As Los Angeles enters the new year in the midst of a second pandemic lockdown, with new COVID-19 cases continuing to surge and local hospital ICUs reaching capacity, Downtown businesses and restaurants again face an uncertain abyss.
That said, if we have learned anything over the circuitous and confusing course of the last nine months, it is the vital importance of community.
It seems unlikely that a humble breakfast and lunch joint in the Flower District would emerge as one of the most engaged and effective community stakeholders through the ongoing course of the pandemic. But indeed, Poppy + Rose and the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Kwini Reed have provided a striking community example and some worthy inspiration for us as we all move into the year ahead.
“We try to see the need and then try to fill it,” Kwini said.
As reported here and elsewhere, through their efforts at Poppy + Rose, the couple has partnered with over a dozen local nonprofits and distributed upward of 3,000 meals, many of them to residents of nearby Skid Row and local front-line workers and responders.
A cheery, sunlit, 60-seat café, Poppy + Rose opened on Wall Street in the Flower District six years ago, when chef Michael Reed partnered with food truck operator Ryan Lamon to relocate his catering operation—The Root of All Food—and Lamon’s prep spot to a more expansive and affordable kitchen.
“We found this spot that was not as pretty as you might want, close to Skid Row, but it was a fully functioning kitchen, and the landlord at the flower market was very reasonable,” Michael said.
“So, we started to figure out how to serve the community.”
Because the flower market typically opened at 2 a.m., an early morning breakfast-and-lunch operation seemed the obvious choice for a daytime retail outlet, while the kitchen provided prep and staging for catering and the food truck in the afternoons and evenings.
It should also be noted that at the same time, the classically trained Michael was serving as executive chef for The Standard in West Hollywood. There, he met Kwini, who was serving as The Standard’s accounting manager. The couple married in June 2017, and they secured full ownership of Poppy + Rose in August 2019. Kwini serves as chief operating officer of the restaurant as well as the catering operation, The Root of All Food, which serves as their holding company.
As of the middle of March, her title could also be community outreach organizer. On the advent of the initial lockdown, the early morning activity at the flower market abruptly ground to a halt.
“We started to see a lot of homeless people sleep out on our street specifically,” Kwini said. “We had about 10 people camping out on our street. We would have leftovers of stuff we didn’t sell that day that was just technically going to the trash. So, we started passing that out to the people.”
They also devoted part of the dining area to a neighborhood convenience mart, supplying necessities made scarce by the initial pandemic hoarding.
In the wake of the June protests, spurred by the death of George Floyd and the subsequent widespread local circulation of the list of Black-owned restaurants, business at Poppy + Rose surged considerably.
“It steadied our revenue out,” Kwini said. “It allowed us to level off. We know what our numbers are and know how to plan for the week. It’s extremely consistent. So, we had started to steady out, and we wanted to pay it forward.”
Soon after, a regular customer offered to sponsor meal donations.
“We picked up Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and we donated our first 150 meals. From there the Drew Medical testing center reached out and we did another 150 meals to them. (We said,) ‘OK, this is the part we’re supposed to play in this,’” she said.
Most recently, the Reeds raised funds for one of their homeless neighbors.
“We adopted one of the people who was sleeping outside here. We did a GoFundMe for him to get him off the street and into rehab,” she said.
“And we were successful with that. We had a little bit of money left over. So, for Christmas, we sponsored two families. The total we gave out was about $4,000.”
One of the best ways to support the ongoing community effort at Poppy + Rose is to simply sample its menu. Perusing the menu, bear in mind that Michael is a graduate of the legendary Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and is a well-practiced fine-dining chef at heart. In fact, to that end, the Reeds will be opening a new venue—Poppy + Seed—in Anaheim in February. It will focus on dinner for a change.
In the meantime, Downtown menu favorites include the buttermilk fried chicken and waffle ($15); the avocado toast with a fried egg, pickled chili and radish ($12); the pulled pork sandwich with fresh coleslaw ($14.50); and the smoked beef sandwich featuring sliced strip steak, pickled red onion, arugula, swiss cheese and horseradish aioli on your choice of bread ($16). Housemade custom cocktails are also available for takeout and delivery ($14).
Finally, there is no better person than Kwini to help inspire our focus on the year ahead Downtown.
“What we’ve learned and the message we’ve taken from this whole thing is community is extremely important. Out of all this, even though a lot of us are struggling, I think overall, we’re going to come out better. Downtown is not lost. We love Downtown,” she said,
“We’ve seen so many businesses and restaurants that we love go away. But we’ve also seen a spirit Downtown that we haven’t seen before. Through all of this, if we hold on to that (spirit), 2021 will be so much better, so beyond what any of us ever imagined.”