Watts, Hawkins House of Burgers and Caltrans Landmark: A Land Dispute
Cynthia Hawkins was incredulous.
After a year of keeping the 82-year-old family restaurant open during the pandemic, the owner of Hawkins House of Burgers in Watts suddenly found herself embroiled in a new battle for survival – this time with the California Department of Transportation.
On June 18, Hawkins received a letter from Caltrans officials advising him that part of his building encroached on adjacent state-owned land. She said she had 60 days to remove part of her building that includes a corner of the restaurant’s kitchen.
âIt’s completely ridiculous,â she said. “We’ve been here for over 80 years, on the same property, and now you’re telling me I have to demolish part of my building?” “
A Watts institution and a popular black-owned business, Hawkins House of Burgers was built in 1939 by Cynthia’s father and grandfather.
The men moved to Los Angeles from Arkansas in the 1930s, spending their savings to buy land on the corner of Slater Street and Imperial Highway and build the two-story house that houses the current restaurant and corner market.
Cynthia, the youngest of 14, now operates the restaurant with the help of her two daughters and three grandchildren, turning Hawkins House of Burgers into a fifth generation business.
âMy whole family grew up working here,â she said.
Hawkins said her trouble with Caltrans dates back to 2016, when she started renting out a small triangular section of state land next to her restaurant for $ 300 a month to use as parking.
In 2018, representatives from Caltrans informed Hawkins of their intention to sell the property and asked if she was interested in buying it (âAbsolutely,â Hawkins replied in a document).
But after Caltrans conducted a new study of the plot, the matter became more complex. The state said part of Hawkins’ business was too close to the property line and would have to be cleaned up – requiring the removal of part of the building – before it could be assessed and sold at public auction, even though Hawkins was the prospective buyer.
“This property is considered excess land, which means it is beneficial to the state to sell it,” Peter Jones, head of public affairs at Caltrans, told Fox 11 News.
For Hawkins, the thought of losing part of his family’s historic business was far more alarming than giving up a few extra parking spaces.
âAll that time and encroachment has never been a problem,â she said. “Throw it at me and tell me I have to take down my building, that’s an insult.” We are a fixture in this community. We feed the hungry. We give scholarships. It doesn’t just affect me. It affects the whole community. “
After Hawkins shared the details of the ordeal on social media, concern quickly spread among customers and longtime fans. A GoFundMe page has been launched to raise funds in hopes that Hawkins can purchase the property directly.
“It’s a travesty,” said Gregory Jones, a longtime Watts resident and Hawkins regular. “It’s the only place we have burgers in here, and now they’re trying to take it away.”
The story also caught the attention of Jay King, a Sacramento-based CEO and president of the California Black Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Caltrans Small Business Council.
After a cousin who lives in Las Vegas sent him a clip about Hawkins’ dilemma, King thought he could help with what he said was a very unusual situation.
âCynthia is a brave woman because she stands up to the big bad wolf,â King said. “But you have to realize that Caltrans is such a massive operation that they might not understand the gravity of what is going on.”
After contacting Caltrans director Toks Omishakin and Hawkins, King said he was confident the issue would be successfully resolved, even though the exact details had not been finalized.
“I leave [Cynthia] knowing that it’s being processed and that she doesn’t have to worry about her business being compromised. We are still in the early stages, but I have no doubts that the package will end up where it belongs.
Earlier this week, Caltrans released a statement that said, “Caltrans is suspending its plan to sell the leased property at public auction so we can work with Hawkins on a resolution to help prevent any disruption to its business.”
This is not the first time members of the Hawkins family have had a confrontation with the state. Cynthia said that in the early 1970s her father, James Henry Hawkins, was approached by government officials seeking to purchase property on the way to the future 105 Freeway.
The elder Hawkins, however, refused to sell and the family business was left standing.
In the midst of her own ordeal, Cynthia Hawkins said she wouldn’t be quiet until she got a written deal with Caltrans, or at least a more concrete idea of ââthe state’s plans.
âThey say they are trying to find a solution. We’ll see, “she said.” I can’t take their word for it at this point.
Meanwhile, she has been humbled by the protest of support this week, including messages of encouragement from state lawmakers and yelling from radio figures such as Kevin Nash and Big Boy.
âIt is the power of the people. [Caltrans] it wouldn’t care otherwise, âsaid Hawkins. âIt was our customers who got us through the pandemic and now through it. I am grateful for this.