It’s the type of story that sounds perfect for the big screen. Two L.A. gang members— one a Blood and the other a Crip— turn their backs on crime in order to launch a successful catering business. Within months they’re cooking for hip-hop’s finest, from Tyrese Gibson and Tyga to Kendrick Lamar and Chris Brown.
Except this isn’t a screenplay being shopped around Hollywood. This is real life for Compton caterers Malachi "Spank" Jenkins, 29, and Roberto ‘News’ Smith, 31, the two men behind the underground food sensation, Trap Kitchen.
“This is the stuff we used to dream about,” says Jenkins.
“Everything we thought about is happening now,” says Smith in agreement. “We always used to tell each other we wanted to be the hottest chefs that everybody just got to have at their after party.”
The “Trap” in the company’s name is an acronym for “Take a Risk and Prosper,” an apt title for a business launched on Instagram with groceries bought with food benefits.
It’s a deliciously simple concept. There’s no restaurant or food truck. The two friends decide what dish they’re going to serve for the day, cook it in Smith’s two-bedroom apartment and post a photo on Instagram so they can start taking orders and making deliveries.
“We open at 3:30pm,” says Jenkins who has nearly 54,000 followers. “But people start calling at 10:00 am, whenever I post the menu up.”
They say that sometimes photos of their gumbo, homemade chili or whatever scrumptious meal they’re making that day are so tempting that they sell out even before they make their first delivery.
“[We have] anywhere from 30 to 65 customers a day,” says Jenkins. “Six days a week, seven if it’s crazy. I’m driving everywhere from San Fernando Valley to Pasadena to Orange County to I.E. [the Inland Empire], the South Bay Area, Hollywood, Beverly Hills…”
The story of how two former gang members became the toast of the town is an inspirational one. Jenkins was 12-years-old when his paralegal, single mom, moved their family from West L.A. to Compton, an area notorious for its deadly gang activity.
“I only knew Compton as being negative, a place where it really goes down,” says Jenkins. “When I moved I was still going to L.A. schools.”
It’s because of his protective mother, Sabra Jenkins, that he earned the nickname, "Spanky." Whenever he stayed out too late his mom would come around and drag him home. His friends would joke about his mother who was all too ready to give him a spanking. Eventually he was lured into gangs. It was unavoidable. Even his older sisters dated gang members.
“The culture and nature of gangs have influenced us since the ‘90s, since elementary schools,” he says. “You choose your sides. I always wanted to be a Crip.”
Jenkins made a name for himself as a hustler, selling everything from jewelry and drugs to hair weaves. But at home he was laying the foundations for Trap by becoming a whiz both in the kitchen and on social media. A foodie by nature, Jenkins learned to cook by observing his mom and grandmother. In his late teens he was playing chef to his friends while they worked on their MySpace profiles on his computer.
At 22, he enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas. When he wasn’t in class, Jenkins was out hustling, but this time he had fallen into the lure of the Vegas nightlife, catering house parties where the guest list included pimps, strippers, drug dealers and rappers.
In 2010, a tragic incident forced him to reevaluate things. During a visit home to Compton, Jenkins and some buddies got into a fight with a rival gang. It ended with a 17-year-old friend getting shot in the shoulder, bleeding out and dying in the car as Jenkins rushed him to hospital.
“I won’t ever forget,” he says. “He laughed, kicked his feet up on the dash and said, ‘They got me.’ Then just passed out.”
Traumatized, Jenkins took three months off to grieve and eventually dropped out of school altogether, moving to Portland to work as a personal chef for a group of entrepreneurs he met in Las Vegas. When the nephew of one of his employees was also shot and killed, he decided to change course.
By 2012, back in L.A. he turned to Smith, a Piru Blood he’d known since 2005. In the streets, they’re supposed to be adversaries, but in this case, that was the complete opposite.
“We’ve never been enemies,” says Smith who met Jenkins when mutual friends introduced them. “I knew he was a Crip. He knew I was Piru. It was never nothing because our neighborhoods got along.”
Smith, a former drug dealer who wanted to go straight, was out on probation having recently completed a sentence for marijuana possession. Both men knew how to turn a profit selling merchandise or promoting parties on Instagram. Selling food seemed like a natural progression for people who wanted to make money without risking their life or incarceration. And on January 3, 2013 Trap Kitchen was born. The first dish they posted on Instagram was an Enchilada Pie.
“It’s like a casserole but you can stretch a whole pan and get a profit out of it,” says Jenkins whose goal is to make reasonably priced, five-star meals.
“We paired it with Spanish rice and black beans. We put the post up, how to order and the time we’re going on sale. It’s for eight bucks.”
Within hours they were sold out and had made $300. “It was the quickest, most legit money we ever made,” says Smith.
Their popularity grew from there. A month later Tyrese’s publicist hired them to cater a dinner party at the star’s home. The guests, who included Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and his wife, Justine, dined from a menu of salmon, shrimp and chicken alfredo with spinach, corn and garlic bread.
It was a success and soon they were catering a pool party at Tyga’s home along with his celebrity guests including Justin Bieber, The Game and Kendall and Kylie Jenner.
“They loved the food,” says Jenkins. “Chris Brown was ranting and raving about our tacos.”
Three years later and their reputation has grown providing Trap Kitchen with profiles on Vice and CNN's Great Big Story. An appearance on The Steve Harvey Show is in the works as is a gig catering their friend, rapper Kendrick Lamar’s impending wedding.
They’ve also just finished cooking for promotional events for the movie Barbershop: The Next Cut, which features Anthony Anderson’s character running a similar business to Trap Kitchen in the film. Coincidence perhaps, but enough to have Jenkins wondering, “Did they follow us low-key and put that in the movie?”
Now numerous Hollywood studios are vying to create a TV show based on their story. Nisa Ahmad, a freelance producer who has worked on The Queen Latifah Show and American Idol, is helping to steer and guide their career.
“I’ve been in this business for 20 years. People have not responded to celebrities in the same way these guys are getting a response,” remarks Ahmad. “When we walk into a network the entire office is there to meet us and tell them, ‘Guys we want you to know we’re proud of you.’”
This also includes Jenkins and Smith’s family, especially those who thought the former gang members wouldn’t amount to anything. Despite their success, they never want to lose their connection to Compton or their street affiliation to the Bloods and Crips.
“We’re still active in our ‘hood. Just in a positive way,” says Jenkins.
Their message to others in the gang life about their achievement is relatively simple – you don’t need to have a business plan or a loan to be a success. All you need is faith.