East Austin restaurant Lou’s Bodega, the latest spot from prolific group McGuire Moorman Hospitality and Bunkhouse Group, has faced a fair amount of controversy since it opened on 1900 East Cesar Chavez Street earlier this month. People are protesting it, claiming cultural appropriation and calling it a bad example of gentrification in the Holly neighborhood in East Austin.
Lou’s is a collaboration between two high-profile luxury development/hospitality groups, but it calls itself a counter-service bodega. The neighborhood is historically home to working class Latinx citizens and restaurants like essential taco purveyor Juan in a Million, but Lou’s higher-end menu features items like Intelligentsia Coffee, fancy sandwiches, and, famously, a $22 rotisserie chicken.
Almost immediately after opening, Lou’s drew outrage from local activist group Defend Our Hoodz. The group sees the restaurant as evidence of gentrification since it may not be accessible to those longtime residents.
Many also object to Lou’s using the term “bodega.” While it has come to mean “corner store,” thanks to Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) immigrants, this usage is not present in much of the rest of Latin America, and some take it as evidence of lumping together all people from Spanish-speaking countries.
Lou’s building was formerly home to Leal’s Tires (which relocated to 3502 East 7th Street under the name Gomez Tires). After Leal’s left the East Cesar Chavez space, Lou’s leased the property, owned by Enemencia & Abel Rodriquez, a part of the Leal’s family. Per a press release from McGuire Moorman, that family has “owned it for decades.”
Lou’s opted to keep the bright yellow exterior and bring in a local artist to preserve Leal’s murals depicting Aztec imagery. The restaurant used these murals in its merchandise, per a press release, to “draw awareness to them and celebrate them.” Protesters see this as cultural appropriation.
The controversy came to a head this past Saturday, when Defend Our Hoodz organized a protest outside the cafe, drawing a crowd of approximately 50 people who chanted slogans like: “Not a dime, not a cent, for hipsters trying to raise my rent.”
Backlash against the restaurant has also come from the satirical Instagram account Lou’s Bootlega, which posts promotional pictures of Lou’s alongside scathing captions like: “The line to gentrification starts here.” A CultureMap Austin article called the Lou’s current iconography “uncomfortable,” noting:
When you can afford to eat at an MMH restaurant (which I do, often), you don’t really think about what it means to drive down Cesar Chavez and see an old mural depicting an Aztec god now being used to sell $22 rotisserie chickens. You see it and think, “Cool. That’s my kind of place now.”
Austin is one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the U.S., and the Holly neighborhood where Lou’s opened is one of the most vulnerable in the city. While the community once had to fight against the neighborhood becoming a dumping ground, it now faces the challenges of skyrocketing housing prices.
Defend Our Hoodz seems particularly set on targeting Bunkhouse’s Liz Lambert, given her involvement in Marfa, a city also facing gentrification challenges, with her El Cosmico Hotel, which also used cultural icons like a Ganesh and a Japanese geisha for its branding.
According to screenshots posted by Defend Our Hoodz on Facebook, Lambert reached out to the group on Instagram asking to meet, but a representative for the group wrote: “We have nothing to discuss until she shows real solidarity and doesn’t just seek out people who pat her on the back.”
Per its Facebook page, the group demands that Lou’s first cease use of Chicano and indigenous imagery in its branding, and then drop Constellation Brands products (which includes Modelo and Pacifico beers) from its stock due to protests over its factories commandeering precious water sources in the Mexicali region.
Lou’s has allegedly faced vandalism and threats of violence, per a press release from McGuire Moorman shared with Eater on Friday, and has closed comments on social media for the restaurant. The statement also requested that the public “dig a little deeper into who this group is, their history of violence and criminal activity, and where their members actually live,” though it didn’t expound further.
Defend Our Hoodz formed during protests that continued for years when Blue Cat Cafe moved into the space created by the surprise bulldozing of piñata store Jumpolin. The group has faced criticism from locals and controversy after members assaulted a 68-year-old man exiting an art exhibit the group was protesting.
Eater asked Defend Our Hoodz for examples of businesses they felt were considerate of the neighborhood. A representative did not respond with any specific names after multiple questions, but rather replied that small businesses will not stop gentrification and that “[t]he only way to begin to stop gentrification is through mass organizing and people building power outside of capitalist institutions.”
Lou’s provided an email address to invite further discussion surrounding the issue. In an area where 74% of residents hold a negative view of the neighborhood’s rapid changes, there will likely be no easy answers.
January 30 - This article has been updated to include the current owners of the East Cesar Chavez property.
- All Coverage of Lou’s Bodega [EATX]