Inside Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s Quest to Transform Fast Food, and Maybe the Entire Restaurant Business

Can healthier fast food make a poor neighborhood a better place? Chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson hoped so when they launched LocoL in Watts last January. After a year of hard lessons, they’re still hoping

Driving along Wilmington Avenue north from the 105 freeway, you pass through a strip of low-profile buildings drenched in pastel shades of blue and pink. The occasional church, water shop, and liquor store pepper the line of stucco homes, each ringed with white iron fences. Wilmington parallels a set of railroad tracks, a river of winding steel that divides the South L.A. neighborhood of Watts. To the west is the 1,054-unit Nickerson Gardens housing project. To the east are the two smaller Imperial Courts and Jordan Downs projects, the latter of which has been scheduled since 2011 to undergo extensive renovations. Though the official gang war below Century Boulevard came to an end 25 years ago, the tracks also separate what was—is (tense gets tricky here)—Bloods and Crips territories, and some residents continue sticking to one side or the other, more rigorously so depending on their level of involvement in what locals refer to as simply “the life.”

It is here, a quarter mile from Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, that Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson debuted their fast-food concept, LocoL, last January. Since then, LocoL (a portmanteau of “loco” and “local”) has been covered by almost every major news outlet in the country. Chefs from around the world have hailed it as a new model of populist cooking. Food & Wine magazine even named it among the best new restaurants of 2016, an honor that both Choi and Patterson have mixed feelings about. “It adds more expectations,” says Choi. “We’re still in a very start-up phase—learning and growing.”

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Roy Choi

Photograph by Damon Casarez

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One reason for the fanfare is the stature of the pair: Since cofounding the Kogi food truck empire, 46-year-old Choi has unleashed a flood of boldly flavored dishes on the city with a collection of hot spots that includes a rice bowl counter, a Korean hot pot enterprise, and a rooftop salute to vegetables. Lanky and perpetually abuzz, 48-year-old Patterson led the kitchen at San Francisco’s fine-dining destination Coi, which he still owns along with five other Bay Area restaurants. If the men had collaborated on a high-end eatery, it would be newsworthy enough. But the two set out with the unconventional plan to invent a new kind of fast-food chain. Among LocoL’s ambitious goals: improving access to wholesome foods in some of the nation’s poorest communities, offering job training and career opportunities to disadvantaged residents, and disrupting the multibillion-dollar fast-food industry by showing how less-processed, higher-quality meals can be quick, easy, and cheap. Oh, and profitable.

The product is fast food, but it’s made in a kitchen that looks more like the bulk section of a Whole Foods than a McDonald’s: Stacks of large plastic bins bear labels scrawled with words like oats, bulgur, and black beans. The burgers have been cut with grains and tofu—one of LocoL’s most publicized cost-saving measures. There’s barley in the chicken patties for the same reason, and for added moisture. To provide gluten-free options and avoid refined sugar, LocoL makes buns using koji, rice flour that’s been fermented with the same mold that is key to making sake. “It adds that residual sweetness that you normally get from sugar in commercial buns,” says Patterson, “but with a rounder flavor.”

He’s leading me through the narrow corridors of LocoL’s prep area in Watts. Though Patterson lives in Oakland, he’s down here every few weeks. Nearby, bottles of Tapatío and Asian fish sauce crowd the pantry alongside barrels of fresh produce. Soaking in another container are strips of kombu, or dried seaweed—one of the secret ingredients in the signature Burg blend. In the back a woman slices a pineapple into chunks on a gleaming counter for one of the day’s flavors of agua fresca—LocoL’s answer to soda.

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Daniel Patterson

Photograph by Ryan Young

“Do you want a Foldie?” Patterson asks, referring to his spin on a $2 taco. He takes a corn tortilla from a warming drawer, dips it in oil, and throws it on the flattop. He adds a smear of black bean-and-rice machaca (there’s a meat version, too), a bit of Monterey Jack cheese, a squeeze of house-made green sauce, and folds it with a spatula. “I intentionally wanted to make something that wasn’t a Roy taco.” After a minute, he lifts it from the heat and slides it into a paper sheath.

For all the praise LocoL has enjoyed, it still has a ways to go in accomplishing its social mission, if for no other reason than its target audience isn’t lining up for the Burgs and Chili Bowls the way LocoL’s founders had envisioned—or the way diners have done for just about everything else either chef has touched. “We’re taking another look at all the food,” Choi told me in June. “Our burger is really delicious, but if you look at it, it’s a fermented rice bun with fermented chili paste sauce, a charred scallion-lime relish, and a grain-based patty. None of that stuff is nostalgic.”

Nostalgia is a sticky concept when it comes to food. What’s familiar and comforting for one group of people is not necessarily so for another. From the start the LocoL menu has featured the Foldie, which hits on a different cultural reference point than, say, the BBQ Turkey sandwich and slow-cooked Messy Greens, both soul food staples. It’s unclear whom the Noodleman—a bowl of buckwheat noodles with vegetables, tofu, and ginger-lime broth—is aimed at, but Patterson insists that it’s one of the most sophisticated dishes ever to be offered for $6. It’s fine, but not likely what I’m stopping for at a fast-food joint. I’d rather have the Chicken Nugs, though even then, nobody longs for oat-plumped chicken morsels like Mom used to make.

“One of those things that we need to solve is, How do you create food that’s distinctive and at the same time familiar and craveable?” says Patterson. I take a bite of my steaming Foldie, a dish they nailed. Its oily residue and lingering heat have all the lowbrow appeal of a late-night Jack in the Box taco, which is exactly what its creators were going for. “I don’t think we’ve hit that yet. But also familiar and nostalgic and craveable shouldn’t have a tagline like ‘for white people.’”

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Anthony Adams (in cap) serves as a LocoL ambassador

Photograph by Damon Casarez

If you’re wondering precisely how two of the nation’s leading chefs wound up serving fast food in Watts, you need to go back a few years and hop a plane to Denmark. In August of 2013, Choi was standing on a stage in Copenhagen addressing an international crowd of journalists, chefs, and scientists. “I go by ‘Papi’ on the streets,” he begins, his square face framed by the rigid bill of a black L.A. Dodgers cap. “I come from Los Angeles. You guys probably know it, right? It’s a magical, magical place.” He pauses. “But I also come from this Los Angeles, where there are over 5 million people that are starving, or close to starving….” 

The title of the speech, which has since been viewed online more than 20,000 times, is “A Gateway to Feed Hunger: The Promise of Street Food,” and he’s giving it at the third annual MAD Symposium. Taken from the Danish word for “food,” MAD was created in 2011 by René Redzepi, chef at the two-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma. The two-day symposium is like the TED Talks, only with better catering, and it was established to expand “knowledge of food to make every meal a better meal; not just at restaurants, but every meal cooked and served,” as the official language explains. “That was actually the third time I had invited Roy to speak at MAD,” says Redzepi. “I’ve always loved his complete honesty toward the trade. I told him, ‘You have to say something you don’t usually dare to say.’”

“We’re feeding a small populace, and we think we’re feeding the world,” Choi says to the audience. “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? I stand here with the guts to ask you: Please, let’s do something and feed those that we’re not reaching collectively. Just imagine where we can go with it, you know what I mean?”

It was a radical call to action. “Here was one of our own, a chef’s chef, in a very polite way saying ‘Fuck you,’” says Redzepi, who is a LocoL minority shareholder and serves on the company’s advisory committee. “‘Start using your talents for more than just your own ego.’”

Patterson didn’t know Choi at the time, but the speech resonated with him as he sat in the audience. In 2013, he, too, was experiencing a crisis of conscience. “Restaurants get nickel-and-dimed by charities all the time,” Patterson says. “ ‘Can you give us a gift certificate?’ ‘Can you show up at this gala event and put some shit on a plate?’ I got frustrated because I never had a sense of what we were accomplishing.” So he joined with a San Francisco youth services organization and invited a dozen or so kids into the Coi kitchen. “I was like, ‘OK, here are the cutting boards, here are the knives. Please don’t cut your fingers off.’” What began as an after-hours endeavor turned into the Cooking Project, a nonprofit that teaches fundamental cooking skills to young people from across the Bay Area.

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

“It was so visceral to see how they reacted to good food,” says Patterson. “I thought, ‘Man, if only there was a way to reach even more people—like fast food. What if we could have fast, real food?’ But I couldn’t do it myself.” That’s when Patterson saw Choi at MAD. “I thought, ‘Ah, this is my guy.’” Back in the States, Patterson called Choi, outlined his idea, and flew to L.A. two weeks later. Seated in the not-yet-finished dining room of POT, Choi’s hot pot restaurant at Koreatown’s Line Hotel, the two hashed out a rough strategy.

One year after his first appearance at MAD, Choi returned to Copenhagen. “I stood on this stage last year and poured out my guts,” he began, clad in a black Kogi T-shirt, “but I had no plan. And then this guy called me.” The crowd cheered as Choi welcomed Daniel Patterson to the stage, his gangly frame decked out in a white T-shirt and ill-fitting jeans—the physical embodiment of Choi’s opposite. “We’re going to tackle the fast-food industry,” said Choi. “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,” he said, “we’re going to do it in America.”

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

Talking to Roy Choi is a bit like having a conversation with a wizard. He is quick to go deep, and when he isn’t dropping hip-hop lyrics, his topics tend toward the metaphysical. (“I dream like a shaman,” he told me once, “in full civilizations and universes, and I’m able to manifest those dreams into reality.”) This, combined with his permanent grin, would be easy to mistake as the result of some recreational THC. But the Koreatown dweller’s chillaxed vibe is more likely part of his relatively newfound spirituality, a potpourri of New Age ideologies that includes Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, which Choi often cites. They are: Be True to One’s Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best.

In 2008, Choi had not yet found enlightenment. Married, with a new baby girl, he was coming off a string of hotel restaurant jobs and a stint heading Century City’s pan-Asian behemoth, RockSugar, when Mark Manguera phoned him. An old buddy from his days cooking at the Beverly Hilton, Manguera heard that Choi was between jobs and asked if he’d meet him for a drink and listen to an idea he’d been tinkering with. The gist was simple: Put Korean barbecue into a taco. Born in Seoul but raised in L.A. and the O.C., Choi had scarfed down equal amounts of street corner asada as he had sizzling kalbi. He shrugged off the combination as too basic, but something about the dish wouldn’t let him go. A few months later he and Manguera were driving through the streets of L.A. in a 1980s Grumman catering truck, feeding the munchy club kids of downtown, Hollywood, and Koreatown what Choi calls “Los Angeles on a plate.”

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

The birth of Kogi corresponded with the birth of Twitter, and the combination proved as potent as the fermented red chili paste that was soon staining the chins of half the city. Within weeks Kogi had the full attention of the media. Manguera remains a co-owner, but Choi became the company’s face. The tatted kid who spent as many years drinking and battling a gambling addiction as he did training in renowned kitchens like New York’s Le Bernardin was catapulted into celebrity chefdom. As his fame increased, so did his fleet of trucks and opportunities to open new restaurants, such as the rice bowl-centric Chego and the picnic-themed A-Frame. In 2010, Food & Wine crowned him one of the nation’s best new chefs, cementing his reputation as culinary royalty.

But while Choi was at a creative peak, he was at another personal low. He developed a complicated relationship with the spotlight, broadcasting his every move on Twitter, resenting public attention when it wasn’t on his terms. His rank among the city’s elite felt at odds with the man-of-the-streets persona he’d been cultivating for a decade. In 2012, Choi launched his blog Ridingshotgunla, allowing readers to observe the chef ’s identity crisis as it played out in the form of poetry and stream-of-consciousness ruminations on kimchi. His most infamous post arrived on April 30 of that year.

“I’ve been thinking about leaving cooking for a while,” he wrote, explaining that food had suddenly lost its meaning. The threat of retirement was shocking, but more so was the revelation that the purveyor of the Chubby Pork Belly Bowl was going vegetarian. “Animals be talking to me,” he continued. “I talk to animals and kids. I feed adults. Time to switch. Talk to adults. Feed animals and kids.” He didn’t quit cooking, but he did quit meat for two years.

“I wrote that blog on the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots,” says Choi. “Everyone was saying how great L.A. is now, and it triggered something inside of me to say, ‘No, there are a lot of people here still living a really hard life.’ It led to me kind of unplugging, changing everything about who I am and what I do.”

Choi delved into the nonprofit world. He allied himself with South L.A. programs like A Place Called Home, where he taught disadvantaged youth how to cook. In 2013, he teamed with the Coalition for Responsible Community Development and Dole Packaged Foods to launch 3 Worlds Café, a community-minded coffee shop and smoothie bar in South L.A. Staffed largely by students from nearby Jefferson High School, 3 Worlds’ aim was to provide on-the-job training as well as offer a healthy food and drink option for area residents—a precursor of sorts to his next big endeavor, LocoL.

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

Roy Choi is leaning against a boarded-up storefront next to a Laundromat on 103rd Street, which was once dubbed Charcoal Alley for the degree of fire damage it sustained during the 1965 riots. It’s August 11, 2015, exactly 50 years to the day when LAPD officers pulled over a young black motorist named Marquette Fry, triggering an outburst of public violence that nearly destroyed the entire 2.12 square miles of Watts. In the wake of the riots, many businesses fled the area while even more were shuttered.

The culinary landscape of Watts today is dominated by a handful of chicken shacks and Chinese food take-out joints, corporate chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, and a burger stand called Hawkins, famous for its sky-high creations piled with pastrami and deep-fried hot links. South L.A. is what has become known as a food desert, defined by the USDA as “parts of the country [devoid] of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.”

The stucco building we’re standing in front of is unmarked except for a cartoon hamburger sticker on the wall. “This is going to be LocoL,” says Choi proudly. He is wearing a LocoL T-shirt, as are the two men he’s with, and he gestures to me with a football-size foil-wrapped package. “Kogi burrito?” he asks. Few encounters with Roy Choi begin without the offer of food.

“So the Jordan Downs project is here, then up there’s Ted Watkins Park,” Choi explains. Across the way is the midcentury fortress of Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School. To the left is a minimart with a hand-painted sign advertising “slushies and chili fritos”; to the right there’s a smoke shop. “Watts Coffee House is a little ways down,” says Choi. “It’s a great place with great people, but it’s the only sit-down restaurant in Watts.”

“Think about that,” says Vaughn Glover, the man to Choi’s left. “Fifty-thousand people and one sit-down establishment.” A recent Wharton business school grad, he was brought in to oversee everything from hiring to construction permits to, eventually, store operations for the enterprise. That he’s black might be a coincidence, but it certainly helps in a majority black community wary of outsiders. Next to him is Christopher Storer, a film and television director who sticks out as a skinny white guy holding a video camera. Choi and company hired Storer to shoot a documentary about LocoL.

A woman in flip-flops and with the wide eyes of mental illness or drug use, maybe both, approaches to ask what we’re doing. “I’m opening a restaurant,” says Choi. “Oh yeah?” she says. “Well, we already got chicken places up in here, Popeyes. It’s making us miserable.” Choi smiles and politely says that his restaurant is going to be different. But after a minute or two the woman loses interest and continues her walk down 103rd. “Even she’s sound enough to recognize the dynamics of the neighborhood,” says Glover.

Over the last decade there’s been a concerted effort to try to change some of those dynamics. In 2008, the City of Los Angeles passed a landmark ordinance that banned new fast-food restaurants from opening in South L.A. Introduced in 2010, the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative offers tax breaks and grants to corner shops willing to carry fresh produce. Organizers in Watts launched a weekly farmers’ market, which allows shoppers to pay for produce using EBT and WIC benefits, and in 2012 the state awarded $4.9 million in grant funds to build a two-and-a-half-acre urban farm adjacent to Jordan Downs. (It has yet to break ground.) Grocery options in the region expanded slightly, too, when a Smart & Final Extra! moved in nearby.

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Yotchays (AKA snacks) like flatbread go for a buck

Photograph by Damon Casarez

Despite those efforts, a 2015 study by the RAND Corporation think tank revealed that between 2007 and 2012, the number of people in South L.A. who were obese or overweight actually increased by 12 percent (the rise for the rest of L.A. County during the same period was 1 percent). And because the language of the ban applies only to stand-alone restaurants, operators have worked around it by locating in strip malls and opening walk-up windows attached to other businesses. Seventeen new fast-food restaurants managed to open within the first four years of the ban.

Another RAND study, released the year before, in 2014, discovered little correlation between what people eat and their proximity to healthier food options. “We found evidence that improving geographic access to healthy foods through a neighborhood supermarket may not necessarily mean residents will actually shop there—or buy more healthy food,” the study concluded. Playing much larger roles in determining dietary choices, it turns out, are education level, income, cultural influences, and food pricing.

It’s into this complicated environment that Choi and Patterson ventured with their fermented rice buns, grain-cut meat, and scallion relish, striving for change. “I think you’ve got to give them credit for being pioneering,” says Tim Watkins, president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. “LocoL is one of the few things we can point to that has courage behind it. They’re trying to produce an opportunity for people to get low-cost quality food in Watts. But it takes more than one. Roy is one, and we need ten more to bring a hundred more.”

Choi and Patterson feel the pressure. “There have been a lot of empty promises to Watts, and the last thing we want to be is another empty promise,” says Choi. “That part makes us anxious.”

A crowd has formed a circle in a freshly painted parking lot in Watts. It’s a sunny morning in January 2016, and neighborhood kids take turns showing off their breaking skills to the cheers of an audience that includes Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, Girls creator Lena Dunham, director Jon Favreau, NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, and a pair of Great Danes. The last are on leashes held by Patterson’s statuesque wife, a litigation and business lawyer.

The stereo that is now thumping hip-hop was an hour ago broadcasting the voice of Martin Luther King Jr.: “One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Today is the civil rights leader’s national holiday, but that’s not what has brought hundreds to the corner of 103rd Street and Anzac Avenue. They’re here for the opening of the first LocoL.

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Roy Choi with a fan

Photograph by Damon Casarez

When the giant scissors do their job around 11 a.m., the modernist woodblock tables begin to fill with swarms of food bloggers and curious neighbors snapping pictures of drippy Burgs and melting mounds of Straus Family Creamery soft-serve. By the time the dance battle commences out back, Choi is in the zone, toggling between calling out order numbers and posing for selfies with fans. Amid the frenzy he steals a moment to observe the rowdy culmination of the past two years of his life. “This is the vibe we wanted,” he says with a look that’s a not-so-equal mix of relief, pride, and stress. “Now we just have to sustain it.”

To that end, Choi and Patterson had already spent months doing outreach in Watts in order to build a base of support. One way was through a job fair. Lydia Friend remembers when she found out that the restaurant was holding a two-day recruitment event in December 2015. Intrigued, the 57-year-old went to take a look. “I was just being nosy,” she says. “But then somebody started cussing and threatening to shoot up the place, so I told him he should get away from here— ‘These people are out here trying to get you all jobs.’” Choi watched how well she defused the incident and handed her an application. “When he offered me the job, I was crying,” she says. “Not because of the money, but because this was the first person that I’d ever seen come to Watts, say they were building something, and keep their word.”

We’re seated on a large floral couch in Friend’s garage, watching the latest episode of General Hospital. “I hope you don’t mind, but I can’t miss my stories,” she says. I don’t. Behind her is a stack of boxes with T-shirts that read WOMEN OF WATTS, a nonprofit that Friend has run for 12 years, which culminates in an annual 1,000-person march through the streets of Watts. This past year LocoL supplied the food.

Today is Friend’s day off, but she will probably stop by LocoL, where she is a co-manager. “I go in on my off days, buy my own food, and observe,” she says. Her smooth, dark skin belies both her age and hard life. Friend was a drug addict for 25 years, but she says she managed to stay in school, graduate from college, raise six kids, and hold down jobs—everything from waiting tables at Norms to working the counter at McDonald’s and Burger King to delivering mail and being an in-home caregiver.

The starting wage at LocoL is $13 an hour, and the workweek is a minimum of 35 hours—especially noteworthy in South L.A., where unemployment runs as high as 8.5 percent. And they refuse to cut hours, regardless of traffic. (“A normal business would just send people home when they are slow,” says Choi. “We’re not going to do that.”) There’s been some turnover since the first hires, but for the most part LocoL’s core staff is solid and deeply loyal. “You got people there that have never worked before, and now they get up faithfully and come to work,” says Friend. “And they don’t get high all day like they used to. They’re working and buying cars and getting apartments.”

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

A pair of Friend’s sons also work at LocoL. Marlon is a cook, and Keith has been promoted from kitchen manager to one of two corporate-level executive chefs. More than merely providing jobs, Patterson and Choi hope to launch careers. They want to expose Watts employees to the hospitality world beyond LocoL, inviting them to work the line during high-profile events at upscale restaurants like Providence and Cut.

Initially Choi and Patterson were the ones who needed the exposure. To help spread the word about their restaurant and learn the terrain, the chefs turned to a group of locals. Among them, Johnny “Ready” Bailey, Anthony “A1 Creation” Adams, Debois “D-Bo” Sims, and Leonardo “Nardo” Williams were influential in the ’92 peace treaty that put the gang war between the Bloods and Crips on pause. And they’ve stuck around, functioning as surrogate fathers, teachers, benefactors, and advocates. Their opinions go far here.

“We call them ‘the Ambassadors,’” says Choi, who arranged several meals with the men to get a bead on their tastes and to introduce them to unfamiliar foods; the thinking is that once they have a sense of the larger culinary scene, they’ll understand how LocoL’s food fits in. As Choi rolls into Pizzeria Mozza one day in August for their first tasting sessions, he’s bearing a stack of envelopes—some of the first official paychecks any of the men have received in their lives. He recruited the crew to function as LocoL’s outreach team. Patterson, Vaughn Glover, and Chris Storer, the documentarian, are there, too. “If you are going to learn about L.A. food, you start with Nancy [Silverton],” says Choi, referring to Mozza’s chef and co-owner. “We’ll teach you guys,” says Choi. “We’ll expose you to all this beautiful food.”

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

Throughout the meal there are nervous chuckles and questions about the dishes. What’s that slimy white lump? Burrata cheese—try it! The pizzas are winners. Ditto the chicken wings alla diavola. The warm octopus salad is not so lucky. Acutely aware of the optics—how two fancy chefs showing a tableful of ex-cons what good food really is could be the definition of condescension— Choi and Patterson explain the preparation and the context of each dish in the same careful tone that’s made LocoL’s entire existence in Watts possible.

The Ambassadors can do only so much, however. More than a year later the hype about alternative ingredients and grain-cut meat blends has kept some of LocoL’s target demographic from becoming customers. “A lot of the younger folks thought we were too healthy, especially the high school kids,” says Choi. “But you can’t place the blame on a community that has never been exposed to good food.”

What has added to the challenge, ironically enough, is that the restaurant has become a must-stop for foodies and out-of-towners. Choi says he tried to warn the neighborhood about culinary tourists—“at planning meetings I would always ask, ‘Are you sure? Germans and Czechoslovakians are going to be getting off the plane at LAX and coming here.’” While it might seem a positive that LocoL is luring new paying customers into a neighborhood never before considered a dining destination, the outsiders are scaring some people off. “A lot of the folks didn’t know if LocoL was completely for them because they saw a lot of people from outside the community in the restaurant,” says Choi. “So we’ve been doing a lot of work really, really making it clear that this is for Watts first. This is all for them.”

If there’s one thing McDonald’s has proved, it’s the mass cross-cultural appeal of the almighty hamburger. LocoL’s version should have been a home run—but it wasn’t. Blame it on that nostalgia thing. “I was sitting here with Roy, talking about the menu problems, and then literally just stood up and said, ‘I’ll be right back,’ ” says Patterson. “I went into the kitchen and made a special sauce, put some lettuce on the burger, and that was that.” The result is a burger any Southern Californian would recognize as classic. “I brought it back to Roy, and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”

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Burgs are cut with grains to reduce costs

Photograph by Damon Casarez

The two have since tinkered with the recipes for the BBQ Turkey sandwich, too, adding cheese and searing it on the griddle with mayonnaise instead of butter—a prison hack suggested by Friend’s son, 12-year inmate-turned-corporate executive chef Keith Corbin. A turkey version of the chili was offered for a while, based on feedback from residents, and now there’s even a tofu riff. They also abandoned some of the fast-food make-ahead model, opting to cook not just the Foldie but most dishes to order—a call by Patterson that hints at his ruthless perfectionist streak.

“It’s hard,” says Choi. “We have to think of how we continue to improve the food, our service, and make it desirable.” He’s standing in LocoL’s new commissary kitchen, a former barbecue restaurant in the Hoover-Foster neighborhood of Oakland that will support the company’s second branch, which opened in Uptown Oakland last May, as well as LocoL’s next location, set to debut later this year in San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin neighborhood. “We’ve got our Audi and our Porsche right here,” Choi jokes, pointing to a pair of expensive German gadgets that can prep burger patties and hamburger buns en masse. “Eventually the burger machine will be able to pump out 4,200 patties an hour. Everything will get produced and put in Cryovac bags here and then dropped o at the restaurants, just like McDonald’s. But instead of processed frozen goods, it’ll be the good stuff made in the kitchen right here.”

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

The Oakland LocoL—situated in a trendy area two blocks from Uber’s new headquarters—has presented its own set of challenges. Days before it opened in May, Vaughn Glover abruptly departed, and a two-day job fair was sparsely attended. “The idea can only carry this thing so far,” says Chris Ying, editor of the highbrow food magazine Lucky Peach. “It has to come down to ‘Will this operate as a fast-food restaurant?’”

“In Oakland we lost a lot of people in the first three months because our service wasn’t the best,” says Choi, who’s quick to admit when something about LocoL isn’t working. “We started out with a crew that we didn’t train properly. And maybe there’s something about our brand that’s too heavy for people.”

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

It’s true: As fast food goes, this is serious stuff. The duo tried to lighten things up with the names on the menu, but the unfamiliar terms (Yotchays are snacks; Bulgur Language is a salad) have sown their own confusion. And while Choi and Patterson have emphasized the healthfulness of their ingredients to the media, when asked about sourcing, they were particularly standoffish. After a truck from multinational foodstuffs distributor Sysco was spotted unloading at the restaurant, it sent the rumor mill spinning about the possibility of factory-farmed meat and low-grade produce. Inquiries were met with harsh resistance. LA Weekly restaurant critic Besha Rodell received an angry e-mail from Patterson after asking about sourcing specifics. I, too, was stonewalled when, for a separate story, I pushed for the origins of the coffee beans that go into LocoL’s buck-a-cup blend.

Choi and Patterson have since let down their guard about sourcing. They cop to using Sysco for some paper and dry goods, but their hormone-free meat comes from the respected Inglewood-based Rocker Bros. Meat & Provisions, and the produce is primarily from West Central Produce and Nature’s Produce. All three companies supply many of L.A.’s better, farm-to-table-touting restaurants. “The reality with LocoL is that we mix and match right now,” says Choi. “People want to hear that we buy grass-fed and organic all the time, or else there’s skepticism. But they don’t want to hear the real answer, which is that we’re trying, man. Our stores are only bringing in a certain amount of money every day, and we only have a certain amount of buying power to make these things work…. It’s a process; it’s a struggle.”

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Photograph by Damon Casarez

A twirling barber’s pole is the only perceptible motion at the corner of Virgil and Normal avenues in East Hollywood. A few blocks south is Sqirl, where the fashionably disheveled are queued around the block for sorrel-pesto rice bowls and smears of jam on thick brioche. Outside Vinny’s Barber Shop, all is quiet, save for the hum of the generator powering the black-and-white food truck parked in front. In the cab a trio of workers who’ve driven from Watts peer at their phones, waiting to serve a taste of LocoL to the residents of northeast L.A. During the next two hours a smattering of shaggy twentysomethings wander up for a Veggie Cheeseburg or a Messy Beef Chili Bowl.

The September launch of a mobile LocoL didn’t come as a surprise—Choi pretty much invented the modern food truck—but it does represent a reality adjustment. “The restaurant is only so busy,” says Choi. “A lot of people really want to support LocoL but just can’t make it down to Watts. So we’re bringing it to them.”

LocoL is at a crossroads. Its first round of venture capital funding—as well as $128,000 raised via the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo—got it through the first year of business, regardless of profits. From here on out, Choi says, it will have to become self-sustaining. “At the moment LocoL isn’t losing money, but it’s just holding it together,” he adds. So the chefs are doubling down.

They’re launching a bakery concept in Oakland, selling Chinese-style steamed buns stuffed with LocoL fillings. They envision LocoL coffee kiosks in retail hot spots across the country, too. But first they intend to get more burgers into more hands by opening branches in higher-end areas. “We have two models of stores in our head right now,” says Choi. “One is a not-for-profit store like the one in Watts. But we also want to have high-profile stores in the heart of SoHo or the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.” That way, sales there can supplement sales at the stores’ low-income areas. If all goes as planned, they expect to see the next store in the Tenderloin followed by another branch on L.A.’s Crenshaw Boulevard. After that it’s Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, New York, the moon.

Nobody asked Choi and Patterson to invest so much time and effort into rethinking fast food and helping transform poverty-stricken communities while they’re at it. But they’ve opened themselves up to a lot of second-guessing. “You dropped one of your initial locations in arguably the most white, gentrified area in Oakland,” commented one reader in response to an East Bay Express article about the Oakland branch. “If part of LocoL’s mission is about solving the food desert issue, why build one of your few locations in one of the richest parts of the Bay Area?” Patterson bristles at that kind of comment. “I haven’t seen anyone complain that Shake Shack and Chipotle aren’t in Watts,” he says. “There’s this assumption that if we go into Watts, then we only have to go into poor, underserved communities. What the fuck is that?”

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LocoL’s December 2015 job fair in Watts. Employees work at least 35 hours a week.

Photograph by Damon Casarez

Lucky Peach’s Ying, who is a friend of Patterson and Choi, has experienced the same defensiveness when discussing LocoL with them. “It’s this double-edged sword that they want to swing just one way,” he says. “If they were just like ‘We’re going to open a burger place,’ and it had nothing to do with opening in Watts, or food deserts, or trying to bring jobs to the community, or introducing healthy foods to people who don’t normally have access to it, then people wouldn’t be asking questions. But then it wouldn’t be getting the positive attention.”

Optimism is a hard sell these days. As much as everyone is rooting for LocoL to be a success, there’s also an instinctual drive to seek out the cracks. “The start-up world runs the gamut between complete bullshit and something approaching altruism,” says former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, who has been keeping an eye on LocoL. “I’m pretty sure they’re closer to the altruism side.” The truth is that Choi and Patterson don’t know if they can pull it off, either. But, they say, it’s better to do something than nothing.

“Everyone wants the answer. They want us to have the solution,” says Choi. “But we don’t have a solution. We’re just trying to feed and take care of people. If we’re not perfect at the beginning, well, fuck it, man. We’re a year old. Give it time.”

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