Echo Park Merchants See Boom in Store : Rebuilt Pioneer Market Spurs New Business Around Sunset Boulevard

Times Staff Writer

Humberto Galvez was searching for a spot to test his new idea for a fast-food restaurant.

After his El Pollo Loco charbroiled chicken chain had been bought out by Denny's Inc., he decided to market brochetas, a kind of Latino shish kebab of fish, beef, pork or chicken.

He knew he wanted to start out in a lively, relatively safe neighborhood with a big Latino population, a lot of pedestrian traffic and plenty of nearby shopping. And he did not want to be in a mall.

Galvez looked throughout Los Angeles County for months, he recalled, until he saw a former hardware store at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Logan Street in the shopping hub of Echo Park.

The area met all his requirements and had another asset: a totally rebuilt Pioneer supermarket had recently opened across the street and seemed to be bringing a spark of new life to the aging commercial district tucked in the hills just west of Dodger Stadium.

Galvez leased the store, put in, he said, about $250,000 worth of renovations and opened in September what he hopes will be the flagship of a new chain.

His shiny blue-and-white-tiled restaurant, called Pescado Mojado, is now reportedly doing about $40,000 worth of business a month, with a top-priced item of $2.59, a volume he said he had not expected to reach until spring. He is so pleased that he is planning to open three more outlets in Southern California.

"I think that, if I am not going to make it here in Echo Park, forget it. I wouldn't make it anyplace else," said Galvez. "This area has a lot of potential."

Such optimism is being heard more often these days along the 10-block strip of Sunset Boulevard from Alvarado to Douglas Streets, which is the soul of Echo Park. The longtime "Mom and Pop" businesses there have survived waves of various immigrant groups, competition from the Glendale Galleria and the Eagle Rock Plaza, and a bruising recession.

Now, new stores are opening and some old ones are sprucing up. Commercial rents are spiraling and real estate agents say there is more competition to lease the few available storefronts.

"People tend to be, perhaps, overly enthusiastic about these things. But there is a feeling of regeneration in the area," said Eugene Dudley, a senior grants manager with the Los Angeles Community Development Department.

To be sure, the shopping district is far from fancy. Its customers are mainly low-income Latinos and, increasingly, Asian immigrants. The neighborhood has its share of problems with youth gangs, crime, homeless people, dilapidated housing, graffiti, litter and parking shortages.

But in the biggest change, the Pioneer supermarket between Logan Street and Echo Park Avenue replaced its cramped 60-year-old building and an adjacent tenement with an enormous modern store a year ago. Gone are an unsightly alleyway and a rear parking lot where, police said, gangs and other "undesirables" gathered. The market's new parking lot is in front, well-lighted and patrolled by security guards.

Crime Down Some

"There's no place to hide anymore," said Lt. David Waterman of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, which patrols the area. "It's like the saying, 'You disturb the bird's nest and the birds never come back.' "

In the approximately two-square-mile district around the supermarket, reported street crime has dipped somewhat and police attribute that mainly to the new parking lot. In the third quarter of 1984, the most recent available statistics, there were 1 street robbery, 26 auto break-ins and 7 aggravated assaults. In the same period of 1982, before construction began on the new market, there were 8 street robberies, 33 car break-ins and 7 assaults.

"Let's put it this way," explained officer Eugene Akesson, Rampart's statistician. "Most of our radio calls used to be for gangs thumping away in the old rear parking lot. Now the area seems to be drawing a nicer crowd."

Vagrants in Lot

Although vagrants still frequent the new front lot, it creates a much-desired jumping off point for customers to other stores, merchants say. And the market itself, with its new specialty departments and wider selection, seems to be attracting more middle-class shoppers from nearby Silver Lake and even from apartments on Bunker Hill.

What's more, some gentrification in the adjacent hills, especially the restoration of Victorian homes on Angelino Heights, has helped, as has the boom in downtown offices, only about a mile away. It is not unusual for white-collar employees from downtown to lunch at such Echo Park landmarks as Barragan's, Nikola's or Les Freres Taix for, respectively, Mexican, Yugoslav, or French food.

"The area looks a lot nicer and there have been quite a bit of new openings," said Eleanor Caudillo, whose family runs Celaya's Bakery across the street from the supermarket. Increasingly, customers will shop for groceries at the supermarket and then stop at Celaya's for such Mexican specialty breads as bolillos and conchas, she said.

Two doors away at Finer's, a family clothing store that has been in the neighborhood for 61 years, Jack Finer reported that his business has been up about 10% since the new supermarket opened--even with increased competition from some discount fashion stores nearby.

Finer and his daughter, Jacqueline Reed, said their main competitor remains the huge Glendale Galleria. But they, like other Echo Park merchants, say they counter the selection available in big department stores with their own personal service. New customers at Finer's are offered a cup of coffee; old customers are given a hug.

"There are not too many Momma and Poppa-type store areas left like this in L.A.," said Reed, whose grandfather founded the shop and whose sons sometimes come in to help. "I personally have faith in the area. But you have to offer values and service to survive."

All within a block of the supermarket, the Pescado Mojado, two new shoe stores and a woman's clothier have opened in the past year or so, and a pharmacy and children's shop are preparing to open soon.

In addition, the Pioneer Chicken fast-food walk-up, the first in the 335-store Pioneer Chicken chain, is planning to combine and renovate its two buildings near the corner of Echo Park Avenue. Next door, the Phoenix Bakery is expected to open in a few weeks a Chinese bakery and delicacy shop--its first store away from its home base in Chinatown--in a free-standing building that used to house the supermarket's liquor department.

A spokesman for the Chan family, which owns the Phoenix, cited two reasons for the choice of location. First, like Galvez and other merchants new to the area, the Chans liked being near the supermarket, which he described as "a major new hub in that area." Second, he said, Phoenix wants to appeal to Echo Park's growing Asian community.

Products for Local People

"Being there, we can offer local people these products without them having to go to Chinatown and, of course, we hope to draw from everybody else in the existing community too," he said.

Echo Park once had large Italian, Jewish and Eastern European populations and there are still Jewish merchants, Italian bakeries and a Ukrainian crafts shop on Sunset Boulevard. The bulk of the population then shifted to Mexican, with a more recent influx of refugees from Central America, Vietnam and Cambodia.

But no matter what foreign-language newspapers are sold at the huge newsstand on Echo Park Avenue or what ethnic foods beckon in grocery windows, the area has kept the feeling of a small city's main street, a pocket within the metropolis.

Shopping Area Survives

"It's a very curious area; it's always been humming" said Bill Garcia, an aide to city Councilman John Ferraro, whose 4th District includes part of the shopping area. "Most other little shopping areas like it have gone under. But, through a combination of geography and zoning, by accident or design, the street keeps on going."

Because it is surrounded by hills, where the zoning is mainly residential, Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park has not been a victim of commercial sprawl as have other older shopping districts. "So that makes for a relatively compact, lively area," said Garcia.

That compactness, however, also means more competition for space and, recently, higher rents. A few years ago, storefronts on Sunset that rented for about 75 cents a square foot per month now cost as much as $1.50 per square foot, some real estate agents and merchants say.

There are also complaints about some exaggerated boosterism.

"Landlords see the new Pioneer and think the area is much better. But it only looks that way. Looks are different from actual business," said Young Choi, who has owed the Crown Shoe store for eight years. "Business is steady here--not really good, not really bad. Nobody is starving. But nobody is making a lot of money except maybe the Pioneer market."

The Pioneer market is synonymous in many minds with Leonard Leum. He began as a stock boy at a Safeway store, was hired as an assistant manager at Pioneer and eventually bought the three-store chain. He is, as they say, a hands-on owner and makes his own wholesale orders from offices above the Sunset Boulevard store.

Subsidized Loan Obtained

Leum had been thinking for years about rebuilding the cramped store and even acquired some adjacent properties. But, he recalled, the big push came in 1980 when Los Angeles put his unreinforced concrete building on the earthquake danger list for eventual renovation or replacement. "That got me thinking that I'd better start doing something or I'd be hanging out to dry," he said.

At first, he found it difficult to get financing for the project, which cost more than $4.4 million, including land. But then the city Community Development Department helped arrange for a federally subsidized Urban Development Action Grant loan of $840,000 at several points below market interest rates in hopes that the new market would attract new investment to the area. Leum then found private financing for the balance.

The new 45,000-square-foot store was built on the rear parking lot while the old store, half its size, stayed open. After the new store opened last January, the old store was demolished and the parking lot installed. Leum never missed a day of business, even though there were many inconveniences and a parking shortage during the nine months of construction.

Although he declined for competitive reasons to reveal his sales volume, he said his new store is doing 40% more business than its predecessor and 30% more than expected.

Sales Tax Figures

The Community Development Department says the store reported collecting about $89,500 in sales taxes during the third quarter of 1984, contrasted with $37,000 in the same period the previous year; some of that, however, is attributed to the much wider range of taxable non-food items being offered. About 100 people are employed there, 25 more than in 1983.

The store appears to be a success for Leum, the neighborhood and the city, officials say.

Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, whose 13th District covers some of Echo Park, said: "The whole area is starting to revitalize. I don't know whether the Pioneer market is the whole reason, but it's definitely part of it."

Leum asked: "Who would make a big investment like this if you were leery of the neighborhood?"

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