one in the ’hood as well?” Choi wondered back in 2014. Locol aimed to bring food choices, job opportunities, and attention to communities underserved by the food world, by the media, and by the government. The end of its retail presence, temporary or not, should not be the end of the conversation or the work: Here’s hoping that Choi, Patterson, and other chefs continue to find ways to fuel a lasting revolution.
• Roy Choi Makes Tough Call on Locol, Closing Watts Restaurant [ELA]
• Locol Closes Last Remaining Locations in San Jose and Watts [ESF]