Kika Keith, also known as “Big Kika,” is the owner of Gorilla Rx Wellness, LA’s first Black women-owned cannabis store. The colorful shop on Crenshaw Blvd right around the corner from Leimert Park is filled with pre-rolls, edibles, flower, body butters, and plenty more products. Big Kika’s daughter, Kika Howze, runs the dispensary’s brand relations and marketing wing. And together, this mother-daughter team is making history.
But opening this dispensary wasn’t easy—it took more than four years of navigating a failing Social Equity Program, and a lawsuit against the city of LA. They’ve been up and running since the fall of 2021. We chatted with the powerful duo that made it all happen, and also got to hear about some of their favorite restaurants in South LA.
How do you get started as an entrepreneur?
Big Kika: Well, my business before this was in the food and beverage industry. I had a beverage in Whole Foods since 2008 called Gorilla Life, which is actually the parent of Gorilla RX. We started out by selling our chlorophyll-infused water at farmer's markets and in some medical marijuana dispensaries. Over the next 10 years, we were in 300+ stores.
What inspired you to open your own dispensary?
BK: In 2017, I learned of the legalization of the recreational side [of cannabis]. At the time, there were so many Black politicians in my community who were saying this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Black people in particular, who have suffered so much damage in our communities from the war on drugs, to actually be a part of a brand new industry. We went in-active on all of our grocery store shelves because I really thought it was going to be a nine-month window to get the license. Little did I know, we would still be battling to open four years later.
Outside of business growth, there was another side that really drove my passion for Gorilla Rx. It was because of the historical importance. When I thought about how many Black and brown people have lost their lives, are still incarcerated, are in foster care systems due to collateral damage from drug-related charges, I knew we had to have representation in the cannabis industry. For me, it became more of a civil rights call than just an opportunity for economic growth. That’s why we didn't give up right after the first year.
How has the community around Leimert Park impacted your vision and journey toward opening Gorilla Rx?
BK: I'm a serial entrepreneur and never have I had to engage in the political process for my business. But when I realized it would be a political battle to open our doors, I wanted to make sure my community was also engaged in the fight for a just and equitable cannabis industry. So all of those years while we were fighting and sitting there with an empty building, we turned that into a learning center.
We educated over 2,000 folks in the community and helped folks with their licensing all in the very same building where we opened our dispensary. So I often say it's the house that people have built because, we galvanized, we created grassroots lobbyists, and we eventually won our lawsuit against the city of LA. This victory was bigger than just us and it’s still celebrated in our space.
From the cannabis products that line the shelves to the local businesses you partner with, you both clearly value working within an ecosystem of Black talent. Why is that an important element of your business model?
Kika Howze: We carry the largest amount of Black-owned and social equity brands in our store because we believe in investing in our communities. If we don't bring attention to us and if we don't support us, we open the doors to get our doors shut down. We also love supporting other Black-owned spots in the area, especially since we're in the heart of Black LA. Although we're Black every day, in the spirit of entering Black History Month, were super excited to share some of these businesses.
Big Kika and Kika Howze’s Favorite Black-Owned Spots In South LA
“Definitely wanted to kick off with Chef Kelvin over at Alta Adams. We love that spot and West Adams isn't far from us. Their cornbread with honey butter hits, we love the black eyed pea fritters, and they also make a vegan version of shrimp and grits with fried tofu. And we have books in our store from Reparations Club, which is right around the corner. We usually stop by to browse their shelves after grabbing a quick lunch at Alta.”
“We also love Post & Beam, which is actually our neighbor over in the Baldwin Hills parking lot. They do classic soul food. Chef Martin really stood out to us because he does a private dinner series called “Black Pot Supper Club.” Throughout the 8-course dinner, he highlights the legacy of Hemings & Hercules, who were two of America's first “celebrity chefs.” We recognize them as our Black ancestors who were enslaved and served as the executive chefs for President George Washington. They fought for their freedom through their culinary skills, and we love that Chef Martin celebrates their story in his own kitchen.”
“When you walk from our shop down to the corner of Crenshaw and 43rd Street, you’ll see our ‘Black Women Get Us Higher' mural. We always tell people to check that out, and then go visit Swift Cafe just a few doors down. It’s a great option for vegetarians, and Chef Kyndra makes an incredible chickpea coconut curry bowl. All of the dishes are made fresh in-house and they also hire Black, which is amazing.“
“Hot & Cool Cafe is also definitely a go-to for healthier options in Leimert Park. They have a smoothie we love called “The Garvey'' that's made with things like kale, cherry, and avocado. It’s named after Marcus Garvey, who Big Kika often quotes as a model for Black entrepreneurship. We're located in a food desert, so for Hot & Cool Cafe to serve fresh juices, vegan food, and offer a gathering space for our community has a huge impact.”
“This last one is a newer addition to the area: 1010 Wines. They're the only wine bar in Inglewood and they're also Black women-founded. The two sisters who run it, Lesley and Leanne Jones, are entrepreneurs who have really brought a different flavor to the neighborhood. This is one of the few places that appeals to both the young crowd and the affluent folks who live up in the hills. They're located right on La Brea Avenue, and all their wine selections are Black-owned which is definitely historic.”