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L.A. Loses Yet Another Black-Owned Business. Bernard Burgers Closes Its Doors After 52 Years in South Central

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]os Angeles lost yet another Black business with the closing of Bernard’s Burgers last week after 52 years of service in South Central.

The burger stand located on 120th and Avalon near Watts was a one-man show. A single grill was responsible for cooking up several burgers at a time as the owner, with only his memory, took and bagged orders. The space is only big enough for a large, flat top grill, a deep fryer and some counter space for Nathan Murray, the third and current owner of Bernard’s Burgers, to work his magic.

Shain’na Kato has been coming to Bernard’s Burgers for over 20 years—since she was a student at St. Albert the Great Elementary. After school her father would take her to Bernard’s Burgers to get a bite to eat.“It brings back childhood memories of me going and getting lunch with my dad,” said Kato.

Nathan Murray

Kato said that Murray was always friendly and open to offering advice as well as stories on what he learned owning and operating a business. She said that more entrepreneurs are needed locally to pass that information down. “As far as him closing,  it saddens me for the simple fact there are a lot of business owners who are now being pushed out in order for these other businesses to come in and flourish.”

Murray’s story with Bernard’s Burgers began in 1993.  At the time, Murray lived in the house behind Bernard’s and would always try to get the real Bernard to let him work at the burger stand. He was unsuccessful until one day Murray got the opportunity to prove himself worthy. “Bernard tooked sick so I rushed him to the hospital,” Murray relayed one misty morning in front of Bernard’s Burgers. “I ran the business for 11 days. He didn't know I was running the business though. When I picked him up from the hospital I gave him the money.”

From that day forward, Murray says that Bernard called him “son.” 

“He couldn’t work anymore so his wife came from Arkansas to pick him up. He came back a month later and said he was selling his house around the corner and if I gave him $500 I could have the business.” Murray borrowed the money and gave it to Bernard the next day before he could change his mind. 

69-year-old Nathan Murray has been the man behind the operation at Bernard’s Burgers since 1999. He begins his mornings early, taking produce and supplies to Bernard’s Burgers to prep and open for the day, operating from 9:00 a.m until 4:00 p.m. Murray kept the name Bernard’s Burgers and people started calling him Bernard.

The decision to close Bernard’s Burgers is bittersweet for Murray, who is planning to retire but says his plans are also influenced by the coronavirus pandemic. Murray revealed he would have been forced to close in March when stay-at-home orders were enacted in Los Angeles but his customers kept the doors to Bernard’s Burgers open. 

“I didn’t get a small businessman loan. Y'all were my stimulus check,” Murray said emotionally a couple days before he was set to close the doors of Bernard’s Burgers for good. Bernard Burgers was started in 1958 by Herman Matfield, a retired Navy Cook. The second owner was Octane Bernard who was like a father figure to Murray. News of Bernard’s Burgers closing went viral on social media which had people standing in line for hours to taste the South Central burgers one last time. Various people expressed their interest in taking over the property to continue the legacy of Bernard's Burgers but Murray says he is retiring the name. He also revealed that the future of Bernard’s Burgers property will be left to the owners.

Some members of the Latino community expressed their disappointment online due to comments they overheard Murray say to customers, which is that he hopes the next business at the Bernard’s Burger location is not Latino owned. “It made me feel like a kid, like I wasn’t able to speak up. I guess I keep my mouth quiet out of respect for his age,” said Jose Cuevas. He was standing in line at Bernard’s Burgers when he overheard Murray’s comments.

...he understands why Black people feel Latinos are invading their space but at the same time, the Latino community is also facing struggles as immigrants.  

Cuevas says that he understands why Black people feel Latinos are invading their space but at the same time, the Latino community is also facing struggles as immigrants. He was brought to the country at four-years-old by his parents. “We struggle to have better lives and live alongside Blacks. I feel we are fighting for the same treatment and economic opportunities in American society,” Cuevas detailed. He stressed the importance of unity within the two communities and says this could be built through events such as block parties as well as community meetings.

“Black people are the only people who have openly welcomed others into our communities and that has been to our detriment,” says Billion, a community organizer with Africa Town Coalition. The group is focused on community empowerment through economic independence and is primarily focused in the Crenshaw/Leimert Park area. “When other Black people say the exact same thing their people practice, they always take issue with it,” Billion continued. 

The closing of Bernard’s Burgers is one more thing the Black community is losing that identifies our presence here in Los Angeles. 

“You can go to different parts of L.A and it will be nothing but Latino. In terms of residential and business they don’t lease to us,” Billion expressed. He says that Murray’s remarks, although candid, are just frustration from the changes he sees happening in his community around him.

“Black people can't get jobs. Others are in positions of managers and ownership and we can’t get jobs in our own communities. We are frustrated at seeing people take what is ours and show us no respect,” said Billion. Greg Shepard has been coming to Bernard’s Burgers since 2002 and became friends with Murray over time. He sat on a barstool inside Bernard’s and spent the day with his friend as he served burgers to the community one last time. 

“This is the best hamburger place in Los Angeles and we are losing the last of the mom-and-pop burger spots we used to have,” said Shepard. “He’s got a good rapport with the community and every time you come here you learn something new. And he keeps you laughing.” Shepard says that gentrification is one of the most significant changes in the community. A lot of Black people that bought houses in the 50s and 60s are passing away and leaving these houses to their heirs.

“They don’t want to live on the east side so they are selling the homes and distributing the money amongst their siblings. They blow the money in the first few years and end up not able to buy anything in the community,” Shepard detailed.

The closing of Bernard’s Burgers is one more thing the Black community is losing that identifies our presence here in Los Angeles. 

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