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Roy Choi’s Locol Is Reborn, Thanks to New Black-Owned Delivery Startup

Food & Wine logo Food & Wine 7/7/2020 Andy Wang
Roy Choi standing in front of a building: Every purchase made on ChewBox puts money back into Watts. © Emari Traffie Every purchase made on ChewBox puts money back into Watts.

Food from Roy Choi’s game-changing project Locol is now available for delivery to all of Los Angeles County, thanks to a new app called ChewBox. All dishes, including soul-warming chili and "foldies" (a hybrid of a taco and pupusa), are under $10, with delivery included. The meals are made inside the Watts building that housed the original Locol restaurant, which Choi and chef Daniel Patterson opened in 2016 with the mission of using food as a vehicle for social change. It closed after two-and-half years.

The concept’s biggest investor, Stephen DeBerry, is a venture capitalist who puts money into marginalized neighborhoods. He was still committed to Watts after Locol closed, and ChewBox came to life after DeBerry connected Choi with serial entrepreneur Kim Gaston, who had gone to high school behind the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts before getting into Stanford at age 16.

Gaston is co-founder and CEO of ChewBox, and DeBerry is ChewBox’s first investor. The landlord for the Locol/ChewBox space is Aqeela Sherrills, an activist who once brokered a peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips. Sherrills and other community leaders spent months taking Choi around Watts before Locol opened.

“I was adopted into Watts,” Choi said. “We knocked on doors like it was a campaign. I just opened my heart and asked people, ‘Is it OK if we came in?’ I was given the pass. I told them I was never going to give up.”

What Choi wants to make clear now is that “the story of Locol was always about Watts.” Choi and Patterson were the prominent frontmen. But without the Watts community and the support of men like Sherrills, DeBerry, and now Gaston, Locol couldn’t exist.

“The story was always about this idealistic vision of creating nutrition, jobs, wealth, opportunity, love, and affordability,” Choi said. “ChewBox is the next episode.”

Every meal purchased from ChewBox, for example, puts money into Watts. “I don’t know how much easier we can make it for people to make a difference,” Gaston said. “It’s a value proposition that works in your favor. No matter what your economic bracket, if you want a meal delivered to you that’s chef-made for under 10 bucks, we got you.”

The app allows independent chefs to sell their own dishes, too, so in addition to making Locol items for ChewBox, chef Robert McCovery has his own menu with creamy broccoli soup, shrimp fried rice, and a burger. ChewBox commissary manager Jerrold Williams, who goes by A Brutha Can Cook on the app, is slinging Cajun shrimp.

a dish is filled with food: ChewBox © Provided by Food & Wine ChewBox

ChewBox plans to open ghost kitchens all over the country and partner with many chefs—potentially prominent chefs in Choi’s circle or underground legends selling food out of their homes. “There are so many folks: vegan chefs, smoothie makers, backyard barbecue aficionados, hot dog grillers,” Choi said. “All of these individual businesses can now utilize the framework of ChewBox.”

“Every hood knows who the enchilada lady is or who the candy house is,” Gaston said. “It’s the democratization of opportunity.”

The ChewBox app has a social aspect, similar to how you can view public transactions on Venmo. Customers can see what other people are ordering, which makes it easy and fun to discover new food.

Gaston convinced Choi to start small and not immediately launch ChewBox to the public. So Gaston, who has a background in educational technology, focused on solving the problem of feeding teachers.

“Teachers are quite literally the centerpiece of civilization in a lot of ways,” Gaston said. “In a community like Watts, they’re people’s surrogate parents. They’re the consistency for a lot of folks. What a lot of people don’t realize is teachers only have about a half hour between bells to consume a meal.”

ChewBox started delivering hot meals to schools, and Gaston saw that teachers were using the service “like a technology and not like a restaurant.” You might go to your favorite restaurant once a week if you’re a fanatic. Teachers were ordering multiple times each week.

Gaston wants customers to treat ChewBox like a personal chef. You can set up a calendar and order days, weeks, even months in advance. You’re charged for each order at 6 p.m. the night before. Meals are delivered between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. ChewBox might add dinner service, too. Customers can also create events on ChewBox, like small family gatherings where guests can choose their own food. Ideally, in a world where COVID-19 is contained, ChewBox could be an inexpensive way to cater a big party.

Or, you can put together an event that donates meals to hospitals or anywhere else in L.A. In the week leading up to ChewBox’s public launch on Juneteenth, the startup set up an event and asked people to donate meals for the Watts community; food was sent to around 800 families. ChewBox is now working on a feature that will allow any customer who purchases a meal to donate another meal at a reduced price.

If you want to know where the drive for ChewBox comes from, you could start by watching DeBerry’s TED Talk about why “the wrong side of the tracks” is often the east side of cities. In less than seven minutes, DeBerry explains how segregation and the way wind blows pollution are connected. He also argues that there’s a tremendous investment opportunity in underserved neighborhoods if you look at the world from a different lens.

You could also start by reading Gaston’s post about a scary and maddening encounter with the police and how he realized that better technology could make law enforcement safer and help prevent incidents that result in the deaths of innocent Black men and women. DeBerry read that post and reached out to Gaston about helping him figure out a plan for Locol.

a sandwich cut in half: ChewBox © Provided by Food & Wine ChewBox

You could also go back years before that post, when Gaston was a gifted elementary school student who woke up at 5 a.m. to ride a bus from Watts to Brentwood Science Magnet, where students mostly included rich white kids but also O.J. Simpson’s children. You could then fast-forward to high school, when Gaston’s mother decided he should return to Watts. His mom was very strategic. She knew that he would stand out in Watts when it came time to apply for college.

Stanford was Gaston’s ticket out of Watts when he was 16, but he knew this was a round-trip.

“Every year I was in high school, one of my schoolmates was murdered,” Gaston said. “There was never a sense that there was such a thing as ‘out.’ It was about coming back and making something better.”

Gaston remembers a pivotal moment in his life. He was in New York at Bertelsmann Music Group for a prestigious fellowship, where he was being mentored by the COO. Gaston had a conversation with an executive assistant, who floated the possibility of never returning to Watts. Soon after, Gaston found out that a high school classmate, Salim Ibn Dawson, had been murdered. Gaston turned down a job offer from BMG. He needed to go home.

One day after I interviewed Choi and Gaston for nearly 90 minutes on Zoom, Choi sent an email to reiterate something about Locol.

“I really wanted to finally get across on the record that our relationship with Watts is more than just success or failure,” he wrote. “When you are part of a community like Watts, we don't judge people solely on the extremes of success and failure. That's because we are family and we all have lots of struggles and successes together … It's about eternity, nuance, moments, love, trust, commitment, loyalty.”

Choi, who’s battled addiction to drugs, alcohol, and gambling, believes in second chances. He, like so many people, wouldn’t be where he is if he hadn’t gotten second and third and fourth and fifth chances.

“The irony of it is, and this is what history will say, is that Roy was just crazy enough to start something where he wasn’t afraid of failure such that he ultimately laid the perfect foundation for a tech startup to be layered on top of it,” Gaston said. “We couldn’t do this if it was in San Francisco. We couldn’t do this if it was in Santa Monica or Venice. It would have to be Watts. The equipment would have to already be there. There would already be people who loved the community and stood by a vision like this and were ready to take the reins.”

Choi sees ChewBox as part of a relay race. He, Patterson, and Locol partner Hanson Li had the baton at first. They’re all advisors in ChewBox, but they’ve handed the baton to Gaston, who’s trying to get a patent for the way the startup has “reinvented POS.”

Silicon Valley capital, Gaston has told Choi, doesn’t want to make a better restaurant. It wants to kill all restaurants. Gaston knows that sounds harsh. But this is about wanting to “create a much better way of doing things,” which is something that feels increasingly necessary when many chefs are running out of ways to pivot during a pandemic.

Choi and Gaston had some clashes about ChewBox’s purpose at first, but they both know disruption is the goal. It’s still early in the relay race. Maybe Gaston will hand the baton back to Choi or give it to someone new in the future. Choi’s fine with however it happens. The mission is so much more important than any individual who crosses the finish line.

“People expect meals delivered to them,” Gaston said. “No one really cares where they’re made. The best environment for food as a service is in these communities that were once the most marginalized. So there’s this huge opportunity to transform impoverished communities where everybody’s food gets made there. The goal is to actually find the most efficient way to bring the best food at the best price to the most people while generating the most jobs in lower-income communities.”

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