Soyz in the 'hood
IT IS 8 A.M. IN SOUTH CENTRAL LOS Angeles, and the scarred streets are quiet. In a warehouse across from a seedy-looking liquor store and a dilapidated tire shop, E-Man and Blunt-Man are getting ready to move some product. By day's end they will have made deliveries to customers in every section of the city from Watts to Bel Air. Before they begin, though, E-Man and Blunt-Man join a circle of fellow employees, close their eyes, bring their palms together and, at the direction of Laura Louie, begin 10 minutes of yoga. Then, physically and spiritually invigorated, they hit the streets, taking cauliflower, zucchini, bok choy and daikon to a growing roster of clients.
E-Man and Blunt-Man work for Yoganics, Los Angeles's first organic-food home delivery service. Founded seven months ago by Louie, 31, and Konda Mason, 41, it now serves 300 customers a week, while employing 13 people in a neighborhood that was ground zero during the 1992 riots and where drive-by shootings and street violence are common. "We don't think about the danger," says Mason, who reports there was never any doubt about where to locate the business. "If we really wanted to make a difference, we had to situate ourselves here."
The company has a dual purpose: to promote organic food and, not incidentally, to help make a difference in the lives and economy of a troubled section of L.A. It's hard to tell what impact Louie and Mason have had on the nutritional habits of their home-base neighborhood, but their employees, at least, are getting the word. Lidia Rodriguez, 23, who grew up in South Central, says her seven months at Yoganics have changed her life. "I've stopped smoking," she says. "And I stopped eating meat."
For E-Man (real name Ernie Rivera-Gutierrez), hired two months ago to fill a vacancy left by a deceased friend, the benefits go beyond the dietary. "I am trusted here," he says. "They depend on me. And that makes me want to live up to their expectations."
That sort of thing is what Mason and Louie had in mind when they started the company with just one investor—actor Woody Harrelson, 35, Louie's self-declared "life partner" and father of their 3-year-old daughter, Deni. The two women became friends after meeting at the home of a mutual acquaintance in Malibu two years ago. "We discovered we both have this food thing," says Mason, a film producer who has been a strict vegetarian for 23 years. Louie gave up all animal-based food six years ago.
The idea for Yoganics occurred to Mason after a visit with a friend in Brooklyn who had organic food delivered. "On the plane coming back home," she says, "I was thinking about organic food, and suddenly I thought, 'Laura Louie! We should start a business.' " Louie, Harrelson's production partner, presented the idea to Harrelson, and he went for it. "These girls are so smart," he says. "It seemed like a natural to me."
Louie met Harrelson in 1987 when she was in the Cheers audience. During a break, Harrelson announced he was looking for an assistant. She applied for and got the job, and about three years later the work relationship evolved into a personal one. Their second child is due in September. "I started eating only organic when I was pregnant with Deni," says Louie, who had become concerned about the effect of pesticides.
With Harrelson's backing, she and Mason established sources of supply and began making deliveries five days a week. For employees, there is a buffet lunch every day. "Everyone tries the food, and they see how good it is," says Mason. "Taste convinces everybody."
Well, almost everybody. E-Man, for one, isn't completely sold. "Tofu," he says, making a face, "is still weird."
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles