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Please direct all media inquiries to Jim Yeager at breakwhitelight public relations.
Written by Michael Y. Park
Photographed by DYLAN + JENI
Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at the changing landscape of food markets. Hyper-local markets—filled with myriad grocery, retail, and restaurant options like the ones found in Europe—are on the rise. These markets benefit from their interconnected buying power but operate like small, independent businesses, allowing them to focus on quality ingredients, culinary innovation, and intimate, personal customer service. Through quality, personal touches, and exceptional product, these new food halls are revolutionizing retail one transaction at a time.
Everyone seems to agree that it’s been a wild couple years for Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles.
The market had been a central communal hub for the Broadway and Bunker Hill for decades after it first opened in 1917, but the city’s freeway-driven growth and years of Downtown stagnation took the shine off. By 2012, 40 percent of the market lay unused. Three years later, the market estimates that traffic has doubled, the market’s new food vendors are getting glowing write-ups (including being named one of the Best New Restaurants of 2014 by us), and you can’t bring up the topic of the market without an Angeleno saying something along the lines of, “Man, that place has changed a lot overnight!”
Ira Yellin had had a vision for Downtown L.A. and bought the market and surrounding properties in 1984 for a mixed-use community that would see a healthy population of residents of newly refurbished apartments, and retailers and shoppers crowding into the market and the Million Dollar Theater (which he also bought), making the area a destination once again. The real-estate bust of the late-2000s postponed those plans, but not indefinitely, and when his widow Adele took over the running of the market in 2012, she intended to finally see her husband’s New Downtown come into being. A revitalized 44,000-square-foot food market would be one more thing to attract hundreds of potential renters and buyers of her 121 Downtown apartments. (There’s also talk of putting in a nearby public-transit station.)
“Downtown was beginning to grow, and the new residential inhabitants weren’t coming to the market,” Yellin says. “We needed to make an outreach to those people.”
She brought in a small team of people with strong ties to the Los Angeles food community who seemed to have an uncanny sense what Los Angeles diners wanted in their restaurants. They approached known names who seemed to be on the cusp of new trends. (“We wanted chef-y chef types in here, who were entrepreneurial and made really good food,” Yellin says.) The first restaurateur on board was David Tewasart, who owned two well-known Thai restaurants in the area but wanted to bring back a focus on simple, authentically Thai grilled street food.
“I don’t want to be harsh, but I used to pass by the space regularly, and it was definitely … dormant,” Tewasart says.
Still, the location was hard to beat, and the potential seemed obvious. He quickly agreed to try running a stall in the market for a year. If that went well, he’d re-sign. That was in 2012. Now Sticky Rice has not only thrived and become a must-go destination for lunch goers, it’s also doubled its size and menu with its Sticky Rice II add-on.
“I found Adele intimidating,” Tewasart confesses. “Well, maybe not intimidating, but she has this great vision and you can see that she sees where she wants this to go. But when I came in, I immediately felt welcome with the other vendors here—they became some of our best customers here.”
“When Sticky Rice opened, we started seeing some of the people in government offices come in, and then the some of the hipsters started coming in,” Yellin says. “And then when G&B Coffee opened more of them came in, and it took on its own life and has just been growing and building ever since. Belcampo, for example, is just killing it.”
The market put in much-needed tables and seating, turning one end of the market into a busy patio constantly buzzing with shifting arrangements of diners and shoppers. The market has also kept in mind a balance of eateries and meat and produce vendors, to make sure the place doesn’t become just that lunch place, or just that place to get cheese and flowers for dinner.
“That was very important to the market, to Adele, that this be a real market, where you can buy produce, where you can buy a chicken, but a nice piece of fish, nice cheese, sausages, and then still have the market downstairs where you can get a razor blade and toothpaste,” says chef Mark Peel, who’s opening the seafood-themed Bombo across the aisle from Sticky Rice.
But a nearly century-old market carries a lot baggage with it, and the new faces and new plans for the market and its surroundings clearly smack of the dreaded “G word”: gentrification. They hardly qualify as haute cuisine, but people couldn’t be blamed for worrying about the fates of beloved eateries like Sarita’s Pupuseria and China Cafe. Since Sticky Rice opened, 19 more new vendors have signed on, and the market expects seven more by the end of this year. Currently, there are 40 vendors total in the market, meaning that nearly one in two is less than three years old.
Yellin insists that the market is taking great pains to respect the wishes of the customer base that still wants to go to the candy shop, or buy pupusas, liquor, or discount general goods. China Cafe, run by a third generation of owners since 2012, is planning on putting in a new counter but keeping everything people seem to love most about the place, like the original neon signs and menu board and meal options, pretty much exactly the same.
“We’ve re-signed a lot of our legacy tenants,” Yellin says. “We help them fix up their booths, redo their signs. It’s a work in progress. I’m not displacing vendors, I’m encouraging the best of the best to stick around. I knew that they were all going to say, ‘You’re gentrifying, you’re gentrifying!’ But I also knew that if I didn’t do anything, they’d say, ‘You’re not doing anything!’ So I decided to bite the bullet and do what I’m going to do.”
And that, she says, is giving the people of Downtown Los Angeles back a public space to eat together and talk.
“I see it as a place for people to eat well, and have an opportunity to get away from being in front of their computers all day and connect to other people, have that human connection,” she says. “In a funny way, it’s back to what the market was about at the beginning, when it was a little bit of everything, and people used to come here with their grandfather or father on the streetcar and do their family shopping for the week. That’s something Ira and I really believed in, that our city needs a place for people to gather. We don’t have enough of those.”
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