Roy Choi on Building a Humane Restaurant Business

Roy Choi, along with business partner chef Daniel Patterson, wants to change the perception of fast food in the country while serving an underserved population. He spoke at Recode’s Code Conference with Eater editor-at-large Helen Rosner about the future of Locol, the fast food restaurant with locations currently in Watts, Los Angeles, and West Oakland.

Locol was recently named the Restaurant of the Year by the Los Angeles Times. Why? Because it’s different. “The standard for what a ‘restaurant of the year’ is has to include social mission, purpose, identity, life, and the journey itself,” says Choi. He’s vocal about that journey, because beyond the pressure of selling food and meeting expectations levied by journalists and bloggers outside of the communities Locol serves, the restaurant is meant to be a vehicle for more change. “I don’t want to wake up 20 years from now and see our inner cities and communities in the same place they are today,” he says. “I don’t know how much a hamburger shop is going to change things, but I know something is better than nothing.”

Change and adaptation is built into Locol’s DNA. In the short year-and-a-half lifespan of the restaurant, Choi and Patterson have iterated on the menu in response to the community. “We can’t do anything but listen,” he says, admitting at first the duo was “too chef-y” with a menu that included charred scallion relish and lime-fermented mayo.

Choi doesn’t dance around the challenge of building a sustainable business in communities that have little money to spend, and admits Locol doesn’t make money. But that doesn’t deter the mission — in fact, it inspires him. Locol may have started with the “old-fashioned transaction” of a burger joint, but he believes its mission has become larger than the transaction. Ultimately, Choi would like to see Locol locations in underprivileged communities across the country, growing the business slowly and deliberately through a mix of community support and the best of intentions.

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