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Mr. Ceviche Mann Is Introducing Ceviche To A Black L.A.

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]eeks before the city went into lockdown last March, Buford Lewis III was still feeling the loss of his brother when two suspected coronavirus cases at the warehouse he worked at in Chino pushed the company to begin to institute masks and social distancing requirements. 

On the same day, Lewis was forced to defend himself after a co-worker accused him of allegedly threatening them. (Lewis denied the claim). The following day, he decided not to go back to work. With $200 in his bank account, the father of four put his money on his passion for ceviche, and he hasn’t looked back since. “I haven’t had a job in a year,” Lewis, who goes by Mr. Ceviche Mann on Instagram, tells L.A. TACO. “I went to a supermarket in the [Inland Empire], and I said, ‘I’m going to make some ceviche.’”

Lewis’s passion for ceviche has been an 11-year journey

After someone showed him how to make what he describes as a “basic ceviche” more than a decade ago—being the kind of person who enjoys cooking and baking at home—in his downtime, Lewis began perfecting his recipe. “You always experiment,” Lewis said as he recounted the early days of learning how to make ceviche.

As his product improved over time, Lewis began sharing with close friends and family. “Family members started hitting me up saying, hey man, that ceviche you made yesterday was bomb.” Eventually, Lewis got the nod of approval from his friend’s “abuelitas.” Shortly before quitting his job at the warehouse, he began selling his ceviche to his co-workers.

Mr. Ceviche Mann's 'Mango Drip' ceviche with shrimp and mango. Photo by Lexis-Olivier Ray for L.A. TACO.

After quitting his job, Lewis had a chance encounter with someone that happened to work at an office supply store, who ended up helping him create his logo and print hundreds of stickers. “When he did that, I was like, ‘what am I going to do with all these [stickers]?’” Next, Lewis’s oldest son made his Instagram page. “And when he did that. The first day I made some ceviche, I took pictures of it, put it on the ‘gram. And I got my first order in Riverside.”

Before he started doing pop-ups, Lewis grew his business by transporting ceviche day and night from the South Bay of Los Angeles to Riverside and Orange Counties’ suburbs.

“Some may call it soul ceviche, and I mean I like that because it’s authentic.”

On the day that Lewis’s family had his brother’s home going in late April, he sold out of ceviche. ”We put [my brother] in the mausoleum, and from then I had orders until 2 AM. I've been sticking with it ever since,” Lewis told L.A. TACO last month. 

When he first started his business, Lewis was only selling his ‘Original Ceviche,’ but since then he’s expanded his menu to include ‘Mango Drip’ and ‘Pineapple Express’ and “Bust Down Lobsterana”—Lewis’s signature shrimp, crab, and lobster ceviches infused with fresh fruit. To keep things affordable and offer what people are used to eating, Lewis currently uses imitation crab, but when he gets a special request for real crab meat, he’ll substitute it.

Mr. Ceviche Mann's ceviches are chilled on ice so they arrive tasting as fresh as possible. Photo by Lexis-Olivier Ray for L.A. TACO.

Unlike most ceviche spots, Lewis allows his customers to customize their orders. When I spoke to him last month, he recalled a recent customer that asked for ceviche with no tomatoes and no onion. “When I get orders like that, it's like a challenge.” As a result of his clever marketing and flexibility, Lewis has not only introduced ceviche to a new market and won over picky eaters that have avoided the dish or have never even heard of ceviche before. He’s introduced a healthier alternative to fast food in his community. “Some may call it soul ceviche, and I mean I like that because it’s authentic,” he told me in February. “I’m all about the health kick.”

Lewis had an easier time building a food business from the ground up during a pandemic than he did trying to become a rapper and now he’s combining his two passions into one.

Last month, I sat down with Lewis on the first day of Black History Month while he sold his signature ceviches and lightly seasoned tortillas chips on a busy section of Florence Avenue in the Hyde Park neighborhood of South Central, a few blocks away from where he grew up. Lewis set up in front of a small building purchased by a collective of local entrepreneurs that will eventually become a vegan market. Because it was Black History Month, Lewis offered his ceviche at a $5 discount, making a medium container just $10.

“We used to live on the same block, literally across the street from each other, he’s like my big brother,” Summer, a local resident and friend of Lewis, says while holding a small child. She had never tried ceviche before having Lewis’s, and she hasn’t tried any other ceviche since then. “I’ve been hooked,” Summer told us after she picked up her “ceviche issue” (as Lewis calls it). Her favorite is the original ceviche, but she hears that the Pineapple Express is tasty too.

Before breaking out into the competitive world of food pop-ups and delivery, Lewis spent years trying to break into the equally competitive music industry. “Music is kind of hard to get off the ground. You know you can be the dopest MC ever. But if no one knows who you are, or sad to say, If you ain't been to jail, I don't think you're really going anywhere.” Lewis had an easier time building a food business from the ground up during a pandemic than he did trying to become a rapper and now he’s combining his two passions into one.

Late last year, Mr. Ceviche Mann released a single. And he’s taking his talents on the road. In the past year, he’s traveled to Las Vegas and Atlanta several times. Not to gamble or party, but to sell ceviche. On a recent four-day trip to Atlanta, Mr. Ceviche Mann told us he sold out every single day.

“Everybody finds their calling in time...”

Instagram has helped Lewis grow his business and expand into different markets, but word of mouth has been an even more vital marketing tool. “That's kind of how we grew up. Knowing who has the best barbershop or who has the best tacos or who has the best burger, you know, stuff like that. It really came from word of mouth back then because we didn't have social media.” Lewis jokes, “We didn’t even have cell phones!”

After spending hours with Lewis, I went home, and he kept selling ceviche. When I caught back on with him, he told me that a few hours after I left, a man was shot a couple of blocks away from where I interviewed him. A few weeks later, Lewis’s cousin went missing and was eventually found dead. Through a tribute post from his cousin’s daughter on Facebook, Lewis discovered that the person who died a couple of blocks from where we met in February was his blood cousin. “That kind of tripped me up,” Lewis told me this week, as he recounted losing two family members in a couple of weeks. The dual tragedies were reaffirming for him “If you’re not really trying to protect life itself, something is going to happen.” 

Mr. Ceviche Man is looking ahead

 While the pandemic has shut down thousands of restaurants and businesses, many home cooks, bakers, and pop-up vendors have flourished. Against all odds, people like Lewis have found a way to carve out their own space in the grueling world of street vending and now food delivery. 

Lewis isn’t planning on stopping. April 28, the day that of his brother’s home going, marks the first anniversary of Mr. Ceviche Mann, and in the next month, Lewis hopes to expand to a food truck or a storefront. He has plans of starting a line of seasonings, chips, and his own hot sauce. He wants to expand his menu and franchise the business. He wants to pass down something that his kids can one day take over. “I really think [franchising] is the destination and the goal. The legacy to leave behind for my kids.”

In one dismal year, Budford Lewis went from working in a factory in Chino to becoming Mr. Ceviche Mann. “Everybody finds their calling in time,” he tells L.A. TACO over the phone, as he sits in bumper-to-bumper traffic, on his way to the store, to pick up more ingredients for ceviche.

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