West Long Beach is a sliver of a working-class neighborhood squeezed between the 710 freeway and the industrial wasteland that is the Port of Los Angeles. Isolated from the cities that surround it by truck routes, railroad tracks and warehouses, West Long Beach relies on its single main drag, Santa Fe Avenue, on which you’ll find most of the area’s restaurants, schools, government buildings and religious institutions.
5000 Pies opened on Santa Fe in September in a small retail storefront across from Cabrillo High School. With a sleek modern logo and an affordable menu that includes neighborhood rarities like nutella hand pies, build-your-own salads and Chicago-inspired deep-dish pizzas, the little takeout spot quickly became one of West Long Beach’s most buzzed-about eateries.
City Hall employees make the drive up during lunchtime for sandwiches and salads. Teenagers pour in after school and order Jaguar Fries, topped with buffalo sauce and blue cheese. Families come by during dinnertime to pick up deep-dish pies that require a 45-minute wait. And people down on their luck have wandered past begging for change, only to be given one of 5000 Pies’ $5 personal-sized pizzas, which are made with house-leavened dough and, according to executive chef Michael Martinez, “lots of love.”
“This is not a typical restaurant,” says Martinez, who spent much of his own youth in and out of jail before he attended Le Cordon Bleu and started a career in the restaurant industry. “My boss always says we can make the best pizza in town, but if we didn’t transform lives in the process, we failed.”
Martinez’s boss is his pastor, John Teter, who along with his wife, Becky Teter, founded West Long Beach’s Fountain of Life Covenant Church almost nine years ago. 5000 Pies is owned by the church (Becky is CEO) and is part of its arsenal, but it’s not your typical Christian outreach effort — nor is it your average pizzeria.
With a culinary training program that provides skills and jobs for young members of its congregation, 5000 Pies is one of a handful of food-centered businesses in L.A. that double as social enterprises — for-profit companies created to tackle a social problem. Though there is no legal definition for social enterprises, they are typically understood as differing from a traditional businesses in that the main goal is not maximization of profits but keeping the doors open to improve the well-being of its customers and employees.
“There are a lot of business that, in some way, give back to the community and want to call themselves a social enterprise, but they’re not primarily organized around solving a social problem,” says Betsy Densmore, a board member at the 5-year-old Los Angeles chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance, who has made a career out of consulting with social entrepreneurs. “I spend my time coaching actual social enterprises because businesses that have decided to use commercial means to help solve a social problem are a special breed, and they need support. It definitely makes things much more complicated.”
For some nonprofits, a for-profit social enterprise business can be a way to earn income without asking for donations or writing grants. For others, the business itself solves the problem as a nonprofit would, but without the need for fundraising.
“I know what it’s like to run a restaurant, and I appreciate people who run a social enterprise as a restaurant,” says Densmore, who is also part owner of two Mexican restaurants. “Oftentimes new restaurant owners come in thinking they’re going to start a restaurant and make money and employ people and it will all be good. But the truth is that no matter what, most of us lose money for a long time in the beginning.”
Strong Food, which pursues large food-service contracts, is a well-known social enterprise of L.A. Kitchen, a culinary training nonprofit that recently moved into a 20,000-square-foot community kitchen in Lincoln Heights. Homeboy Industries owns the largest and perhaps most recognizable crop of the food-based social enterprises in L.A., in part because the public can purchase meals and see the workforce training in action at its restaurants and cafes scattered around the city.
Over the last three years, however, L.A. has seen an increase in smaller, neighborhood-based social enterprises that operate food-service storefronts that are easy to mistake for just another new business.
In addition to 5000 Pies, there is 3 Worlds Cafe in South L.A., a coffee shop partially founded by chef Roy Choi, which serves healthy snacks while employing students from Jefferson High School. Manifesto Cafe, which initially intended to open on Skid Row, was a short-lived coffee shop social enterprise that operated in Hermon in Northeast L.A. It closed in September after more than a year in business.
And in a few months, With Love L.A. will open as a market, cafe and learning center on Vermont Avenue, in a part of town that straddles underserved neighborhoods including Pico-Union, Exposition Park and Harvard Heights. Though not technically food deserts according to the FDA’s definition, the neighborhoods are served by only two grocery stores — both of which are owned by the same company — yet are home to more than 120,000 residents.
“There’s no place to get good food. I know that because I live here,” says Andrew McDowell, CEO of With Love L.A. “If one company is controlling all the food in a neighborhood, they control the health of the neighborhood. The ecosystem here for healthy food access is all wonky.”
McDowell, along with a dozen other community organizers and social justice advocates, formulated the vision for With Love after going door to door, asking neighbors about what needs a market could fill. They kept hearing that people really wanted access to nutrition education; not everyone knew how to be healthy.
So why not just start a nonprofit that provides that education?
“You can teach people to do a lot of stuff, but where are they going to shop?” McDowell says.
Once open, With Love’s expansive space between a thrift store and a dance hall will be a place to sit and relax with your morning joe, grab some vegetables to cook for dinner or take a class on how to make kale chips taste like your favorite bag of Takis.
Out front, there are new trees, new bike racks are on the way, and the group even got the local parking restrictions changed to encourage people to stay longer. In a loft area where the classroom is being built, McDowell hopes to install some donated computers, to give people who don’t have their own a safe place to connect to the internet.
“We’re trying to make it a space that feels like home,” he says. “When it feels like home, you let your guard down a little. When you let your guard down, real relationships can happen and real knowledge gets absorbed. We know we need to create that because it doesn't exist in our community.”