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36 Years of Vegan Soul Food: How Simply Wholesome Built a Black Utopia of Wellness in L.A.

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he words “guilt-free” aren’t usually on a menu when dining in a restaurant specializing in Soul Food, Caribbean, and Tex-Mex comfort dishes. Then again those restaurants are not Simply Wholesome in Windsor Hills.   

Straight up: Their spinach patties, vegetarian tacos, vegan sweet potato pie, and “Coconut Crunch Thirst Quencher” are clutch when you’re trying to stay on that clean eating lane for the new year. 

Though wait times could stretch somewhere between 30 to 45 minutes for your food, it never feels like a problem. Between browsing from over 100 different products from Black-owned vendors, reading various books centered around health, admiring its 50s Googie exterior, or viewing the wall detailing historic accomplishments near the desert display, everything about Simply Wholesome feels like a small Black utopia of wellness. 

Percell Keeling, founder of Simply Wholesome. Photo by Ural Garrett for L.A. Taco.

According to Simply Wholesome founder and owner Percell Keeling, many weren’t sure if this kind of business would thrive in a predominantly Black community. 

“I remember when I first was thinking about doing Simply Wholesome,” said Keeling while relaxed at a small table by a storage room. “They told me Black people aren’t going to support you, Black people don’t eat healthy, and if you want to do something like that, you have to travel further west like Hollywood or Santa Monica. I lived here and felt that I was supported and figured there were other people who felt the same way.”

Before opening Simply Wholesome’s original location inside a Slauson and Hillcrest strip mall in 1984, the Inglewood native and UCLA graduate had gained much experience in real estate, retail, athletics, and already owned a nutritional store. With an early customer base made up primarily of the Muslim and Rastafarian communities, the bet of creating a cultural health hub for Black Los Angeles was starting to pay off in the early 90s.

“At that time, I had the American Dream,” Keeling explained. “I had two children, dog, cat, and bird. Fortunately, Simply Wholesome was making money, but I never thought of ownership.” 

Signs at Simply Wholesome. Photo by Ural Garrett for L.A. Taco.

Letting go of his Jack LaLanne European Health Spa-based nutritional store in Inglewood, he focused on Simply Wholesome’s steady growth.

“I was just busy trying to survive, pay my bills and treat people like I would like to be treated,” said Keeling. “People appreciated what I was doing.”  

The community loved Keeling enough to spare the next door dry-cleaners who owned the property from fire damage during the 1992 riots.

The community loved Keeling enough to spare the next door dry-cleaners who owned the property from fire damage during the 1992 riots. That didn’t stop the strip mall owners from attempting to raise his rent 50 percent. Never wanting anyone to control his ability to make money, Keeling would move to the acre of landholding dilapidated vintage diner “Wich Stand,” and Simply Wholesome’s current location in 1995.

Simply Wholesome's Googie 50s exterior. Photo by Ural Garrett for L.A. Taco.

Simply Wholesome evolved into a community mainstay that reached pop culture status thanks to being featured in scenes on Issa Rae’s groundbreaking HBO show “Insecure” and Jhene Aiko’s “Never Call Me” music video. Icons, including Muhammad Ali, frequently visited while Stevie Wonder played an impromptu performance. Even current social media darling Tabitha Brown raved about their vegan banana pudding

Many restaurants and specialty stores have had to lay-off employees or close down completely post COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Simply Wholesome hasn’t skipped a beat, according to Keeling. 

“In fact, we’ve been fortunate to increase our staff due to the pandemic because of restrictions and health compliance in certain positions,” he said. “I started seeing young people coming in who I could tell don’t normally eat healthy. Regardless of what economic status you are, you are going to do whatever it takes to stay alive.” 

Inside Simply Wholesome. Photo by Ural Garrett for L.A. Taco.
Inside Simply Wholesome. Photo by Ural Garrett for L.A. Taco.

Now, walking into Simply Wholesome during the pandemic didn’t feel much different outside of their new numbered order system that’s continually being refined. There’s even a digitalized approach in the works for visitors to make orders through a kiosk, beeper, and phone system. Right now, those same warm, nonjudgmental vibes remain. Customers just make their order and chill inside their car or purchase something from the store. 

Keeling has also spent time teaching his two daughters Ayanna and Amelia, to take over eventually.

Keeling has also spent time teaching his two daughters Ayanna and Amelia, to take over eventually. All three were recently featured in Pharrell’s “Entrepreneur” video alongside their cousin Baron Keeling.

Photo by Ural Garrett for L.A. Taco.

“There’s a generational gap between him and I,” Ayanna tells L.A. Taco. “I’m learning from him, and he’s learning from me. I’m teaching him, and he’s teaching me. It’s a way for us to build on our relationship.”

That includes lightly challenging their father’s more relaxed management style that allowed employees to dress how they liked. 

“I wanted to have shirts because I wanted the whole staff to be in uniforms,” said Amelia. “I kept saying that everyone had uniforms everywhere else. His response to me was that we’re not corporate, and he created this business as a way to make things better for us as our own people. He didn’t want all the employees to be cookie cutters.”  

Percell and his family in the credits in Pharrell’s “Entrepreneur.” (Screenshot)

According to Amelea, the idea progressed into a full apparel brand sold at Simply Wholesome, including limited-edition collections for Black History Month. Most importantly, the apparel allows staff a lot of freedom in how they look. Adapting to the times and being rooted in the community’s needs has been core to Simply Wholesome’s values. According to Percell, success wasn’t singular. 

“I might have had the concept, but I couldn’t do that by myself,” said Percell, who added the community opportunities. 

“I’ve been fortunate, and Simply Wholesome is bigger than me. The bottom line is that it’s about giving individuals the exposure that they can work in a Black business and provide them an opportunity to make money.”

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