Earlez Grille started 30 years ago as a hot dog cart that brothers Cary and Duane Earle wheeled to Venice Beach and the Crenshaw Swap Meet. Now it’s a busy restaurant at Crenshaw and Exposition, and it’s putting two of Cary Earle’s kids through college.
"I mean, anybody can go buy a hotdog and cook a hotdog," said Cary Earle. "It’s just that, two things we do: We use the best quality we can find, and we put a lot of love into it."
Cary’s brother and business partner Duane Earle works the counter and chats up another customer in line for a beef link with chili and cheese.
"Hot dogs’ been our specialty 30 years," said Diane Earle. "[But] Most popular thing in the restaurant now is our Salmon Burger."
This customer doesn’t look like the Salmon Burger type. He’s linebacker-sized, nicknamed “PIG.” But to Duane Earle, he just looks hungry.
"The salmon burger is grilled, comes on a wheat hamburger bun," said Duane Earle. "You can do tartar sauce, thousand island, mustard, mayo. Excellent sandwich"
Sold! Pig orders a salmon burger and a beef link with chili and cheese. That salesmanship took the brothers Earle from a hot dog cart to a sit-down restaurant that brings in about $2,300 a day. But they were prepared to make that leap 20 years ago this week, further south on Crenshaw near Leimert Park.
They’d designed and built a restaurant themselves at night, after working the hot dog cart by day.
"So we had the location up. Walls were clean and everything was ready to go. We were ready to move the equipment in. I mean, everything was done, literally, and then we had the riots," said Cary Earle. "And then next thing you know I see Normandie and Florence. I guess they call it the flash point. Once people started seeing that, then you started hearing a lot of cars in the street, people blowing horns, then it got louder."
Cary Earle watched the verdict in the Rodney King beating case on a TV in the restaurant. A few doors down from the restaurant, rioters looted a liquor store and set it on fire.
"So once the fire started in the liquor store, it could only do one thing but start coming my way," explained Cary Earle. "So we took out a hose, a garden hose, and we started wetting the building that was two doors down from me."
Cary’s cousin Jamie was working with him that day.
"You see a car flying up the opposite side of the street, couple of brothas in there with shotguns, people were just walking with handguns and sticks and cocktails unlit," said Jamie. "It just all broke loose."
By the time firefighters arrived, says Cary Earle, the fire was burning the building right next door.
"They knocked the fire down next to me. They didn’t extinguish it. They just knocked it down. They were so busy. Then they came inside my place and they took a pick and they broke the ceiling," Cary remembers. "Thirty seconds later, we just saw the flames coming across, straight through my place. Not inside, but you could see the flame just shooting through the ceiling… Fifteen minutes later, they left. An hour after they were gone, the fire started again, because the only thing they could do was knock it down and keep moving. So we had to contain it."
They did contain it, and Cary stayed the next two nights in the restaurant to fend off looters. His brother Duane remembers calling their mother in tears.
It was a sad issue to see some of our own people doing some of what they were doing and it affected us," said Duane.
But it didn’t wipe them out. The Earles didn’t have insurance, so repairs cost them a lot of money and time, but not that much time. A few months later, the restaurant opened for business. Earlez Grille stayed at the Leimert Park location for 17 years.
"We just vowed, you know, we can’t let that type of stuff stop us," said Duane. "That’s why when I look back now, coming from a hot dog cart to now… no matter what my business is like, no matter how slow it might be, I started with a hot dog cart."
The Grille moved a few years ago to Crenshaw and Exposition, and next year, it’ll move again to make way for the Crenshaw rail line. But no matter where it goes, Duane Earle knows the hungry customers that helped build, rebuild and move Earlez Grille will follow.
"I have customers that met their girlfriend or boyfriend at the hot dog cart, got married later, had kids, their kids now work for me," said Duane. "We’ve been full circle. We’ve gone full circle in the community.