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‘The End of an Era’ as Owners Sell Landmark Vickman’s Restaurant

Times Staff Writer

For nearly half a century, Harry Vickman has gotten up at 2 a.m. six days a week to make breakfast for a cross-section of hungry Angelenos who begin streaming into his landmark restaurant in the downtown wholesale-produce district an hour later.

These days, he and his wife, Barbara, both 68, are sleeping an hour or two later, having sold their 67-year-old business for $1.2 million this month to three owners who insist that the staff, the food, the early hours--and the prices--will remain essentially the same.

Chief baker Robert Pena and head chef Juan Garcia, who have worked for Vickman a total of 53 years, will stay on. “We’d be very dumb to change anything,” said Vincent Giuliana, 51, an Upland banker who, as one of the new owners, now stands behind the cash register at Vickman’s Restaurant and Bakery. His partners are two Russian Jewish emigrants, Meir Itaev, 31, a chef and restaurant administrator, and Michael Kishner, 46, owner of several other Los Angeles restaurants.

Surveying the morning bustle at the establishment at 8th and Merchant streets, the white-aproned Vickman showed only a hint of sadness at what some customers are calling “the end of an era,” the sale of one of the city’s few remaining old-fashioned, family-run eateries.

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“We will miss it,” Vickman said this weekend, adding that they plan to stay on as long as the new owners need them, then travel and spend time with their grandchildren in San Diego County and Idaho.

“Ours is a very personal business,” said Vickman, many of whose customers and employees go back many years. Although the couple decided to retire several years ago, they said they passed up several corporate offers to buy them out because they were looking for buyers capable of continuing that personal tradition. “We wanted people who were young, experienced, and had their own money in it.”

Doors Open at 3 a.m.

From the moment the doors open at 3 a.m., lines of customers--more than 2,000 a day--line up at the long food counter for fresh strawberry pie, deli-style sandwiches, bran muffins, their special Market omeletes, man-sized meals at fair prices, and occasional gourmet fare such as the first kiwi-tarts baked in the city. Mini-carafes of coffee are 50 cents, and magazines are free.

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The long communal tables ensure that nobody stays a stranger for long; private conversations can take place in a row of wooden booths, unchanged in more than 50 years.

As the day progresses (business hours are 3 a.m. to 3 p.m.), the restaurant’s character changes. In the early morning hours come the produce and flower market workers and truck drivers who’ve been working all night. By mid-morning they have given way to garment industry employees and artists from nearby lofts, and by lunchtime the tables are filled with politicians, judges, Civic Center workers and “uptown” business people drawn by both good food and ample parking.

Vickman’s actually dates back to 1919, when Harry Vickman’s father, Mordecai, and another young waiter, Jack Ward from the then-famous Vernon Country Club, saved up $3,000 to buy what they called the V. and W. Restaurant at 1st and Spring streets.

The restaurant, later called Vickman’s Feed Bag, and finally, simply Vickman’s, moved to its present location in 1930. Vickman joined his father in the business in 1940; his wife stayed home to raise their three children until 1970, when the elder Vickman died. She pitched in to help, and wound up as the other half of the organization. With somewhat better hours: She got to sleep until 3:30 a.m.

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