Chef Kyndra McCrary’s restaurant, Swift Cafe LA, was only open for a few months before COVID-19 limited her healthy eatery to offering only takeout options – a move that caused a 90% drop in business. Despite this change and the financial hits she faced, McCrary kept her restaurant open – and growing – by refocusing to help those in need and staying dedicated to her core values: promoting wellness and building up the community around her business.
Drawing on skills she learned from her grandmother, her experience in catering, and a partnership with the community to serve others through food, McCrary has brought fresh, healthy food options to support the wellness of the community in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles.
Identify your business’s mission.
When McCrary opened her business in October 2019, it was the next step in her journey as a chef. Her catering business, Ooh La La, which she started in 2009, was doing well. She decided to open Swift Cafe LA – a restaurant dedicated to providing sustainable, wholesome, inspired food, to go (SWIFT).
Part of what encouraged McCrary to start her business was her grandmother, whom she grew up with. Her love for food and experimentation with Panamanian and Caribbean flavors invigorated McCrary’s appreciation for cooking. Growing up, she watched her grandmother incorporate personality and passion into her food, which not only ignited McCrary’s appetite for culinary arts, but molded her approach to food.
“Anyone can look at a cookbook or recipe,” she said. “But when you have passion and love in it, it’s received differently, and people can feel that.”
McCrary also desired to serve healthy food to communities that don’t have easy access to it. McCrary placed Swift Cafe LA in the heart of a fast-food and dessert district in Los Angeles deliberately because she wanted to give the community balance by offering a healthy food option.
“A lot of the food options in the area were either fast food or food that wasn’t the best for you, and being in the inner city, we’re struggling a lot with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” McCrary said. “I personally was experiencing some of those issues, too, and I wanted to show that you can have food that tastes good and is good for your body.”
After losing weight and getting her health under control, McCrary wanted to help others do the same. She used her cooking skills to create healthy options and to show people they could eat something they liked without sacrificing taste or starving themselves. Some of her dishes include grilled jerk chicken and sea bass with roasted cauliflower, broccoli and snow peas.
When she opened her business in the Leimert Park neighborhood, McCrary felt that it was important to avoid gentrifying the area or displacing other establishments. Her goal was to add to the community in every respect, including through the character of her cafe, so she sought out local vendors to supply her business.
By working with homegrown vendors and hanging up local art in her establishment, she created a familiar, cozy space the community could find comfort in. Although her business offered something different, she didn’t want the space to be foreign to her customers. She avoided this by including the neighborhood in her venture.
“The vibe inside, it was also important for me to make it feel like home,” McCrary said. “There is a lot of gentrification going on in the neighborhood, and me not being native to LA, it was important to me to bring something familiar and use local artists and local food and vendors in my business. I wanted to give the community something they were familiar with and to implement aspects of the community.”
Even so, when McCrary’s business opened, she found it difficult to get noticed. Marketing was a struggle, and she yearned for the community to know what Swift Cafe LA was. Her business is less than a year old, and connecting with the community is something she continuously puts effort into through social media and by spreading the word.
“When people set foot in the door because they either learned about you from a friend or because they follow you online, it’s incredibly rewarding,” McCrary said. “Just seeing people try something that they’re not used to and then come back, that has been confirmation that I made the right choice.”
Network and negotiate.
McCrary’s experience in catering allowed her to develop skills that helped propel Swift Cafe LA. Networking and negotiating were critical to the success of her catering company, and as she was building her cafe, McCrary used those skills to connect and work with local vendors.
“Creating contracts and finding the right people to work with and bartering are all things the catering company developed in me as an individual,” McCrary said.
Before she had any clients for Ooh La La, she would cook meals in exchange for services that would be beneficial to her business. For example, she made meals for a label-making group in exchange for labels and tools for her company. McCrary worked with what she had to get her business to where she wanted it to be.
Find an opportunity in adversity.
After opening Swift Cafe LA, McCrary expected the typical troubles of starting a new business. Instead, COVID-19 made her journey stressful in ways she hadn’t anticipated.
“This did impact me negatively, and I was like, ‘What am I going to do?'” she said. “A little depression did come in.”
Although overwhelmed, McCrary didn’t allow the coronavirus pandemic to cripple her progress.
“At the end of the day, if you’re a true entrepreneur at heart, you think, ‘What am I going to do to maximize this opportunity?'” McCrary said. “After going through that initial shock, the entrepreneur in me came out and was like, ‘What other content should I be creating? What can I do to keep my business running?'”
McCrary made several changes to her business, and like many eateries, eliminated the dine-in option to become solely a takeout and delivery service. She also partnered with the city on an initiative dedicated to feeding senior citizens, which helped Swift Cafe LA stay open.
Los Angeles city councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson launched a coronavirus-relief program to serve meals to seniors in need with the help of 18 restaurants in South LA, including Swift Cafe LA. So far, Swift Cafe LA has helped the program provide more than 3,000 meals. The program pays the restaurants for their food and services for the elderly, which has been an unexpected help to McCrary financially.
“Without this program, we probably would’ve gone out of business,” McCrary said. “It’s helping to keep me and my business afloat while we navigate this new normal. It’s not 100% easy, and it’s something that we’re still figuring out.”
Be open to new ideas.
Throughout her journey, COVID-19 and all, McCrary learned how important it is to be open to new ideas and different ways of doing things. Becoming a takeout service and making such stark changes to her business at such a young stage was not a part of the plan. However, it allowed her to not only keep her business open, but to help it thrive.