L.A.'s Hot & Cool Cafe Doubles Down on Community Outreach

This Black-owned vegan spot in Leimert Park believes 'giving creates opportunities'

Hot & Cool Cafe was barely three years old when Covid-19 hit, yet in its brief tenure, the Black-owned vegan restaurant and coffee shop in Leimert Park had already established itself as a pillar of the community. In the "before times," owners Tony Jolly and wife and business partner, Tina Amin, regularly hosted events ranging from concerts to comedy shows to Sunday sermons to political gatherings. He turned the cafe into a polling station for South L.A. voters, was instrumental in organizing the historically Black neighborhood's Juneteenth celebrations, and allowed the local unhoused population to use his bathrooms.

South L.A. has in recent years experienced a boom of cafes and coffee shops, many of them Black-owned and community-focused. Hot & Cool is part of a Leimert Park cluster that also includes Harun Coffee and Swift Cafe, while nearby in South L.A. and Inglewood, there's South L.A. Cafe, Hilltop Coffee & Kitchen, and Sip & Sonder. The pandemic threatens to derail much of the economic progress they have made.  

A year into Covid, Jolly's business is hurting, but he's not slowing down on the community efforts — if anything, he's doing even more now than before.

There are the free meals he's been providing for local seniors for the past year, for example. For the first few months, Hot & Cool's efforts were financially supported by Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson's emergency senior meals program, as well as a grant from Jose Andres's World Central Kitchen. When that money ran out, Jolly and Amin, launched their own fundraiser to ensure they could keep the thrice-weekly meal deliveries going. 

In July, a group of local activists asked Jolly if he was open to hosting a Community Fridge at the cafe. They had a donated refrigerator and were looking for a 24/7 power source, as well as someone to help keep it clean and stocked. "Of course I said yes," says Jolly. "It's been a huge benefit to our community — there's never any old food to clean out. We get substantial donations of fresh and prepared foods, and all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds take advantage of it." 

He gave away hand sanitizer and free vegan Soul Bowls on the cafe's anniversary. He teamed up with local plant entrepreneur Plants and Teas to sell houseplants in the cafe. ("We sold a lot of plants. Still are.") He hosted a breath work session for his staff, most of whom are young, Black, and feeling the strain of trying to keep the business going through a pandemic. "They're just trying to survive," says Jolly. "They want to work; they gotta pay the rent." 

Jolly wrestles with the future of the business. The city's second shutdown [in December 2020] was a major blow to his bottom line. "We really aren't making any money; it's been hard to recover from that," he says. His lease is up in November, and Jolly isn't sure what will happen. When Hot & Cool opened, the neighborhood was (and still very much is) in the midst of gentrifying. "There was supposedly a Metro stop and a theater opening in 2019," says Jolly, but both have been delayed. "Is Leimert Park a destination where people will want to come and hang out, come and experience what we have? That's a speculative question," he says. 

Still, he's not giving up. "It drives my wife crazy, but I believe the work of charity and giving creates opportunities," says Jolly. "This time has been a wake-up call for humanity to look outside ourselves and practice selflessness. That doesn't come from a strategic business plan — that comes from faith in the belief that good things come to those who try to take care of others."