Grand Central Market | Press Coverage | Lucky Peach | By Aralyn Beaumont Grand Central Market has been a fixture of Downtown Los Angeles for ninety nine years.
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Changing Times at Grand Central Market
February 02, 2016

By Aralyn Beaumont

Grand Central Market has been a fixture of Downtown Los Angeles for ninety nine years. The cultural make-up of the market has reflected the waves of immigration that have shaped LA: mostly Eastern European and Japanese retailers in the early to mid-twentieth century Asian and Latino vendors in the latter quarter of the century.

Since 2013, however, gentrification—not immigration—has been the primary force shaping the market and the surrounding neighborhood. In the past three years, more than twenty new merchants have opened in the market—and more are on the way. These new businesses have brought a type of customer to the market: someone more interested in cheekily named breakfast sandwiches and square-shaped falafel, than they are in picking up their grocery essentials.

Those are some of the changes that Paul Serrano, Jr. of Sarita’s Pupuseria and Grand Central Jewelry is grateful for. His family has been a part of Grand Central Market since 1980, when his mom, Sara Clark, started working at the jewelry store she would eventually buy. After nearly two decades of running the store with her mom and brother, Clark finally had the funds to open her own Salvadorian restaurant. Sarita’s has been open since 1998, but it hasn’t been an easy road.

Paul Serrano, Jr.: It was hard in the beginning—and became even harder when the financial crisis hit in 2008. There were times when we didn’t know if we were going to make it. We just stuck with it. People have always said they loved our food but during those years, no one was coming down here.

Paul translating for Sara Clark: I love the changes that are being made compared to back then—it’s magnificent! The market looks better now, and I really like everybody here. It’s progress. There are people of different cultures and different ways of life, which is so beautiful to see. And it’s helping our business—we get a lot of tourists now too.

I opened Sarita’s because I saw a lot of people from my home in El Salvador. I wanted to give those people a taste of home.

It took years for Clark to refine a Salvadoran menu that worked for the market. She dropped chile relleno and beef empanadas and expanded vegetarian pupusa fillings beyond the classic jalapeño con queso, to include squash, mushrooms, spinach, carrots, and potatoes.

“This is all food she would eat at home in El Salvador,” Paul says of his mother’s cooking. “She was twenty-eight when she moved here. It’s a beautiful thing, the opportunity my mom took. It makes you think anything is possible.”

Across the market, G&B Coffee represents the post-2013 wave of vendors. Helmed by Charles Babinski and Kyle Glanville, two United States Barista Champions, G&B opened after a brief pop-up at Sqirl in Silverlake. The idea to open in GCM began when Glanville overheard Joseph Shuldiner, a consultant for the market, talking with one of their regulars about how the market needed a coffee vendor. Glanville told him, “Oh, that’s us. We are your coffee vendor.” Glanville and Babinski were early on enough that they had free pickings, landing an airy spot upfront on Broadway.

Charles Babinski: I used to live a block away but didn’t know the Market existed. One day, I wandered in and was like, Holy shit, this is really cool, this is special—all the stuff that people feel when they walk in here for the first time. It’s not something you would necessarily expect from Los Angeles—the bustling urban center, the large market, the greenery.

Now everybody’s like, Oh yeah, of course, downtown. But three years ago when were getting this lease figured out, it was not. People who have had successful businesses in other parts of town told me, This doesn’t make sense. Have you actually been to downtown? But we could see that downtown was changing—and changing much quicker than everyone thought. We really believed in downtown. That was our number one reason for opening here.

There are definitely more people here now. When we started the clientele was only tourists and people who had been coming to the market for years. The big change happened when people from Los Angeles started coming downtown. And now it’s the thing that people do on the weekend. They come downtown to visit new places like the Broad and MOCA, and old-school spots like Grand Central Market and the Last Bookstore.

When we first opened, people who had been coming to the market for years asked, What happened to the… And it would be a different thing every single time: “What happened to the sand place? What happened to the juice place? What happened to the ice cream place? Most people are positive, but there’s a disconnect between the traditional clientele of the market and where things are going. To the credit of the people behind Grand Central Market, they’ve been trying to bridge that more than just push it out of the way. We’re a small business too, but there’s always going to be a “who the fuck are these guys” sort of vibe. We just try to give people great coffee and we do it with a smile. That works no matter where you are.

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