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In 1994, mother and son, Margaret and Robert Gardenhire, decided to transform two 1930s storefront properties in Lemert Park Village, California, into the area’s first black-owned, family-run gourmet restaurant, Elephant Walk.
Their first hurdle was convincing inspectors that their proposed construction plans weren’t in violation of any city codes. Next came the arduous task of acquiring a loan-the two were denied by no fewer than 10 local banks. Refusing to be dissuaded, the Gardenhires decided to finance the project themselves. “We took second mortgages out on our homes and even used our vehicles as collateral,” says 32-year-old Robert. With Robert doing the work, the $60,000 they amassed was enough to finance a large portion of the renovation.
Evenings and weekends found the former player for the Philadelphia Eagles at work on the interior construction. When not working as a housing coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, his mother shopped for furniture and African art.
Two years later, expenses had depleted their funds, leaving them unable to purchase the needed kitchen apparatus–the last block to opening their doors. “We knew we couldn’t open a restaurant without a fully equipped commercial kitchen, but we were determined to open. So we opened as a gourmet coffee shop instead,” says Robert.
This proved to be a wise decision. They didn’t need a kitchen, and were able to build a customer base, attain indispensable experience and create a business history. With an established track record, they went to a community-based organization, Brotherhood Business Development & Capital, and secured a $35,000 loan. Finally, they could install the kitchen and make the long-awaited transformation from gourmet coffee shop to gourmet restaurant.
“The growing pains have been trying,” says Margaret. One night, a chef didn’t show up for work and her son had to step in. Today, they have nothing but praise for their 10 employees, who maneuver efficiently through the 60-seat, two-level dining area.
In 1997, revenues reached over $200,000 and they project a 20% increase this year. “My plan is to have Elephant Walk restaurants operating in other major cities by the year 2000,” says Robert. He also wants to establish a black-owned hotel and country club in the Los Angeles area. If the past four years are any indication, there’s no doubt that the Gardenhire duo is up for the challenge.
Elephant Walk Restaurant, 4336 Degnan St., Los Angeles, CA 90008; 213-299-1765