A South Los Angeles favorite starts from scratch

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Twenty-five years ago, Duane Earle was a teenage boy who wanted to be a rapper. He did some good work; he had a hit helping out on Ice Cube’s “Wicked.”

Now, he works six days a week at Earle’z Grille at Exposition and Crenshaw boulevards. Lining the walls are advertisements for local businesses, as you would see on a subway. There is a flat-screen television tuned to the game, and there are really nice women manning the register. These women serve cobblers, miniature sweet potato pies and cold drinks. Behind them, customers can wave at Earle and his fellow cooks, who are joking around and greeting at least half the customers by name.

“I know guys who went to jail, and they come out and say, ‘Oh my god, Earle, I remember when you had a hot dog cart, and now look at this place, it’s incredible!'” Earle said. “And they shed tears, I wouldn’t even lie.”

Earle and his brother started the South Los Angeles favorite in 1992, moving to the current Crenshaw Boulevard location three years ago. They employ eight or 10 people onsite now, with a dozen more people on call for catering gigs on the Westside. But first there was the cart.

“My brother built his first hot dog cart,” Earle said. “He was going down the beach on Venice Beach, saw a bunch of guys working on the beach, and said he can do that. Doing a hot dog cart was as much freedom as possible. So, I came out here when I was 17, partnered up, Batman and Robin, we were living in the Valley, and we set up in the parking lot at what was called the Crenshaw Swap Meet, one of the roughest neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles. I left New York when I was 17, I dropped out of high school, but do you know I have served more than one million people? And I know close to half a million people personally?”

And now they are serving two or three hundred people a day.

The crowds are not at Earle’z Grille just because of the good food and the low prices; it is $1.25 for the chili dog of the day. Earle said the restaurant is one of the best places for vegetarian and vegan food for students and the large local Muslim population. And he also said the crowds come because of thoughtful touches he and his brother started to incorporate from the very beginning, including a butterflied hot dog that was easier on the teeth of the elderly.

But in 1992, when they were building their restaurant with proceeds from their cart, it was not so rosy.

“We had a cart, so it wasn’t like we went and got a bank loan,” Earle said. “It was a cash/cash only. And unfortunately for a lot of businesses, minority businesses in the community, it’s like that. Every day for two and a half years, my brother put that restaurant together. Once the riots hit, we watched them loot down the block, and the fire started coming toward us. In fact, the fire hit our building! We were in the building with firefighters, knocking the fire out. That’s the wildest thing! I remember being across the street with my brother, we’re both on the phone calling my mother and grandmother in New York, and we’re both crying, telling them the city is blazing, and we’re watching our hard-earned thing just go up in smoke, and we’re watching our own people burn it down. This is what we had to deal with. And then when they finally save it, the place is gutted, what insurance?”

And so they started from scratch.

But today, there are about 200 or 300 people waiting to buy a hot dog.

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