It’s no surprise that Lena Dunham, Jon Favreau, and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti were spotted at the January 18 opening of L.A.’s newest celebrity-chef-helmed eatery. But when that restaurant is a fast-food joint in a poor neighborhood with so few culinary options that it’s considered a food desert, something unusual is going on. As residents of Watts are discovering, Locol isn’t a typical burger spot. For one thing, the chefs behind it are two of the country’s most celebrated: Roy Choi, who kicked off the food-truck boom with Kogi BBQ Taco in 2008, and Daniel Patterson, whose San Francisco dining temple Coi has two Michelin stars. (A third partner, Hanson Li, focuses on the business side.) Plus, Locol offers very different fare from its combo-meal-slinging competitors: food made from fresh ingredients that still manages to be fast and affordable. With locations planned in Oakland and San Francisco (and more to come nationwide), the partners explain how they’re bringing better food to underserved communities.
Opening the first Locol wasn’t cheap: In addition to building the 2,900-square-foot space, outfitting the kitchen, and designing the menu, the founders chose to provide compensation above minimum wage. In January 2015, they launched an Indiegogo campaign that raised almost $130,000 (and a lot of public awareness) thanks to backers including Gwyneth Paltrow. The rest of the reported $2 million budget came from investors in the worlds of tech and entertainment. "Everyone who participated in the first round really believed in the social justice and food-access aspects of Locol," says Li.
Though Choi and Patterson are both used to being in charge, they quickly figured out how to work together—despite living in different cities. "I’d fly up in the morning and we’d be in the kitchen by 10 a.m.," says Choi. "And we did a lot over email." They also divided the labor: Patterson focused on the food while Choi tackled restaurant design, branding, and the overall vibe. According to Choi, "Daniel’s the body, I’m the face. Then both of us collide with no boundaries and merge to be one."
The partners wanted to compete directly with chains like McDonald’s, but without turning to industrial food processing. They use inexpensive cuts of meat, incorporate lots of greens, and augment $4 burgers and sandwiches with fermented grains, which are low-cost and add bulk to the meat without sacrificing taste or texture. "We looked at the ways people all over the world feed themselves well and inexpensively," Patterson says. "We use umami ingredients, flavors of fermentation, good acidity, and lots of herbs." A typical meal at Locol costs about $7.
In its first few weeks, Locol was already serving about 700 meals a day. The team hired more than 50 staff members, all from the Watts community. The technique- and labor-intensive recipes meant workers had to be trained to really cook, not just flip patties. Patterson developed their skills and palettes the same way he trains his team at Coi. "They need to taste the food, know that it’s seasoned right," he says. "As Locol grows, we’ll bring some of the people we’re training in Watts to help us open new locations."
To Choi and Patterson, the restaurant’s Watts location is key, and not just because it’s exactly the sort of food-deprived neighborhood they’ll target with future outlets. Choi says the "character and hospitality of Watts defines some of the DNA of Locol," right down to the menu: The BBQ turkey burger, for example, was suggested by store employees. As the chain grows, offerings will be customized for regional tastes. But in some ways, wherever Locol goes, Watts will follow. "We got very lucky to start in this place because of how strong a community it is and how deep the roots are," says Patterson. "The soul of Watts is a fundamental aspect of our brand."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.