South L.A. Food Diaries: South LA native serves community through food and outreach programs

W alking into With Love Market and Cafe is a unique experience. It combines an industrial atmosphere with a feeling of comfort. The floor mat greets customers with the word “welcome” scattered in various languages. To one side of the large, restored warehouse is a wooden stage used for open-mic nights and the Kid’s Cafe, a corner stocked with children’s toys. The cafe has balcony seating and is home to a little library. 

“Community is built by the quality of what we share in common,” reads the library sign. 

With Love, a grocery store and eatery, sits on Vermont Avenue and W. 20th St. and was founded by Andrew McDowell in March 2016. Before starting With Love, McDowell worked in digital marketing. He now manages the restaurant and serves as the executive director of With Love’s community programs, including children’s cooking classes.

“With Love started as a desire to address needs that were not met in our community,” McDowell said. “We wanted to figure out if we could do so in a sustainable way to where business could potentially help to start meeting some of these needs.” 

In particular, McDowell, a South L.A. resident, wanted to focus on health and employment in the community and on connecting individuals with one another. 

McDowell identified a few primary problems in his direct community, including an increase in the number of people with diabetes and hypertension, long work commutes and a lack of community involvement in its own well-being. Seeing these challenges compelled McDowell to take action. 

Owner of With Love Market and Cafe Andrew McDowell provides customers with the healthiest foods, even if that comes at a higher cost for his business. ( Kevin Camargo | Daily Trojan)

 To fight for the health of individuals, he ensured that With Love had a commitment to a healthy menu and natural grocery items. To increase job opportunities for locals, he put in place a company-wide policy to hire at least 75% of employees from within the immediate community. And, to encourage community interaction and internal support, he developed With Love community programs, free classes in partnership with community groups designed to educate South L.A. residents on topics like health education, community advocacy and financial literacy. 

“We find local community members or community groups that will offer classes or access to resources that other community members might not know about,” McDowell said. “We’re trying to make existing resources more accessible or bring in new resources to our community that would not have otherwise come and do it in a safe community space.”

These programs  bring the community together in one space, McDowell said. One particular relationship that he likes to foster is between local students — both college and high school — and retired folks. 

“They could meet together and take a yoga class together and maybe you wouldn’t have seen some of these people taking a yoga class in [USC]  Village, but you’ll see them take a yoga class here in this community space,” McDowell said. “The classes are free, taught bilingually and accessible to everybody. [There is] chance for that overlap, and that interaction that may have not been possible in other places.”

 With Love also makes efforts to engage the community in other ways. Through the back doors of the restaurant sits a community garden that several local groups help run. McDowell also rents the indoor space out for events and has created a strong relationship with the surrounding community. That relationship has led to donations from community members like the stage and outdoor murals. 

For McDowell, getting the community involved in his business was important. A new initiative provides community members with the chance to invest directly in the business and help further a space that is close to their hearts. 

“Our community is made up of all different types of people — lots of times people that are a little bit different from you,” McDowell said. “When you engage those people, not everything makes sense, but eventually, you start to see the value and the beauty of those people and our community. We try and reflect that in our business here so you’ll get a cultural, community experience — one that you wouldn’t have expected — each time you come in here.” 

Kevin Camargo | Daily Trojan

Along with being a center for community engagement, McDowell wants to provide locals with good food. With Love sells a few special grocery items that South L.A. residents might not be able to find elsewhere. This selection has unfortunately dwindled since USC Village came around came around and Trader Joe’s started selling similar items such as organic milk. 

With his dishes, McDowell wants to ensure that the food is healthy and affordable, despite the natural, high-quality ingredients that the restaurant uses. 

“When we create a tuna fish sandwich, [we ask ourselves:] Do we use all of the mayonnaise that most restaurants will use, the high-fat ingredients, or do we find other ways to make something that uses a lot less of those ingredients and start using really natural products or things that are lower in fat?” McDowell said.

The study spaces on both floors of the building are frequently used by students from one of the five primary schools a few blocks away. McDowell noticed that these children and teens would walk in with chips and a soda because they wouldn’t have enough money to buy healthier options. With the wellness of the community mind, he created menu items that were more financially accessible for them without compromising With Love’s commitment to natural ingredients. He also initiated an after-school discount on the smoothies where students in K-12 get 25% off.

College students and local families also frequent the space. Popular menu items include carnitas, paninis and the vegan vegetable curry.

“We started this whole social enterprise with next to no experience and an attempt to create dishes that we felt people in our community would love,” McDowell said. “Now that we’ve been open almost four years, we have continued to develop our menu, our drinks and our food to really be culturally relevant, to have flavor profiles that are of our community and that meet the health needs and desires of folks from our community.”

Two hallmarks of this community flavor are Tio’s Barbacoa and the Horchata Latte. Tio’s Barbacoa comes with a heap of beef over brown rice, with guacamole, pico de gallo and a mix of black and pinto beans on the side. As a strong contrast to the savory profile of the barbacoa, the horchata latte starts with a bitterness that slowly dissolves into a cinnamon taste. 

All of this involvement and culinary excellence come together to create a hyper-local impact and a homey, inviting space. In fact, McDowell says the name itself — With Love Market and Cafe — expresses this company perfectly.

“We knew what we wanted to create in With Love after a few years but we didn’t know what to call it,” McDowell said. “I looked back on some notes that I had taken at the very beginning of the envisioning process, and I remember writing down something that my grandmother used to say. She used to say that she made the food for us with love. I felt like that was the sentiment that we wanted to embody: We wanted to create something with love for our community.”