Ajay Relan is one of those rare guys who give a shit. One of the co-founders of #hashtaglunchbag, the restaurant entrepreneur has created a national movement that has fed thousands of hungry people in need of a meal and an inspirational message.
Relan is fearless in his commitment to make a difference to his community, opening Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen in South Los Angeles with his business partner, Yonnie Hagos.
The dynamic duo, who grew up in the area, also run popular Melrose Avenue sports bar the Parlor.
“We have been successful in West Hollywood for a number of years, and as we were thinking about growing our business, it occurred to us that a lot of our time was being spent in coffee places like this," Relan tells L.A. Weekly. "They are on every block in Venice, or Santa Monica, in the Arts District or West Hollywood, but not here.”
There are a few staple restaurants in Hilltop's View Park-Windsor Hills neighborhood (Simply Wholesome, for example, is right across the street), but there aren't any quality places to get coffee, Relan says.
“I would ask people here, ‘Where do you get your coffee?’ and they said, ‘7-Eleven.’ There is not even a Starbucks here. You can’t help but wonder why someone hadn’t done that yet. It was kind of obvious to us it was time.”
While the idea of opening a coffee shop in South Los Angeles sounds “kinda crazy,” what it means to the area, to the regulars who come in, was of utmost importance to both Relan and Hagos.
“This becomes a part of their daily life," Relan says. "Part of our mission is to be able to create an inclusive, energetic space that provides a hub for the local community, with Wi-Fi and good coffee. In this way, they don’t have to go downtown or to another area to get their needs met.”
Hagos wanted local creatives and community leaders to come together and share ideas. "A place where everyone felt included and a vibe that was a catalyst for inspiration," he says. "We all wake up every morning with our very own hilltops that we have to climb; the goals we are striving toward and the obstacles we must overcome in order to reach them. We like to think we provide the fuel and the good vibes to keep going.”
Working to create that vibe is veteran chef Jason Fullilove.
“We were working next door to his Barbara Jean pop-up and became friends," Relan says. "We tapped him to become part of our new venture, and are so excited working with him.”
Fullilove had a unique vision in creating the menu. “I wanted to do very approachable coffee shop/cafe foods but put my twist on a few dishes, so they were undoubtedly mine.”
The Soul Bowl is “hands down” Fullilove’s favorite item on the menu. The dish is made with grits, braised greens, charred cream corn, poached farm egg and herbs.
“I’ve been working on getting my restaurant concept, Barbara Jean, for over two years now, when they approached me about Hilltop. This bowl is me putting a little of that Barbara Jean flavor on the menu,” he enthuses.
“And I know Ajay is a big fan of the olive oil–poached tuna melt droptop, with capers, lemon aioli, tomato and provolone, along with the Nutella beignets!”
Fullilove has been cheffing all over L.A.
“We just opened Barbara Jean in the new LAFC food hall, I have a Mediterranean restaurant concept named El Oso (formerly El Cid) in Silver Lake, and do a lot of catering and special events.”
L.A. Kitchen founder Robert Egger, who runs a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care and incarceration, is a close friend and mentor of Relan, and a board member for #HashtagLunchbag.
Relan and Egger hope that Fullilove will be able to hire someone from the program. “I’m very early in the process but I’m going to make it happen,” the chef says.
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Hilltop also has some celebrity power behind it: Spencer Paysinger, who grew up not far from the restaurant, is a partner in the new venture. As a young man, the former NFL player commuted to Beverly Hills High School, where he captained the football team.
“This restaurant gives clean healthy options which are sourced locally, and I think our neighborhood could truly benefit,” Paysinger says.
A television series about the culture shock Paysinger experienced in Beverly Hills is the story for All American, debuting Oct. 10 on The CW. That should bring even more attention to Hilltop.
If you are interested in volunteering and/or donating, the next #HashtagLunchbagLA is this Saturday, Aug. 25, at the Parlor at 10 a.m.