Transforming an old classic for a new neighborhood
It’s lunchtime at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, which can mean only one thing: chaos. But Adele Yellin, the market’s owner, is unfazed. Eyeing the line of customers at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, a Santa Barbara dairy hosting the opening of its Grand Central location, Yellin shouts, as she does most sentences, “I’m thrilled! I’m giddy!” She’s in her late 60s, trim and chic, with a gold bracelet snaked three times around her wrist and an equally outsize laugh. She would look a little like Judge Judy, if Judy had more patience and kind eyes.
Yellin’s office is across the street in the famed Bradbury Building, but she’s in the 30,000-square-foot market frequently, checking in on vendors. Often, like today, she’s flanked by two bespectacled men. The three have an easy rapport, almost like family, though Yellin actually pays Kevin West, a onetime editor at W magazine and the author of a book on canning, and Joseph Shuldiner, the founder of a local culinary school and the author of a vegan cookbook, to seek out the hip and delicious and bring it to Grand Central Market. She doesn’t like to refer to them this way, but they are essentially professional gentrifiers.
When Yellin’s late husband, Ira, a legendary real-estate developer, bought Grand Central Market in 1984, it was the neon-signed hub of downtown’s Latino community, a bustling collection of taco stands, produce stalls, and miscellaneous vendors. Ira died in 2002, too soon to see the neighborhood transform as he’d predicted it would, with an influx of more than 30,000 new residents between 2000 and 2013. Eager to attract this loft-dwelling demographic, Yellin undertook an overhaul of the market beginning in 2012, one that’s been alternately debated and celebrated.
She interviewed a string of potential consultants, many of who advised her to bring in a chain restaurant as an anchor. “Things that went into malls,” Yellin says, her face crinkling as if she’s smelled something unpleasant. She complained to her daughter-in-law, a magazine editor in New York, who suggested that Yellin talk to West, whom she knew from his days at W, and his friend Shuldiner. Neither had consulted on a project like this before, but they were already plugged into L.A.’s pop-up restaurant scene. While both have been certified Master Food Preservers, their looks are distinct: West, 44, favors snug T-shirts and expensive-looking jeans, while Shuldiner, 57, tends toward comfortable footwear and a look that one might call “farmers market chic.”
“Adele started to talk about this vision that she had,” West says of their first meeting. “She wanted the market to be an incubator — a launching pad for new businesses. She wanted the new and the young and what’s happening right now.”
By working their connections, Shuldiner and West have recruited a lineup of vendors that landed Grand Central Market on Bon Appétit’s list of the Best New Restaurants of 2014 (despite it not really being a restaurant). “It’s like curating a gallery,” Shuldiner says, pushing past a crowd of men in Euro sneakers sipping beers while waiting for wood-fired pizzas at Olio. As we make our way toward G&B Coffee, one of the first vendors they secured, he tells me, seriously, that “a coffee bar sets the tone for everything else psychologically.”
West explains the screening process they developed for vendors, a checklist they jokingly call “the Vend-O-Matic”: Is a vendor L.A.-based? Does it have an established following? Is it minority-owned? Does it have a business plan? “Then there is the X factor, the cool,” West adds. “Also: Does Adele like them?”
Standing on the market’s west patio, Yellin takes in the crowd at Horse Thief BBQ, which is owned by some Texas transplants West met through a mutual friend. She eyes the rows of wooden tables brimming with smoked brisket. “Adele doesn’t like reclaimed wood,” Shuldiner says, as if anticipating her next thought.
“This is an urban market!” she says. “It wasn’t my favorite. But they said the idea came from the Donald Judd space in Marfa. So I said, OK, it’s outdoors, they look like picnic tables.”
Inside at the Belcampo Meat Co. counter, which sells rib-eye steaks for $34.99 a pound, West introduces me to a handsome butcher in a white coat. “This is Young Buck,” he says. Belcampo replaced a long-standing carnicería, and Young Buck — real name Alex Jermasek — admits that Belcampo’s pricing sometimes draws confused looks from old-school patrons. “The [carnicería] hadn’t been sourcing their meat from their own farm,” he says.
Fernando Villagomez, the owner of Las Morelianas, has been operating out of the market since 2008. As he hands out samples of his pork carnitas, he admits that some of his longtime Latino customers no longer feel welcome. “They told me, ‘Where are the vegetables? Where is the meat market?’” he says. But he’s renewed his lease anyway, citing a rise in foot traffic.
Other vendors are less pleased with the market’s new direction. The owner of Valeria’s, a purveyor of chiles and other dry goods, noted that its rent had gone up by more than $700 a month, and the owners of Torres Produce told the Orange County Register that their space was downsized. For the legacy vendors, Yellin says, “we give advice every once in a while. We’d like them to perk up. Just freshen up a little bit.” Do the vendors take it? “No,” she admits, breaking into a laugh.
But there does seem to be some cross-pollination. The bakers at Valerie Confections use mole from Valeria’s in their mole brownies; the owners of DTLA Cheese hired the daughter of the owners of Torres Produce to help out in the kitchen. As we pass Sarita’s Pupuseria, owner Paul Serrano greets West and Shuldiner with a genuine smile, though he calls them by the wrong names.
It’s after 3, and the lunch crowd has thinned out. A sign at Wexler’s Deli, a recent addition, notes they’re out of rye bread. “How do you run out of rye bread?” Yellin asks.
“You sell a lot of sandwiches,” West replies.