With their new restaurant, McDowell’s Soul Food & BBQ, brothers Mitch and Ceasar McDowell are meeting a need for soul food in Long Beach—and they’re adding a social impact mission.
This isn’t the first partnership for the brothers; in around 2014, Ceasar and Mitch founded Unite the People, a nonprofit that advocates for people who are incarcerated.
While their newest undertaking involves less legal support and more comfort food—including soul food staples like oxtails, catfish and macaroni and cheese—the brothers did borrow one element from their nonprofit: a partnership with Pacific Gateway.
Unite the People’s partnership supports a mentorship program, and over at McDowell’s, teenagers and young adults are connected to their first job, all while creating a community hub for much-needed soul food.
“With all these different cultures here, there should be a good soul food place,” said Mitch, adding that building in the youth component to the restaurant “just meshed together and worked.”
Youth who are hired at McDowell’s learn a range of skills involving not only how to work, but how to run a business, including opening and closing duties, bookkeeping, using a cash register, processing payments and even marketing on social media, all while developing teamwork and communication skills.
“We wanted to not only bring them in and give them that life experience, but give them a tool that they’ll be able to take with them forever,” Ceasar said. “There might be times in their lives where they don’t have a job, or they just need something to fall back on, and this will be a skill set for them.”
Pacific Gateway offers a three-month program, and several participants have been offered employment at McDowell’s following the program’s completion. Plus, youth who have exited the program will sometimes just jump in and help on busy days too, the brothers said.
“You’ll see changes in them,” Ceasar said. “You’ll see them being able to communicate. You see a lot of them mature in that little short three months. You’ll see a lot of them learn responsibility where they may not have responsibility at home.”
Daylan Beckett, a 15-year-old Poly High School student and Mitch’s son, has been working at McDowell’s since the restaurant first opened.
“It’s opening my eyes to see how the job industry works,” Beckett said.
Beckett said that the biggest lesson he has learned from his first job is “being on time”—plus, the opportunity has allowed him to work on saving up for his first car.
“The kids are awesome,” said Mitch, who used to coach 13- and 14-year-olds in football. “When you see them later on in life, somebody’s yelling ‘Coach, coach!’—you turn around and you don’t recognize him because he has a beard. … But you know, you talk to him, like, ‘Oh, I remember you’—I think now that we’re out here in Long Beach, we’ll probably run across that later on as the kids grow up.”
Not many Long Beach businesses participate in similar programs, even as they provide necessary guidance to youth who are typically not given opportunities elsewhere, Ceasar said.
“You can tell somebody all you want, but bringing somebody and showing them—when I was growing up, nobody shows you, and that’s what I think I was missing,” Mitch said. “Shame on the people that don’t take these kids, but they’re missing out.”
Mitch acknowledged that youth can often find themselves in trouble due to boredom. But he said that while other business owners may leap to incorrect assumptions due to what they see on television, the McDowells can empathize with the kids based on their own experiences.
“We can relate to them because we are them. My outcome might be different, but at least I’m giving you some guidelines to work on,” Mitch said. “It’s hard growing up, especially being Black out here, and you have so many avenues against you.”
The restaurant has worked to find its footing over the past year or so—when it first opened, pandemic restrictions made running the business essentially “impossible,” apart from depending on food ordering apps, Ceasar said.
But by the end of 2022, McDowell’s had begun welcoming Pacific Gateway participants, and last month, the restaurant celebrated its official grand opening.
“The goal for the restaurant is to help build the community,” Ceasar said, referencing a former Unite the People intern, who recently became a lawyer. “For the restaurant, we hope to make that change in the community—you’re giving people the job skills, the experience, and the confidence … to impact the community is really what this is all about—plus providing the best soul food in the state of California.”
McDowell’s Soul Food & BBQ is located at 900 Long Beach Blvd. and is open Tuesdays to Fridays from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.