A popular Phoenix-based soul food restaurant is going into Oak Park's 40 Acres retail complex next summer, bringing another destination dining spot to the once-blighted, now-burgeoning neighborhood.
The announcement follows more than two years of negotiations between the owner of Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles and the St. Hope economic development/education organization founded by former Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Jake Mossawir, CEO and president of St. Hope Community Development Corp., said targeting Lo-Lo's for the 40 Acres space was a no-brainer.
"First off, the food is delicious," he said, noting that soul food offerings are hard to find in the city. Another plus: Lo-Lo's is a minority-owned company that fits well with the history and culture of the Oak Park area.
"This allows us to bring another restaurant here ... that reflects the demographics of the neighborhood and retains the soul of the neighborhood," Mossawir said.
The deal secures a long-sought, full-service restaurant for 40 Acres, which opened in 2003 at Broadway and 35th Street following a rehab of the old Woodruff Hotel building. And it represents a big step in St. Hope's efforts to become a self-sustaining organization that is no longer dependent on grants and donations to meet its operational costs, Mossawir said.
The Lo-Lo's restaurant will go into a 3,500-square-foot space next to Bastille Barbers in the 40 Acres project that also includes an Old Soul coffee shop, Underground Books and the Guild Theater as well as 12 second-floor apartments. The future restaurant area — which also has about 3,000 square feet of patio space — once was occupied by an art gallery and currently is being used by a co-working business.
The plan is to start tenant improvements on that space in December or January and open the new restaurant by Memorial Day 2019, said Larry White, Lo-Lo's founder. The build-out costs will be about $1 million.
A Phoenix native, White grew up working in his grandmother's soul food restaurant, Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe, and opened his first Lo-Lo's in 2002.
The chain — a popular spot for visiting athletes and entertainers — now has five locations in the Phoenix area, a franchised unit in Southlake, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth and another in Las Vegas. One more is planned in Albuquerque, N.M., in addition to the Sacramento operation.
As at other Lo-Lo's restaurants, the local operation will feature fast-casual dining with a full bar and an expansive menu of classic and not-so-classic Southern comfort foods, with colorful names such as Malaysia's focheezy juicy hood burger, the Phat azz samich and Stupid fries — potatoes topped with chicken, gravy and onions, green and red peppers and cheese.
This is not a place for calorie counters. Breakfast offerings include red velvet, Oreo and pineapple upside-down pancakes.
Among the main lunch and dinner entrees: fried catfish, salmon croquettes, blackened redfish with sides such as collard greens, fried green tomatoes, grits, macaroni and cheese and sauteed squash.
But White, whose nickname growing up was "Lo-Lo," said the company's signature dish clearly is chicken and waffles, offered in more than a dozen combinations. "That's what we're famous for," he said. He's also partial to another Lo-Lo's specialty: "Uncle Brotha's shrimp and grits."
"You start with bacon crumbles sweated on a skillet, add scallions, then shrimp and mushrooms and let all the flavors marry together," he said. The dish is topped off with melted cheddar cheese and served over grits.
White, never given to understatement, describes Lo-Lo's as something of a culinary theme park for adults. "We take our children to Disneyland for all the excitement and oohs and aahs," he said. His place, he added, "is a Disneyland trip for the palate."
"We have something that's so delicious we just want to share it with everybody," White said, noting that his goal is to make Lo-Lo's a national and perhaps international brand.
Besides the food, Lo-Lo's is known for its multicultural appeal, said Montgomery Coleman, a Phoenix native who has worked with St. Hope in the past and is the franchisee of the Sacramento eatery.
"I love the food, the service, the experience," said Coleman, who heard about the first Lo-Lo's after he returned to Phoenix following a stint in the Air Force. "But best of all, it brings cultures together. You find people in there from every walk enjoying themselves."
The lease with Lo-Lo's is the latest in a flurry of recent deals that are bringing better financial footing to the St. Hope organization, according to Mossawir. Since late 2016, the nonprofit has acquired two buildings near the corner of Broadway and Alhambra Boulevard and filled them with reliable tenants.
One is occupied by the Asian-Pacific Chamber of Commerce, the Oak Park office of the Urban League and Nehemiah Community Foundation. The other serves as offices for two national education nonprofits — College Track and Teach for America — that work with students in the St. Hope-backed charter schools, Sacramento High School, PS 7 and Oak Park Prep.
"Now when you come into Oak Park (from the west), the first thing you see is (a focus on) education. That's what this neighborhood stands for," Mossawir said. "And that means a great deal to us."
Another deal now in the works will be the relocation of Valley Vision, a civic leadership group. It will move from 2320 Broadway into St. Hope's current 6,000-square-foot headquarters building at 3400 Third Ave., a block from 40 Acres, following a renovation of that space set to be completed in July.
Bill Mueller, Valley Vision's chief executive, said the move provides more space for the growing organization and places it closer to other nonprofits that it works with, including the Sacramento Food Bank.
"This is just an incredible neighborhood where wonderful things are happening," he said.
St. Hope, in turn, is looking for new space for its headquarters and is considering a move to the ground floor of the Arbors Oak Park, a senior living center at Broadway and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The idea, Mossawir said, is to have the same kind of catalytic effect there that St. Hope achieved when it concentrated development around 40 Acres 15 years ago, turning what was then a "nefarious" area into one that is now a magnet for hip stores, restaurants and living spaces.
The various deals have moved St. Hope close to its "ultimate goal" of supporting all of its operations through its own income and investments, Mossawir said. The group should hit that milestone by next summer, he said.
Not that it plans to give up fundraising. Those efforts will add extra revenue for St. Hope schools and other community efforts.
Mossawir said being self-sustaining will allow for longer-term planning and independence from the sometimes-changing requirements of donors.
"We want to be captains of our own ship," he said.