Building a hungry following
“We started just to stay out of trouble,” explains Roberto “News” Smith, the sous chef of Trap Kitchen, who started selling food out of an apartment kitchen in Compton with chef, and former rival gang member, Malachi “Spank” Jenkins in 2013. “We wanted to find something else besides hustling in the streets to make some money and we noticed that we had a gift with cooking.” Jenkins, a former member of the Crips, attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas and had recently returned to LA after catering to high-end “nightlife” clientele in Vegas and later for entrepreneurs in Portland. “He had a big following on Instagram and he was already documenting the pictures of his food, and you'd see the comments, ‘Oh, that looks so good, can I try that?’ or ‘Do these guys do parties?’ So I noticed that and thought, ‘People want to buy this,” so we ran with it,” says Smith, a former member of the Pirus (Bloods), who was introduced to Jenkins through a mutual friend.
"I already had a store on Instagram, selling clothes, jeans, watches, and other things, and it gave me the idea that people would shop for food there, too,” explains Smith. “People already love to shop online, so it's sort of the natural evolution of it. But I like selling food better because once a person has bought the merchandise, they don't come back until you have something new. So if you don't get anything new, you have to find some new customers. With food, they don't care -- they'll come back 20 times for the same thing."
The first meal Trap Kitchen posted to Instagram was an enchilada pie, a casserole loaded with meat and seafood, served with a side of Spanish rice and black beans, which included a number to call or text for pick up. They sold out within an hour, pocketing $300 in profit. “It was surprising how quickly it went and how much we made in that amount of time, so I got addicted to it,” admits Jenkins. “All I had to do was make a post, I didn't have to go through a middleman or pay anybody. I already had a following, so it just worked.” Smith adds, "It's free marketing! What people are paying top dollar for, we get for free everyday.”
The popularity of Trap Kitchen quickly grew among friends and neighbors, as they continued posting on Instagram with customers stopping by the apartment to pick up their orders or via delivery thanks to their friend DJ Kev. Then suddenly, they had their first celebrity client. “Two months in, we caught the attention of somebody that works for Tyrese Gibson, and we got a call from PR team about catering,” says Jenkins. “And it just snowballed from there.” Since then, they’ve cooked and earned praise from the likes of future Coachella headliner Kendrick Lamar to John Legend and Lenny Kravitz at The Roots’ Grammy party, shot an episode of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg’s new show, discussed a show of their own with networks, and travelled around the country to cook. They’ve since moved their operations to the Harbour Gateway neighborhood of South LA and now have nearly 24,000 followers on Instagram.
The inspiration for many of Trap Kitchen’s meals -- which are hearty and have that comforting flavor that comes from home cooking -- comes from Jenkins wanting to put his own spin on dishes he’s encountered at restaurants that he’d never had before. One of their most popular (and Instagrammable) options that is The Deadliest Catch -- named for Jenkins’ favorite Discovery Channel show and inspired by a pineapple bowl at a Thai restaurant. It features a carved out pineapple half loaded with lobster, King crab, and shrimp with the option of additional meat, including beef, salmon, or chicken, all on top of rice. He also aims to make the menu -- which focuses on 10 dishes, one featured each day -- more affordable to his customers. He gives the example of their surf and turf, which features shrimp and an option of beef, chicken or salmon and includes lobster garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus, garlic bread, and a soda for $10. “A lot of people don't have the luxury of being able to try that stuff at a steakhouse” he says. “So my idea was to recreate the surf and turf and make it affordable to the streets, so that everybody can have that dining experience.”