The 2008 Recession nearly killed her dream, but ten years after a scheduled launch, Yealang Smith’s Soul Hollywood is open for business. We spoke with chef/owner Yealang Smith about what went wrong, how she kept her head in the game, and who helped her along the way.
Yealang Smith is showing guests around her brand new restaurant, Soul, and her smile is contagious. The tour starts on the glamorous main floor before moving up an elegant flight of stairs to the mezzanine, where the warming smells of fried chicken, cornbread, and smoked meats that beckoned you into the establishment now follow. “Now this level is entirely new. You know, we wanted to build a mezzanine for the extra seats, but permits were a nightmare. Honey, we were dealing with documents from the 20’s. A nightmare.” She walks slowly and systematically, pointing out her favorite features and casting her vision for the space with a voice like honey. It’s going to be a haven for the late Hollywood crowd; much more art, dim lights, “Imagine it. Very sexy.” A secluded space in the back will be developed as a VIP lounge area. The tour takes an unexpected diversion into a small, extra restroom, conveniently accessible for mezzanine-seated diners, where Chef Smith pauses in front of the sink, backed by a floor-to-ceiling mirror, and gestures, beaming toward a single, large light fixture protruding from the center of the mirror. “I know how important it is for us ladies to have good light in a bathroom to fix our makeup. I absolutely love this light. Don’t you?” Her satisfaction is enormous, and you can’t help but agree. The light is warm and clear. It’s perfect.
A light fixture in a bathroom in an out-of-the-way corner of a restaurant isn’t the most obvious thing for an established chef/owner to dwell on, but when you’ve been battling for a decade to open your dream restaurant, you need to be able to find gratification along the way; to take pride in the small things.
Chef Smith’s mother was an artist and high school guidance counselor who taught her how to make authentic soul food without (somehow, impossibly) relying on staples like lard and crisco, using healthier alternatives to enhance the flavors in other ways. When Smith started her professional career as a caterer, nobody knew her. She wasn’t from the industry. She’d studied poli-sci at Howard. As far as anyone knew, she was just someone’s friend, bringing food to a baby shower. (That first day, she served Louisiana-style fried chicken; macaroni and cheese; kale, mustard and collard greens; red beans and rice.) But the food was good, really good, and that’s what mattered. Word travelled fast after that, and before Smith knew it, she was catering music video shoots for Tupac, Snoop, Biggie and more. By the early 2000’s she had her first brick and mortar, Soul Folks Cafe, located on Imperial Street in LA’s Arts District. Smith fed everybody there; celebrity and homeless alike. It was an experience that kept people coming back. The tastes, the smells, the company, and of course Chef Smith herself.
You can’t keep an experience like that secret for long. In 2006 a couple of developers stopped in for lunch, (Organic fried chicken, red beans and brown rice, corn bread, wilted collard greens and peach cobbler for dessert), and to make a proposal. There was an empty building on Hollywood Blvd, a block from the Chinese Theater. They wanted her to fill it. 6000 square feet in an historic building would be all hers. She said yes.
You can go back and read articles, now ten years old, about the buzz that Soul’s imminent openings created. Chef Smith had an irresistible vision of bringing her trademark recipes to Hollywood – proving on a larger stage that soul food can be both mouthwatering and health conscious. After taking a month to put a team together, Smith was in business. In February 2007, the conditional use permits were approved and an investor followed shortly. Now it was time to put some skin in the game – $100,000 that came from the sale of her downtown property. By July 2007 they were ready to go into full construction mode, just waiting for the restaurant permits to get greenlit.
It seemed like they ran into every obstacle imaginable, but her team was up to the task. Eventually, she partnered with the Southern California Restaurant Design Group (SCRDG) to finally execute the vision she’d curated. They oversaw the installation of the 1600 square foot mezzanine and built out the state-of-the-art kitchen, wiring a 90-year old building to support modern equipment while dealing with the confines of a historical use permit – a task made all the more difficult by the fact that the building had been sitting empty for three decades prior. It was all but derelict.
“The folks from SCRDG weren’t greedy, that’s what I liked,” says Smith. “I wasn’t prepared for how much greed I encountered when we were receiving bids. Contractors’ eyes lit up with dollar signs when they saw the zip code. It was Vegas pricing.”
But SCRDG was competitive, and moreso, they factored into their bid the fact that Smith and her team already possessed some of the necessary equipment. Most of the other bidders insisted on charging for the use of newly purchased equipment, even when unnecessary.
Back then, hype was building and local outlets confidently predicted a summer 2008 opening. The dream was coming to life.
It was all very clear, in retrospect, that economy was about to collapse. But back then, no one saw it coming. Suddenly it was January, 2008, and the country was going through a tough time. People couldn’t pay their mortgages. Banks were panicking, including Smith’s. They called in her construction loan. The money was frozen, and it would stay that way for a very long time.
It was two years of agony before Smith and her team could touch the property again, and the next eight years were a war of attrition. Smith’s own money was still locked up. She moved into her parents basement.
Every small step forward was a victory. The installation of a light fixture was worth celebrating.
Chef Smith is eager to share how she was able to stay focused and motivated through the ordeal. “First, I knew I wasn’t the only person dealing with obstacles. I would meditate on that; pay attention and learn from others. But I never stopped believing. I believed in my heart that what I was doing was awesome and necessary. I was very clear that I was bringing something forward that did not exist. It’s much tougher when you’re just trying to copy someone else’s concept.”
Did she make any mistakes on the way? She pauses before answering this, choosing her words carefully. “I would say that I signed certain contracts too quickly because I was anxious. Some things I should have sat on for a week, or done a better job of letting other people read them. Some of it is so overwhelming, you just let yourself make certain decisions out of fear. I should have stepped back sometimes.”
At the end of the day, though, she’s overwhelmed with gratitude for the times she did rely on the expertise of others. Her investor saw the project through to the light of day, the team stuck it out, and SCRDG continued to be the right partner for the job. “They were patient as the job had to adjust, and they were with us every step of the way. Through literally thousands of emails back and forth, they were able to accommodate all of our needs.”
It is September, 2017, and after ten years of struggle, Soul has finally opened for its soft-launch. It feels like a lifetime, but Smith is only getting started. There’s not a trace of bitterness or defeat in her voice. Her dream finally came true. The light fixture is perfect. And the food? The food is as good as ever. (The night’s dinner included fried chicken, biscuits, barbeque ribs, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and chocolate cake for dessert.)
In many ways, the story of Soul is the story of America – a catastrophe in 2008 and a decade fighting back. But the story of Soul is really the story of Yealang Smith: one black woman who grew up on the west side of LA. Its journey is her journey. Its struggle is her struggle. It is her heart. It is her Soul.
So what’s going to make it a success? Smith replies with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“You’ll just have to come see it, taste it, and experience it for yourself. Then tell me if I’m wrong.”