Some people take the day off for their birthdays. Not Cynthia Hawkins. She's at the grill of Hawkins House of Hamburgers, making food that keeps her customers happy, like her bacon cheeseburger. And she's persnickety about the bacon.
"Applewood bacon," she says. "The best bacon you can eat on a burger. The best bacon you can eat for breakfast. The best bacon you can eat anytime!"
Out back, the tiny patio has upended crates that the staff can sit on during short breaks. Plastic buckets are filled with bouquets that customers have brought to the birthday girl. Hawkins House of Hamburgers is located on the corner of busy Imperial Highway and tiny, dead-end Slater Street in Watts, Los Angeles. And, says Cynthia Hawkins, it has been here since 1939.
"My grandfather built this building. He initially had a malt shop," she says, "and then they had the little grocery store, and then we had this restaurant here. So I'm proud to say, we've been in this community for a long time."
Long enough to see it go up in flames — twice. The first time was in 1965, during the Watts uprising. Many businesses were burned out, but the Hawkins family's place was left standing. Cynthia says part of that is because the family had a reputation for open-handed hospitality for customers and neighbors in need.
"My grandmother would just cook, and have a long table, and feed the whole community. That's why we're like that," she says. "My grandparents did it, my parents did it, and the brothers and sisters, we do it."
Cynthia carries on that tradition by offering a discount to the residents of Nickerson Gardens, the sprawling housing development across the street. If there is fresh food left over at the end of the day, she donates it to homeless people who know there's a hot sandwich, a cold drink and a friendly smile at closing time. She employs folks from the neighborhood. And all of that engenders a deep reservoir of community good will.
That good will has endured for decades. When gang members robbed a family outside the shop in the late '80s, Cynthia says her father intervened, and identified the culprits for the police. She says there were no hard feelings.
"They went to jail, we testified against them," she remembers. "First thing they did when they came out was come to Hawkins House of Burgers, because they know we take care of them."
That same respect protected Hawkins in 1992, when L.A. blew up after four LAPD officers were acquitted of all charges in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Some places were burned, but Hawkins remained open for business.
History aside, the Hawkins House of Burgers is also focused on providing quality meals to its customers. There are other places to eat in Watts, but they mostly serve fast food. And there are no big grocery stores. Which is why Cynthia Hawkins is so insistent on serving fresh ingredients. And she wants her staff to be just as picky as she is.
"If you throw things together at this restaurant, I'm gonna know about it, see? Because I have a personal relationship with my customers, if it's not right, they're gonna call me," she says. "I'm gonna find out about it. So do it the right way, and then you won't have a problem with me.
The right way pays off. Customers patiently wait in line for 15 to 20 minutes while their food is cooked to order, and Cynthia offers no apologies. "You can't expedite perfection," she says.
Her customers, like Roy Hernandez, are okay with that. The Hernandez family drove about 10 miles out of their way for a Hawkins burger. And neighborhood customer Jeanie Young is not bothered by the wait time. "It's really good. It's worth the price and the wait," she says.
Cynthia Hawkins has no plans to retire any time soon. She loves her job, this neighborhood and her clients.
"Watts is wonderful," she says. "Please know that!"