Hungry for upscale retail

Times Staff Writers

Most weeknights after 5 p.m., a line of patrons snakes around the Olive Garden restaurant in Palmdale, where hungry diners face an hourlong wait. The story is the same at the El Torito next door and the Red Lobster up the street, where the wait on Friday and Saturday can last two hours.

Just about every sit-down eatery in the west Antelope Valley has a line at the dinner hour because there are not enough sit-down restaurants to meet demand in the fast-growing region.

“I don’t even consider it anymore,” said a frustrated Barbara Lods, 43, a marketing representative from Lancaster.

In the newly minted subdivisions and gated communities on the fringes of Southern California, residents express concern about traffic, schools and crime.

But what really gets them going is the lack of sit-down dining and upscale shopping.


Cities and towns in the Antelope Valley and Inland Empire have long been among the fastest-growing in the nation. Once written off by retailers as lower-middle-class “starter” communities, these areas are rapidly going upscale.

Now, former metro Los Angeles and Orange County residents weaned on gourmet grocers and glittering fashion emporiums want their California Pizza Kitchens. And their Nordstroms. And their Banana Republics.

The clamor has spurred local leaders into action as they try to convince skeptical high-end retailers that a formerly blue-collar town such as, say, Palmdale can support such enterprises.

“Perception is reality,” said Mark McGaughey, a vice president with commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis in North Hollywood. “In their minds, the Antelope Valley is still a remote blue-collar, high-crime, backwoods kind of area.”

McGaughey was hired by the city of Palmdale to try to lure retailers -- and acknowledges it has been an uphill battle. “Some of these restaurants, tenants and service providers, they want their brand associated with Santa Monica and Brea and Brentwood,” he said.

Of course, inland cities are nowhere close to Brentwood and Santa Monica when it comes to property values or income levels. Still, the inland areas have seen major increases in spending power.

In 1990, the median annual income of households in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties was roughly $33,000, but by 2005 those figures had climbed to $52,000 and $49,000, respectively.

That’s still below the statewide average of $54,000 -- but the jump is being fueled in large part by a boom in $800,000 to $1-million homes in such places as Corona, Rancho Cucamonga, Chino Hills, Riverside and Palmdale. And those residents want the retail to follow.

“It becomes a statement of who you are, that you’ve arrived,” said Riverside Mayor Ronald O. Loveridge. “It helps define and give cachet to a city.”

For residents looking for fulfillment in their search for high-end retailers, the holy grail these days can be found on Interstate 10 in Rancho Cucamonga, 50 miles east of L.A.

Once a punch line for comedian Jack Benny, Rancho Cucamonga now bills itself as the “Inland Empire’s premier city,” in part because of its success wooing high-end retailers.

Rancho Cucamonga officials tirelessly sold the city at trade shows and in industry publications. Its standing among the nation’s fastest-growing cities helped appeal to chains, such as Banana Republic and California Pizza Kitchen.

Officials attended trade shows, such as the International Council of Shopping Centers, to romance retailers and developers. In advertisements and at booths, the city repeated its claim that the Inland Empire was no longer just cow pastures and dairy farms.

It was at one show a few years ago that the city made its pitch to mega-developer Forest City Enterprises Inc. of Cleveland, which two years ago opened the 1.3-million-square-foot Victoria Gardens “lifestyle center.”

It was considered a retailing watershed for the Inland Empire. Victoria Gardens boasted the region’s first Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, and the apparel and home decor retailer Anthropologie opened in 2005.

In another coup for Rancho Cucamonga, the tony W hotel chain announced last month it would build a hotel there.

Jim Ellis, a USC marketing professor, said the success of Victoria Gardens signals hope for other far-flung Southern California suburbs because it shows how business locations are selected: Once one retailer of a certain caliber flourishes, others flock to the area.

That’s what happened in Riverside.

Loveridge said an official from an upscale grocer that Riverside wanted once told him the chain “wanted to locate somewhere where people read labels.”

But the success of Victoria Gardens, plus Riverside’s aggressive efforts to lure upscale retail, is beginning to pay off with the recent arrivals of chains such as Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s. The city keeps a top-25 list of retailers it still pines for, including Whole Foods, home store Z Gallerie and apparel chain White House/Black Market.

Although not as far along as Riverside and Rancho Cucamonga, the Antelope Valley is getting there.

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said the city’s annual surveys repeatedly indicate that residents want more upscale shopping and dining.

“Things like Elephant Bar, Claim Jumpers -- that level,” Ledford said. “We think we have everything it takes to get them to come to our community. But there’s still this stigma that we’re so far removed from the L.A. Basin, in a remote location, and we don’t have the income or the education or the desire to spend.”

In an effort to attract bigger names, Palmdale officials recently hired a national site selection firm, Buxton Co., to help hone the city’s sales pitch to national brands.

The firm produced detailed “psychographics,” looking at the spending power of the city’s residents and estimating how much a particular store might earn in a particular market.

“The most critical piece is for cities to differentiate themselves from everyone else by communicating in dollars and cents what their customer base is, or the business will say, ‘You don’t have a customer base to support my store.’ ” said Amy Wetzel, vice president of Buxton’s western region.

Until the last few years, shopping and dining in Palmdale and Lancaster were dismal, local leaders said, consisting mostly of discount stores and a few mid-range restaurants in a sea of fast-food eateries.

But recently, an upscale retail boom has taken root in the Antelope Valley’s most affluent area, western Palmdale.

The area, with some $800,000-plus homes, now also has some businesses that residents had been asking for, including Bed, Bath & Beyond, Trader Joe’s and Barnes & Noble.

Can a Nordstrom be far behind? Even some Antelope Valley residents questions how upscale their area can become.

Beth Wolford, 44, of Quartz Hill, says that despite the new luxury housing developments, most newcomers to the high desert are middle-class two-income families who are putting all their resources into their homes and do not have the extra money to spend at high-priced stores and restaurants.

“I think they’re being a little hopeful,” Wolford said of city officials. “I don’t think there’s enough people who have the cash to spend that kind of money. They can’t afford to live in L.A., so they move to the valley. They’re already stretched financially buying bigger homes here.”