It's early afternoon on a recent Thursday and Earle's, the long-running South L.A. hot dogs-and-more spot owned by brothers Cary and Duane Earle, is jumping. Their mom walks walks amongst the crowd, greeting the lunch crowd. A line ebbs and flows as house music pumps through the small restaurant and the staff serves up grub from an ample menu that includes a variety of meat and plant-based items. Outside, there's a mural that was painted a few days earlier by Demi Lauren in tribute to the late hip-hop artist and activist Nipsey Hussle, who had been a customer at Earle's.
In their many years at work, the Earle brothers have fed celebrities, L.A. movers-and-shakers and a lot of locals. Inside, seated at a small table, Duane points out people who have been frequenting Earle's for at least 20 years.
It's been well over 30 years since Earle's first launched as a hot dog cart. In that time, they morphed into a brick-and-mortar, expanded their menu and developed a successful catering business. While they've moved physical locations more than once over the years, Earle's has largely stayed within a few blocks' radius, becoming a neighborhood institution that has fed multiple generations of locals. "I've fed guys and girls when they were kids. I've fed them when they've grown," says Duane, adding that, sometimes, it's those same customers' children who also end up working at Earle's.
The story, though, actually starts on Venice Beach. That's where Duane's older brother, Cary, began selling hot dogs.
Improving Access to Healthy Food
The Earles are a Trinidad-American family from New York and Cary had initially headed to Los Angeles to study aeronautical engineering. After seeing hot dog vendors on Venice Beach, he designed his own cart and went to work. Duane was in his late teens when he followed his brother out west. His move, he says, was to pursue music and he did that under the name Don Jagwarr. But, Duane also joined his brother in the burgeoning hot dog business.
After Duane landed in Los Angeles, the two brought hot dogs to what was then the Crenshaw Swap Meet. That was in 1986. They kept the cart at this location for 10-and-a-half years. In the midst of that decade, they also opened a restaurant about three blocks away from the cart. It was a tiny spot, with seating for about 12 to 15 people, but they called it home for 17 years. After that, they moved to a space on Crenshaw, where the restaurant resided for seven years. Metro's expansion prompted the Earle brothers to move again, but, they were able to land a new spot just a few blocks away from the old one on Crenshaw.
"You see, like a pinball, we've stayed in the same area," says Duane. "We've not deviated from this area and we're very fortunate to get this location. It's central to where we wanted to be."
The life of Earle's is so intertwined with one physical neighborhood that the community has impacted not just its popularity, but its menu. That goes back to the early days of the hot dog cart.
"I had a lot of elderly people that hung out at the hot dog cart," Duane recalls. They liked the food, but there was a problem. The hot dogs weren't working with dentures. Duane devised a way of slicing the hot dogs and grilling them on the inside so that they could cook longer. "It would fall apart in their mouth and those dentures didn't come out anymore," he explains.
Earle's menu has expanded a lot over the years and one of the most significant developments is its ample selection of vegan fair. They've offered meatless items for about 20 years, with the approach to the dishes changing. These days, they're using Beyond Meat for vegan burgers. Here, there are vegan options for everything from hot dogs to chili cheese Fritos. With Earle's menu, vegans and non-vegans can eat together. "Vegans don't go to meat-eater spots. Meat-eaters don't go to vegan spots," says Duane. "I've got water and oil mixing. I got cats and dogs hanging out over here."
More than three decades later, there's still more to do at Earle's. Duane says that they're looking to get some of their products into stores in the future, including their sausages that are kosher and halal diet-friendly. Then there are the coffee cakes that were once sold through 7-11, which they are interested in getting back into stores again. They're thinking about franchising as well. "It's been a wild ride," says Duane of the family food adventure. And it's one that shows no signs of slowing down soon.