From the streets of La Brea to the shores of Australia, the delicious meats and sauces of Bludso’s Bar & Que have delighted the senses of hungry diners everywhere. Founder and Chef Kevin Bludso had his first introduction to barbecue in Corsicana, Texas. He eventually found a passion in the smoky spreads that his Granny had taught him to prepare, despite his promise to never get involved in the business of food.
But his journey to success did not come without trials. Kevin faced discrimination not only personally but professionally – being denied a loan when beginning the process to open Bludso’s, and being wrongfully terminated from the Department of Corrections. “You’ve gotta use discrimination as fuel,” advised Kevin. “You can’t judge everybody – first of all, that’s them. And if it weren’t for discrimination, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
How did you make the transition from swearing against restaurants entirely to opening a restaurant?
I was born and raised in Compton. Both parents were from Texas, and they met each other in LA. Ironically, I was the son of an LAPD officer and a Black Panther Sympathizer – imagine that. Every summer, I was sent out to Corsicana, Texas with my Granny, who turned me on to the food thing. She worked at a couple restaurants and sold barbecue on the weekends, and that was my first real taste of barbecue. I spent most of my summers down there, and that’s where I learned my game. She would always tell you, ‘You’ve got to get yourself a legal hustle.’ I mean you can get your degree, but you never know what’s going to happen.
Once I got out of college I started working for the Department of Corrections, and I was terminated. I had to fall back on my legal hustle while I was fighting my case for wrongful termination, and I couldn’t work during that time. So I went back to what I knew how to do; catering and DJing. Everybody kept saying “you need a restaurant, you need a restaurant,” and finally, I said, “ok.”
Was it difficult starting out here in LA? Some say it’s a saturated market, how did you stand out?
When we first opened, I just wanted to be as good as Woody & Philips, you know? Cause those are the OGs in LA. We have great barbecue as well, but the timing was just so right – I couldn’t have been luckier coming in on the era of food media. I was right there at the beginning. What that media did was open the doors; you realize people would go anywhere for good food.
And I’ve always said, Compton has a bad reputation. But you know – it’s really not as bad as people think it is.
When they would come down there they would see so many cultures come together over food. Compton is predominantly Black, but my customer base is almost equally Black, White, and Asian. That’s because of social media and all that. Then I met James [Partner], we did Hollywood, I met the guys from Australia [Partner] and we opened up in Australia, and we’ve been going ever since.
Did you ever think Bludso’s Barbecue would blow up in the way that it did?
Like I always say – you always shoot for the stars, but no. Whoever thought BBQ would get me on TV so much? It’s pretty incredible. I started on a shoestring budget. I opened Compton with $10k. Bad partnership at the time, you’re working 80 hours a week, and you’ve got a partner not doing their thing, but it’s your love you know? We went through a lot of tough times. The main reason why Compton closed was because of a battle with the landlord.
It’s a lot, but you still don’t want to quit. And I always tell people there’s no secret – its hard work, its a grind. A lot of good times, a lot of bad times, but if you stick to it, it’ll come.
Running your own business is tougher than any job you’ll ever have. That’s what you’ve gotta understand. When I first opened up Bludso’s I was still DJing on the weekend, so sometimes I would get up Saturday morning and go open up Bludos’s at 6 in the morning, and wouldn’t get home until Sunday at about 2 or 3 pm. I’d come in, take a quick shower, and I’d go right back out. My daughter wrote the most beautiful poem a few years ago, “My Daddy Is Not An Overnight Success”. She knows it’s hard work, she watched me come in and out back in those days.
How has your culture impacted the community? I mean, Bludso’s really is a staple out here.
Yeah, Bludso’s is built on community. The negative part is we paid for so many funerals, but the positive part – we helped so many kids go to college, we helped so many other businesses learn to give… I would give I-owe-you’s! I’d never say “your card’s not working”, I’d never say that. I might say, “Well, the machine could be acting up,” I’d tell them don’t worry about it. Get it to me when you can. 90% of the time they’d always come back. I try to tell all my employees you have to give. You have to.
I don’t give to be blessed, I’m blessed so I give. It will always come back to you.
And that’s what food is, that’s what BBQ is, it’s a picnic, its a party, it’s supposed to be good times, you know what I mean? Brings people together. When you eat something good, what do you do? You smile, you enjoy it. Then you’ve got to realize sometimes people go through things. You have to realize that, you might make somebody’s day. That little $5 chopped beef might not make you or break you, but it might make someone else’s day.
Have you ever seen any kind of discrimination because of your culture?
Loans – African Americans trying to get loans. It’s so tough, they want you to have all this collateral when you start a business, but when you’re starting from nothing, what are you supposed to do? How can you have collateral? And of course, when you start you’re using your own stuff, letting bills go astray, your credit is suffering, but you know it was mainly that.
And all of a sudden, nowadays, people want to give you all kinds of loans, and you wonder – where were you when I needed it? I have to say though, in the city of Compton – they worked with me as much as they could, I have so much respect for them because anything I needed they tried to do, and it broke their hearts.
What about your kids? How does discrimination play a part in their lives?
My son called me and said, “Daddy, you were born in 65 right?” and I said yeah! And he said, “The voters act was July of 65, right?” And I said yeah! And he goes, “Wait a minute, when you were born, black people couldn’t vote,” and I said “No! Grandma couldn’t vote! Not until 1965!” Some survivors of slavery came and spoke to us at our school back then. It’s not that far removed. We’ve got a long way to go, but we have come a long way too. I hate when people don’t wanna give any credit that some change has happened. There is a long way to go, but like I said, you couldn’t even vote 55 years ago.
Did you ever get to a point where you realized the business was taking up too much of your life?
Kinda sorta. I felt bad because I missed a lot of football games with the kids, but then somebody broke it down for me and said “Hey look Kev, do you remember doing that stretch early on, when you were working multiple jobs, the DJing the catering, you were home with the kids all through their most influential years? You were home with them every day.” Warm breakfast was every single day, and by the time they’d come home dinner cooked, get on the homework, and now I’ve got one in medical school, my daughter is graduating from Alabama this year, my youngest is a sophomore at Santa Barbara, so even through all that something was done right.
What advice would you give to anyone in your position?
You’ve gotta use discrimination as fuel. You can’t judge everybody – first of all, that’s them. And if it wasn’t for discrimination, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. I mean look at my customer base. My restaurant wouldn’t be where it was without it. That’s the path I had to take. Ok, I didn’t get the loans, I didn’t get the golden whatever but look what I’ve done without it. If you’re gonna make it in this business, you pout for a minute and then you’ve gotta keep on pushing. Before you enter this business you’ve got to ask yourself, “Am I ready to grind, am I ready to do it?”
You’re not forcing your own destiny. You know what you wanna do, and I think it works out most of the time.
609 N La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
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Images by Erin Doll