When Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson opened their first location of Locol in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, they hoped to bring a healthier fast food alternative at an affordable price. Fast forward a few years later, and the restaurant face of Locol has transitioned to a focus on catering while Choi works on developing Locol 2.0.
The chain had its obstacles, including significant drops in foot traffic over time and a particularly controversial zero-star review from the New York Times. As a result, money eventually ran out, as Choi explained on Twitter when the retail side shifted to catering. However, the question still existed as to why Locol had the problems it did. What could it do better in its next iteration?
Restaurateur Keith Garrett, the "Quesadilla Kingpin" of Watts and owner of viral sensation All Flavor No Grease, had some thoughts to share on the subject. As part of his conversation with Foodbeast's Elie Ayrouth and Geoff Kutnick on The Katchup Podcast, he gave his take on what Locol was missing that the neighborhood wanted to see.
Garrett had almost nothing but praise for Choi's concept and mission behind Locol. "Great guy, the building was beautiful, location was cool, prices were great!" he said on what people in the community thought. "You got an Asian guy that just opened up smack in the dead middle of Watts? Ooh, he hard for that! He gotta have heart! Let's go see what the food do. So then you go in there, you see the whole staff is from the housing project and community over there... You're like 'Shit, let's go support, let's go see!'"
According to Garrett, all of Choi's employees came from the projects, if not from Watts proper, then from nearby neighborhoods where he offered folks a chance to come together. It was an incredible undertaking and a project that opened up new possibilities for a community sorely in need of it.
But if Choi had such support from the locals for Locol, then why did it struggle? For Garrett, the menu played a big part into it.
"I think that Roy needed another dish on his menu, or three," Garrett explained. "The dishes Roy came with were good, but were not fit for the hood. Don't get me wrong, he had a veggie chili, BOMB... But there was just these other dishes on the menu that wasn't getting bought a lot. You're just not gonna survive on just some chili, or you're not just gonna survive on one drink. You need something for the economy. Why would McDonald's work versus Locol? They got a hamburger, fries, and a soda. He don't."
Locol did sell burgers, fries, and chicken nuggets amongst their fast food staples. But for Garrett, those items tended to fall flat, mainly because they weren't the same kind that the neighborhood was used to. That disconnect between what was being sold and what the community wanted may not have been the biggest reason, but it seems to have at least played a factor into foot traffic and sales.
It'll definitely be something Choi addresses as he continues to develop his newest iteration of the concept, which should be ready to go some time in the near future. Meanwhile, the space is still being used to run catering and event operations. One also can't understate the legacy that Locol left behind in its short time as a restaurant, as Choi made clear in a recent interview with GQ.
"No one talks about the two and a half years of jobs that we created," Choi said. "Of attention, of discussion, of focus, of becoming LA Times Restaurant of the Year, of inspiring new generations... And the fact that we still have our catering operation going, and that we're now raising more money to come back with the 3.0 version... maybe the retail part failed in its first iteration, but the business itself didn't fail, I don't think."
When Locol's return does come, Watts will be ready for the benefits it's already shown to provide the community. Hopefully, the food resonates a lot stronger with them this time as well.