Simply Wholesome Makes a Case for Black Health and Ownership

In the early 1980s, Percell Keeling experienced a jolt of unexpected inspiration during a 10-mile morning run through Windsor Hills. He had made his way up Overhill Drive, cutting across a parking lot near the intersection of Slauson Ave. and Angeles Vista Blvd, when an inner voice told him to turn around. That’s when he noticed a “for rent” sign on the building he just passed.

Keeling memorized the number and made a call. Then 30 years old, Keeling ran a nutrition center in Inglewood and sold athletic equipment to high schools and colleges. A longtime distance runner who prioritized wellness, Keeling had also grown tired of leaving his South L.A. community, driving to shops in South Bay and Hollywood, anytime he craved healthy food.

A friend pushed Keeling to be the solution he was seeking.

Roy meets Leimert Park residents who use food to counteract gentrification. Watch this episode.

Owning the Block

In 1984, Keeling opened a restaurant in the building he passed during his run. The restaurant’s name, Simply Wholesome, came to him while he was sleeping. Located in View Park — Windsor Hills — the cozy café offered a small selection of sandwiches, protein shakes and smoothies. In the early days, Simply Wholesome patrons were primarily Muslim, Rastafarians or otherwise spiritual. Detractors told Keeling it would be impossible to find success in a Black neighborhood, and that community members had no desire to eat at a health-based restaurant. He should take his idea further west in L.A. to predominantly white communities.

For many African Americans, it took some time for the restaurant to catch on, Keeling said. “People would walk in and look around, look at the menu and say, ‘Is this health stuff? I don’t need your stuff.’ And walk out.”

But Keeling stayed committed to serving fresh and tasty meals, while emphasizing good customer service and affordability. In time, the community embraced having healthier options much closer to home. Keeling’s consistency paid off and over a near-40 year period, Simply Wholesome has evolved into a South L.A. cultural hub.

Three men with their arms crossed.

Percell Keeling persisted when others didn’t believe in the proposition of healthy living that Simply Wholesome was promoting. He is pictured here in the middle with hip-hop artist Chuck D and Roy Choi. | Stephen Vanasco

In the 1990s, Keeling moved from his original location to a much larger space just across the street. The restaurant’s extensive menu now spans Caribbean, soul food and Tex-Mex, with plenty of vegan options to spare. Before the pandemic, the restaurant, which attracts a diverse range of customers, hosted weekly concerts on its patio, and celebrity sightings were not uncommon. Wandering the aisles of Simply Wholesome’s health store, customers can find a wide variety of Black-owned products including vitamins, sage, crystals, apparel and natural haircare products. The restaurant and health food store has also been cemented in pop culture through appearances in Issa Rae’s HBO series “Insecure” and music videos by Pharrell and Jhené Aiko.

“People are proud of Simply Wholesome,” Keeling said during a recent lunch rush. For Black Angelenos, the restaurant is something of a destination point, like Hollywood Blvd., or the Santa Monica Pier or Disneyland. It’s a spot to take out-of-towners, and Keeling marvels at all those who stop to take pictures in front of the ’50s-style, vibrant green building, a historic landmark with a 35-foot spire.

A modernist type of architecture with a distinctive spire and the words "Simply Wholesome."

In the 1990s, Keeling moved from his original location to a much larger space just across the street, this landmarked site that continually gets attention from visitors. | Courtesy of Simply Wholesome

“It’s very humbling for me, because in all honesty I was just trying to survive every day,” the 68-year-old said. “I didn’t know what this was going to turn into.”

An L.A. native, Keeling moved to Inglewood in 1963. As a student at Morningside High School, Keeling witnessed intense racial tension between Black and white students, navigating the two groups as a star cross country runner. While a student at UCLA, Keeling worked part-time at liquor stores in East L.A. and Compton, where he learned the ropes of the retail industry and how to work with a diverse group of customers.

After graduating, Keeling ran a nutrition center inside a Jack LaLanne European Health Spa in Inglewood and witnessed the evolution of the fitness industry. As a distance runner in the 1970s, the only people he saw working out were fellow athletes. But in the early 1980s, he noticed everyday people, including the elderly, join gyms and run 5K and 10K races.

It took nearly 10 years after opening Simply Wholesome and an uprising for Keeling to grasp how much the community embraced his business. In April 1992, Keeling received calls from strangers notifying him that the nearby 7-Eleven was on fire. Some volunteers offered to watch over the restaurant. Earlier that day, four LAPD officers were acquitted of beating Rodney G. King, sparking riots across the city.

Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray extending his arms out. | Courtesy of Center for Religion and Civic Culture

Keeling was working with his now ex-wife and another employee, but before they could close shop, a young man stopped by asking for water. “I can see he is dripping blood off of his arm,” Keeling recalled. After walking through the shop slowly, the man “walks back to the counter. He said, ‘Is this a Black business,’ I said, ‘yeah it is’ and he walks out.”

Because I had a good reputation and people saw the value there, they left me alone.

Percell Keeling

The man hopped in the driver’s seat and took off. When the van door slid open, a group of people inside raised their fist, the symbol for Black power and solidarity. Young men in the neighborhood approached Keeling weeks later to inform him that if not for his restaurant, the shopping center, which he shared with an Asian-owned cleaners, would have gone up in flames. “Even though I was cool on the outside, my heart was like, boom, boom, boom, boom,” Keeling said.

“I try to treat everybody with respect, the way I want to be treated. And obviously it worked back in the day … Because I had a good reputation and people saw the value there, they left me alone.”

Another pivotal moment for Simply Wholesome came soon after. Keeling’s landlords informed him that his rent would increase by 50%, effectively an eviction.

“It’s like somebody took the knife out and stabbed me in my heart,” Keeling said. “I had a serious reality check right there, because I realized that my business, my income can end overnight on somebody else’s decision.” When he left the meeting with his landlords, Keeling looked across the street, at the deserted Wich Stand he had seen for years, but never really considered.

“It’s like somebody took the blinders off… And I said, ‘I gotta have it.'”

Simply Wholesome is the ‘Gateway to Wakanda’

The next door property, declared a historic landmark years prior, on Slauson Ave. and Overhill Dr. was on an acre of land and nearly five times the size of his original location. Keeling was ready for a big move, but the process was a logistical nightmare. It took almost two years to get the proper permits and finalize paperwork to begin construction in 1995. “I was spending a lot of money hemorrhaging in all types of different ways … The main reason why I got through it is these two right here,” he said, looking at his two daughters, Ayanna and Mia Keeling, who help run the business.

Click left and right to see some food options from Simply Wholesome.

Grilled chicken Simply Wholesome

1/4 A grilled chicken dish topped with tasty salsa from Simply Wholesome. | Stephen Vanasco

Black eyed peas, mac and cheese and collard greens.

2/4 Black eyed peas, mac and cheese and collard greens from Simply Wholesome. | Stephen Vanasco

Three tacos on a tray with chips and dip.

3/4 Tacos from Simply Wholesome. | Stephen Vanasco

A orange colored pie topped with ice cream

4/4 A Honey Bean pie by Simply Wholesome. | Stephen Vanasco

Ayanna and Mia have vivid memories of growing up in Simply Wholesome. Ayanna, 32, recalls an aerobics room inside the restaurant where she and her sister would do homework while their parents worked.

“It was always a very goal-oriented environment,” said Ayanna, who now leads the restaurant’s marketing efforts with her sister. “It was a blessing to see them work so hard as a young child because it gave me the motivation to be like them, to be an entrepreneur and work for myself.”

For Mia, 30, the restaurant feels something like a living room. It’s where she and her sister played together while also getting to know people in the community. She learned to count change by taking orders and celebrated birthdays with friends. “We are never going to sell the property, because we know that it’s a community space,” said Mia, who also works with customers inside the store.

A woman with braids talks while a man reads a book.

For Mia Keeling, Simply Wholesome feels like a living room, where she has grown up. She shows Roy Choi around the different sections of the store and restaurant. | Stephen Vanasco

The loss of community has been the toughest challenge during the pandemic. Since the beginning of COVID-19 restaurant closures in March 2020, Simply Wholesome has been take-out only. But financially, the business is thriving. Keeling attributes that success to an increased focus on health.

During the pandemic, Ayanna and Mia have made it their mission to expand Simply Wholesome’s reach and make the business a go-to source for information about health and wellness online. They want to change the larger narrative. “In the health world, I deal with a lot of questions or concern and so when I go to do my own research, all I see are white faces telling me about things that are native to me,” said Mia, who hosts a podcast focused on holistic healing.

On Instagram, the sisters post recipes for immunity boosting teas and information on the benefits of chlorophyll and sea moss alongside promotions for the restaurant’s juices and famed patties to its nearly 50,000 followers. They hope to launch a new YouTube channel to continue sharing the message.

Keeling is grateful his daughters are working to take Simply Wholesome to a new level. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this concept can go all over the place, especially within the Black diaspora.”