82-year South LA community staple fighting to stay open in battle with Caltrans

Hawkins House of Burgers has been a staple in the Willowbrook neighborhood of South Los Angeles since 1939.

People in the community love the food as much as they love the owner, Cynthia Hawkins.

"If you come here and you’re hungry and you don’t have any money, this is a good lady. She’ll give it to you," a South LA resident said.

Hawkins, who is typically jovial, is now facing a big problem that is stealing her joy.

"I’m so hurt that they would do this to a small, minority-owned business. Somebody who’s helping the community," she said.

The California Department of Transportation issued the restaurant a notice to vacate, saying that it’s encroaching on a piece of land that is owned by the state.

Hawkins said she’s been given some 60 days to tear down the building.

"That property there is considered excess land, meaning it benefits the state to sell it," said Peter Jones, the Public Affairs Officer for Caltrans. He added the lot will be up for sale during a public auction.

"Why would you even think about selling this to someone else? Sell it to me. That’s the neighborly thing to do…I’m not asking for a handout," she said.

She says representatives from Caltrans agreed to let her participate in a private auction to purchase the land, but later went back on the agreement.

A document dated November 18, 2019 reads in part:

"We are in the process of disposing this excess parcel. We would like to know if you, the adjoining owner would be interested in purchasing this parcel. In order to continue our process of selling the project excess parcel, we would appreciate your response.

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Please check the appropriate box and return this letter to me in the enclosed postage envelope by December 20, 2019."

She replied by checking the box "yes," that she was interested in the purchase of the property.

About a year and a half later, that no longer seems to be an option for the community staple that’s stood there for over 80 years.

"Everybody in here treats the whole community like family. So to hear that a piece of their business could be jeopardized is heartbreaking," a neighbor said. 

Caltrans said a private auction involving public land is not legal and that the sale will be open to the public.

"She has property on that lot that needs to be removed in order for us to be able to sell that property," Jones said.

Caltrans has already sold the large lot Hawkins was renting from the state to use as a parking lot. She opted not to bid on the lot because it was too expensive.

With very few options, she is now asking California Gov. Gavin Newsom to step in.

Her motto has always been "take care of your community and your community will take care of you."

Finding herself in a difficult situation, her family has set up a GoFundMe in hopes people will make donations so that she can purchase the lot and continue serving her community.