The Grand Central Public Market

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Why has the 68-year-old market survived while other great business establishments that once stood proudly nearby have sickened or perished? Ask any of the owners of the 52 stalls in the market, ask the market’s management, or, better yet, ask the customers: Their answer?

The prices can’t be beat.

The produce stalls are works of art. Arrayed before customers are fruits and vegetables with a jewel-like gleam that suggests that they have been waxed and polished. Employees arrive before dawn to mound the displays into a dazzling mosaic of reds (tomatoes), greens (leafy vegetables), yellows (apples and bananas) and oranges.

And there is a bewildering miscellany of products offered by sellers of condiments and spices, including probably the most tantalizing assortment of richly colored chili peppers to be discovered north of the Mexican border.

Approximately 25,000 patrons trek through it daily, 60,000 on Saturday.

In this day of the slick supermarket, where customers can buy anything from a pasta-and-duck salad to a slice of goat-cheese pizza, the cavernous old food hall hunkered between Broadway and Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles, by all rights, should be as extinct as the horse-drawn carts that once delivered foodstuffs there.


Enduring Institution

Instead, Grand Central Public Market, while not as hale a she once was, remains one of the city’s most enduring institutions and still pulses with a carnival-like vitality. The flossy big chain stores and the zippy little neighborhood convenience shops are pale shadows compared to the Grand Central in terms of vibrancy, continuity and character.

“Funny thing about this market,” said George Cohen, who opened a discount bread stall in Grand Central 33 years ago and now operates three. “I don’t think it will ever die. It’s had its ups and its down. But you just can’t keep this market down.”

The most recent testimony to the market’s lasting power occurred this summer when it was acquired by a new owner, a corporation headed by Beverly Hills attorney Ira Yellin, who has abandoned his law practice to devote full time to the market. Yellin hopes to expand the market while maintaining its essential character as what manager Tracy Lyon, a partner in the new corporation, calls a “people’s market.”

Why has the 68-year-old Grand Central survived while other great business establishments that once stood proudly nearby have sickened, perished or skedaddled elsewhere?

Ask any of the owners of the 52 stalls in the market, ask the market’s management; better yet, ask the customers who continue to patronize it and the answer never varies: The prices, especially on produce and bakery products, can’t be beat.

Happy Customer

“Chili is cheaper here. It seems like all the Spanish products are cheaper here,” said Francisco Ortega, 34, a kitchen assistant who lives in Glendale with his wife and two small children.

“I come to buy because this is where the prices are good for everything. Everything is in abundance here,” said Fermin Gonzales, 64, a retired mechanic who was reared in Cuba and lives near the market. “The store owners treat people well--not like animals as in other places.”

Grand Central merchants historically have catered to a widely diverse mix of ethnic groups--first, Italians, Jews, Russians and Germans and finally, Latinos. They still do, by offering under one roof an astonishing variety of products that normally can be found elsewhere only in specialty shops.

“In this market there is something for everybody, something to appeal to every ethnic group,” said Irving Kazan, 65, who started work for his future father-in-law in the Grand Central 40 years ago.

Nevertheless, the Grand Central’s overwhelmingly predominant tilt today is toward the Latino customer. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the showcase of fresh meat displayed by merchant Johnny Silva, 43, owner of Silva’s Fiesta Meats, the market’s biggest butcher shop.

Uncommon Fare

Alongside such common cuts as roasts and chops, Silva’s showcase displays marginal meats that appeal almost exclusively to Latinos, such as pigs’ ears and snouts and whole heads of sheep, pork and beef.

Silva’s friend Ralph Penilla operates Roast to Go, a fast-food stall in the middle of the market. A customer can buy a baked lamb’s head to take home or soft taco to eat standing up, the most popular of which contain, besides the popular carne asada (steak), such delicacies as beef cheeks and brains and pig snouts, deep-fried then sauteed with onions and tomato sauce. Also buche, a much-in-demand taco filler of fried hog maws.

And consider this from Silva: “When you have a big immigration raid on illegals, our business really hurts. You know what happens downtown when there’s a bus strike? Well, an immigration raid does the same thing to us.” Mexico-born Lillian Martinez, 44, a sewing machine operator who lives in Lincoln Heights with her husband and two small sons, observed, “They have things here from my country. It is like my country.” And automobile-painter Miguel Salgado, 27, whose bus ride to the market from his Hollywood residence requires an hour, said, “Everything is cheaper and one feels like one is in Mexico.”

Los Angeles-born Joe Silva, 40, said he thinks that he and others of Latin extraction are attracted to the Grand Central because “in certain countries, the marketplace is the place to meet people and they come here out of habit.”

A recent Community Redevelopment Agency survey found that 76.6% of the pedestrians “on the west side of Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets” on weekdays are Latino. The report attributed this to the presence of Grand Central Market.

Food Stamp Purchases

Cohen and fellow Grand Central merchants estimate that food stamps account for 20% of the purchases throughout the market.

“The first two weeks of the month are our busiest,” said Maria Lopez, who with her husband Manuel and sister-in-law Manuela own all three fish markets in Grand Central. “Because that’s when the poor people still have stamps, haven’t run out of them yet.”

“People always are saying to me,” said 80-year-old Bill Dolgenow, a deli operator in the Grand Central for half a century and the dean of the market’s merchants, “ ‘If it wasn’t for the Grand Central Market, I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t afford supermarkets.’ ” Dolgenow’s buying and merchandising practices are textbook stuff on how to conduct a successful business in the market.

He buys in great volume at substantial discounts from suppliers overstocked with items that conventional retailers snub. Then he sells, according to his estimate, for “about one-third less than the supermarkets can.” Discounts on produce and bread prices in Grand Central are even greater. Said Dolgenow, “By working on volume, people in this market don’t have to make a big profit.

All seven Grand Central delis also buy meats and cheeses that are “over the code date,” a benchmark by which other retailers require that a product be sold, even though the items’ shelf life remains good for days and even weeks after the marked date.

For instance, Cohen buys bakery products that may have reposed “three or four days” in a supermarket or a supplier’s warehouse. “Maybe the bread isn’t as soft as it was fresh. But if you toast it, you can hardly tell the difference,” he said. “Nothing stays here long.”

Bargain Bread

On this particular summer day, Cohen also was selling English muffins for 20 cents a package or five packs for 50 cents. And bread for 20 cents a loaf or three loaves for 50 cents. “When the shopper comes to us, he never knows what will be his biggest bargain--because we never know.”

The Lopezes, Manuel and Maria, both 40, concentrate principally on fish at their three stalls but also sell poultry. Paul Bodine, their accountant who has worked for Grand Central operators for 35 years, contends that the Lopezes’ fish is the freshest sold in Los Angeles, as well as the least expensive.

“Our selling price is based on what it cost us,” Bodine said. “That changes every day. The reputation of these three stalls was built on fresh fish. It’s caught one day and on sale here the next.”

Five percent of the fish is flown in (trout from Idaho and catfish from Louisiana, for instance). The remainder is trucked in.

Their biggest seller is carp, a bony fish unliked by many Anglos, but favored by Grand Central’s clientele. One recent day carp, which accounts for half of the fish sold by the Lopezes, was going for 89 cents a pound.

Most Grand Central merchants are unwilling to discuss the details of their businesses. Not so the Lopez family. The couple estimate that sales run about $17,000 a week in slow months and about $30,000 a week during the busy months of January through April. At their three stalls, the Lopezes employ 30 people, all of whom speak Spanish as well as English.

40-Year Veteran

Irving Kazan, 65, started work for his future father-in-law in Grand Central 40 years ago. After marrying the daughter of the late David Bardovi, a native of Turkey and the operator of a stall dealing principally in nuts and dried and glazed fruits, Kazan, a native of Russia, became a partner in the business and, upon the older man’s retirement, bought him out.

Kazan’s stall, now smack in the middle of Grand Central, continues to carry the name “Bardovi and Kazan.” All 10 of Kazan’s employees also speak Spanish. “Without the Latino trade, we would close this place,” Kazan said.

In its survey, the Community Redevelopment Agency came up with responses that underline the importance of the Latino shopper to the market. The survey, while directed specifically at determining ways of revitalizing Broadway--"downtown Los Angeles’ busiest retail street"--found that the old market plays a core role in the thoroughfare’s overwhelming Latino-oriented commerce.

Among other findings, the survey found that:

- Ninety-two percent of the Broadway pedestrians interviewed said they consider themselves to be Latino (one-half said they were natives of Mexico) and 62% said that when they visit the street they shop in Grand Central.

- On Monday through Saturday, when the market is open, foot traffic on the west side of Broadway where Grand Central stands exceeds that on the east by 22%.

- When merchants on Broadway were asked how important the presence of Grand Central is to their own business, 49% said either “extremely important,” “very important” or “important.”

Tons of Trash

Just keeping the market running is no small task.

The market employs a janitorial crew of 15, split into day and night teams, who remove an estimated seven to eight tons of waste daily. Day crew janitors constantly patrol the market’s aisles with brooms. “We’ve got two trucks in the alley at all times,” Tracy Lyon said. “One accepts recyclable material like cardboard boxes and the other (takes) garbage.”

The market is remarkably crime-free, although police receive complaints of winos collapsed outside and drug-dealing on the sidewalks and in an alley alongside it. Police Capt. Billy Wedgeworth, who has been stationed in Central Division for the last five years, calls the Grand Central “a peaceable place.”

What one sees is not necessarily what one gets since throughout its history the market has been dogged by complaints that some of its merchants, particularly produce vendors, practice sleight-of-hand.

Most produce merchants insist that customers keep their hands off the displays, somewhat fairly because so much work has gone into preparing them in the early morning hours. Clerks bag purchases from stocks of supplies behind the displays and unseen by the patron.

In the past, customers frequently complained that when they arrived home what they pulled from their shopping bags was not only of poor quality but in some cases rotten. In some instances, the charges of misrepresentation were valid.

But in recent years, such complaints have been reduced to a trickle because of strict monitoring by market management and health and sanitation experts who make periodic inspections.

“Once there were flagrant deceptions. Things have improved over the years,” said Jits Teruya, deputy Los Angeles County agriculture commissioner whose department enforces state produce quality standards. “Most (merchants) try to toe the mark.”

Parking Needs

As for the future of the city’s dowager queen of markets, both Yellin and Lyon hope to provide for some kind of automobile parking structure, the lack of which they see as a deterrent to a broader-based patronage.

Yellin envisions acquiring property adjacent to the market to provide “a drive-in delivery court” that would eliminate the clutter of trucks that now deposit their cargo throughout the day at the Hill Street entrance. That, he added, would permit him to create an airy addition of “a sit-down cafe environment right off Hill Street.”

“I would like maybe a few different kinds of restaurants there which would attract business people now in the area and those from the new buildings going up nearby,” Yellin said.

Perhaps the single biggest change he foresees is opening the market on Sunday--if there is agreement among the businesses, many of them family run.

Whatever the changes, Yellin makes one promise regarding Grand Central’s future: “It will not become Westside cute,” he said. “I want it to remain an authentic old food hall.”

Times staff writer Mirna Alfonso contributed to this article.