A piece of wisdom off Slauson Avenue

By Daniella Segura

“Greetings friend,” said Mr. Wisdom, as a customer came through the door.

“Hey Mr. Wisdom, my brother! How are you today?,” said Perry Payton.

“Oh, I’m just trying to be as good as you,” said Mr. Wisdom, with a broad smile.

imageMr. Wisdom

For the past 25 years, the Jamaican native, who goes by the name Mr. Wisdom, has been serving specialty vegan food in South Los Angeles within the Hyde Park community, urging native residents to eat health and try his diet and cleanses.

“Some people, they call me Doctor Wisdom after I help them get healthier, and I have to correct them,” said Mr. Wisdom. “I am not a medicinal doctor. I am more like a nutritionist.”

The man who runs Mr. Wisdom’s Specialty Health Food Store refuses to reveal his real name, and is known to his customers by the shop’s moniker.

He started his business to promote, Hare Krishna, the common name for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness movement that is based in Hinduism.

He calls his business “Mr. Wisdom” in reference to Krishna, the god of the Hare Krishna religion, and said that Krishna is the real “Mr. Wisdom.”

Those who follow the Hare Krishna religion are strict vegans who do not eat meat or dairy products.

“In Hare Krishna, you realize animals are conscious,” said Mr. Wisdom. “They feel pain like you and I. In my religion, it is against the law of nature to cause pain or suffering to any living creature.”

Raised in Jamaica, Mr. Wisdom joined the British Army when he was 18. At the time, Jamaica was still an English colony.

“I wanted to find out what made the world tick,” he said.

After spending six years in the British Army, Mr. Wisdom stayed in England to get into the entertainment business because he wanted to “sing, dance and perform.”

In spite of his efforts, he never reached his dream, saying that the business was too competitive. So, he moved back to Jamaica and lived there for the next three years.

Still on the quest for success and adventure, Mr. Wisdom moved to the U.S. in the 1970s. After struggling to manage a gas station for a few years, he began searching for answers.

“I wanted to know why some people were so successful and other people, who were as equally talented, were not successful,” he said.

He looked to self-help books and different religions, but eventually found his answer in Hare Krishna, which he has followed for over the past 40 years.

Mr. Wisdom explained that after finding Hare Krishna, he wanted to do something for the community by selling healthier food and spreading the word about his religion. Yet, he did not have a place to do it. Instead, he sold items like wheatgrass from the back of a travel trailer, which also served as his home.

imageOne day a sick woman came to him for help, Mr. Wisdom said. He helped her improve her diet, which then improved her health. Once she recovered, she came back to Mr. Wisdom to ask what she could to do repay him.

“I said, ‘If you know how to buy real estate you can help me,'” he said, as he was preparing food. “She helped me get my own place. That’s why I always say the location chose me.”

Michael, who did not want to give his last name, helps Mr. Wisdom with his office work and has known him for the past ten years. He said that Mr. Wisdom’s work inspires him.

“Krishna and Krishna consciousness are why he does the work he does,” Michael said.

“That’s his motivation to go in and do his work every morning,” he added, while finishing a plate of Mr. Wisdom’s curry vegetable.

As he scurries around his store preparing meals for customers, Mr. Wisdom appears much younger than his age.

“I forgot to make more rice,” Mr. Wisdom said to one of his customers. “But it’s okay. You know why? I always got a back up.”

The store’s quaint interior contrasts with the congested Slauson Avenue outside.

The room is filled by Hare Krishna music coming from his TV, which sounds like faint chants of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” Meanwhile, the humming of his wheatgrass juicer also plays in the background as he makes a smoothie for one of his customers.

The aroma of Indian curry and spices can be smelled throughout the store.

Many regular customers have grown close to Mr. Wisdom. Payton, who works nearby, comes to Mr. Wisdom’s store every day, since January.

“[He’s] a very warm person with a caring heart and has the time to talk with you if you need help,” said Payton. “We need more places like this out here.”

Laron Maull, who has been a customer for the past six years, said he thinks Mr. Wisdom is doing the community a favor by offering them healthier eating options.

“[Mr. Wisdom’s] a cool guy,” Maull said. “When you find something like this, you continue to come.”

Maull currently works as a high school counselor, and said he stops by the store whenever he gets the chance.

Mr. Wisdom said he plans to expand his store by adding another building next door.

“I’m hoping the expansion will help my store take off,” said Mr. Wilson. “After that, I want to go back to Jamaica and start another store there.”

Southside Stories: A melting pot of healthy flavors

This story is part of a semester-long project by USC Annenberg students spotlighting South LA. Stories featured on Intersections South LA have been written by students in USC Professor Robert Hernandez’s class. See more Southside Stories here.

By Ivana Banh

Walk into any restaurant on Slauson Avenue and you will most likely be offered greasy fried chicken, Chinese food, flavored with monosodium glutamate, or some sort of burger dripping with bacon grease.

Simply Wholesome is different.

The bright green building boasts glowing lights, floor-to-ceiling windows and a welcoming vibe. Inside the spacious restaurant, regulars are greeted with hugs from Owner Percell Keeling and the young staff. image

Upbeat jazz music plays loudly while blenders whip up protein shakes. The air is scented with blend of sweet potatoes, spices and freshly baked vegan cake.

As a former Redondo Beach health nut with a passion for distance running, Keeling knows what the human body needs to function properly. When he moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, he immediately discovered that very few health-conscious restaurants existed.

The majority of South Los Angeles was African-American and tended to serve artery-clogging Southern meals. Keeling was often forced to drive out to South Bay, Hollywood or Marina Del Rey for more nutritious food.

His exasperation with junk food in the area would lead to something much bigger. One day, while he was voicing his complaints, a friend suggested he open his own restaurant. At the time, any type of establishment offering foods that were not deep-fried and bacon-adorned was practically unheard of.

“Everyone was saying to open the restaurant further west because black people don’t eat healthy,” Keeling said. “But I’m black and I eat healthy!”

In 1981, Keeling opened Simply Wholesome. For the first few years, the 1,000 square-foot restaurant offered a small selection of healthy sandwiches, salads and pastries. As the fan base rapidly grew, Keeling knew he had to expand in order to accommodate the diners. In 1995, he bought a 5,000 square-foot 1950s-style diner. He renovated the building to construct a dining area and a small health market.

Keeling and his staff work to ensure that the market is always stocked with organic cereals, frozen meals, coconut water and probiotic drinks. In addition, the market carries African-American hair product lines like Mixed Chicks and Kinky-Curly. Shoppers can also browse a wide selection of cookbooks and health literature.

Simply Wholesome’s extensive menu offers more choices than most health food restaurants. Many mistake Simply Wholesome as a purely vegan restaurant, but Keeling assures that meat dishes are also available. Their specialities include flaky Caribbean pastries filled with spiced chicken and vegetables, enchiladas, veggie burgers and hearty breakfasts. Those who prefer a more traditional meal often choose the “Down Home Sunday Dinner,” which consists of battered or grilled tofu, chicken or fish, candied yams, greens, rice and corn bread.

As for the beverage menu, 45 different protein shakes and smoothies are available. Rather than using premixed blends full of sugar and artificial flavorings, Simply Wholesome opts for fresh fruit, soy milk and coconut juice. Customers often pay a few extra cents for add-ons such as wheat germ, bee pollen and ginseng.

“All our shakes are made from fresh, real ingredients so they’re not bland like the other juice places out there,” Keeling said. “It may cost more to do it this way, but the return in business volume is all worth it.”

Simply Wholesome’s large and devoted fan base has proven Keeling’s business theories correct. The restaurant is now more than a convenient stop for those passing through the South Los Angeles area; Keeling has met diners from dozens of miles away that make Simply Wholesome their breakfast, lunch or dinner destination.

The restaurant may sit in a predominantly African-American area of Los Angeles, but it receives customers of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Over time, the menu has also been influenced by the diversities in the Los Angeles community. Caribbean, American, Mexican and African flavors work together to create Simply Wholesome’s plethora of healthy selections.

“This place is like a melting pot, the energy here – everyone is one when they come through the doors,” Keeling said. “Everyone is cool.”

The Pasadena and the University of Southern California communities have encouraged Keeling to open Simply Wholesome locations in their neighborhoods, but he declined their offers.

When it comes to expanding his business, Keeling prefers to do so in a unique building, not a cookie-cutter spot in a strip mall. The down-to-earth owner prefers to keep it simple rather than opening several mediocre locations, and he chooses to provide quality service and food in one hot spot.

His goal is to foster an environment in which both his customers and staff feel comfortable and at home.

Inglewood restaurant offers meat-free meals in a sea of fast food options

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News

imageLatisha Jordan stands in front of the grill at Stuff I Eat heating up some tortillas.

“I’m making mixed tacos,” she explains. “There’s wild rice and tofu mixed together, with S.I.E. [Stuff I Eat] sauce and with medium, mild, or spicy salsa, and then kale with carrot mango dressing.”

Jordan works for her aunt and uncle at Stuff I Eat, the only vegan restaurant in Inglewood with her cousin Danielle Horton. Both cousins are vegan for health reasons.

Horton went from a size 18/22 to size 8 after giving up meat, she says. “It was seeing my family members, my mom, my dad, some of my cousins, all overweight, having diabetes, high blood pressure at an early age, I was headed in that direction.”

The Center for Disease and Control reports that the African American community has an obesity rate of 36 percent, which is higher than either Hispanics or whites.

Horton saw an alternative in her aunt and uncle, Ron and Babette Davis, who opened Stuff I Eat in 2008. They see themselves as missionaries of a vegan diet in a neighborhood full of fast food restaurants, she says.

“People were always saying why did you guys open up in Inglewood? You guys would make a killing in Santa Monica or Venice, but we live here, so we thought this would be a good place to have a healthy alternative for our community,” Horton says.

Not everyone in the community is convinced.

“We’ve had people walk in and walk right out,” Horton says. “But a lot of it is still it’s the breaking through the habits and traditions that have been passed down. That’s the big main challenge. People think they can’t live without meat.”

Customer Makeda Cowan is trying to learn to be a strict vegetarian for health reasons, but she says the food also just tastes good.

“My favorite when I come is the something-something, which is a variety of almost everything, and I like it spicy,” Cowan says. “The community needs it. There’s too many people sick and obese, and it’s because of fast food, not knowing what to eat. It’s old school to me, it’s how I grew up. I didn’t have my first burger until I was 22 and I didn’t like it.”

Vegans still may be rare in the African American community, but Stuff I Eat has found its niche. It is opening an event space next door to the restaurant in 2012.