Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, natural wine and toilet paper: Sara’s Market in East L.A. adapts to the times

Satisfied with his purchases, longtime customer David Ramirez leaves Sara's Market.
Satisfied with his purchases, longtime customer David Ramirez leaves Sara’s Market. The market, located in unincorporated City Terrace, has adapted over the years to offer customers a greater variety of goods. It has had to adjust, again, during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In an East L.A. neighborhood dense with mini-marts, the flamingo pink Sara’s Market is hard to miss even as you zoom down the busy stretch of road on which it has sat for 60 years.

For nearly all of that time, the tiny family-run store, originally called Hilda’s Market, has been a place for the neighborhood’s predominantly Latino residents to grab snacks, household supplies, Mexican beer and American sodas.

It still is, for the most part. A wire rack stacked high with Cheetos and Fritos stands just inside the heavily stickered doorway, and just beyond are shelves of refried beans, sugary cereals and instant ramen. But then you notice the anomalies: pastel-colored organic oat milks in glass apothecary jars; fresh Kernel of Truth tortillas and locally roasted coffee beans; and, tucked in a back corner, a small but mighty selection of craft beer and natural wine more commonly seen in minimalist wine shops in Silver Lake or Echo Park.


While wearing a mask and gloves, Sara's Market co-owner Steven Valdez sorts tortillas.
While wearing a mask and gloves, Sara’s Market co-owner Steven Valdes sorts bags of tortillas.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
A variety of oat milks from Leche on display at Sara's Market.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
Elis Hoyos and Leo Abularach, co-owners of local company Post Era, refill the display at Sara's Market.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“You would never expect it,” said Kyle Lambert, who runs Bootleg Pizza, which pops up occasionally in front of Sara’s Market.

Six years ago, Sara Valdes and her husband, Steven, took over the 800-square-foot market that had belonged first to her great-uncle and then her parents. Since then, she’s transformed it into a unique hybrid: part traditional convenience store, part avant-garde trendy bodega.

“I’ve always wanted to play store,” Sara, 33, said. Stocking parts of the shop with indie brands and hosting pop-ups was a natural evolution for the couple — “We just like to eat,” she says matter-of-factly — driven in part by requests from customers for a wider selection of goods.

Sara’s Market was hitting its stride in recent months, jammed every afternoon with kids from the nearby schools; they’d load up on candy and chips while their parents perused the selection of pet-nats and skin-contact wine. An active social media account and a steady lineup of pop-ups — Lowkey Burritos one night, Evil Cooks tacos or Love Hour burgers the next — helped draw crowds from all over to this little-known corner of L.A., the unincorporated community of City Terrace.

But then the coronavirus outbreak hit, and though Sara’s Market has been permitted to stay open, it’s shifting gears once again.

Hours have been cut, and the market now operates just four days a week: Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Only four customers are allowed in at a time to maintain physical distancing, and customers are limited to one item per person for essentials such as toilet paper and paper towels. Its once-busy sidewalk pop-up calendar — which had been booked through July — is now largely empty as vendors call it quits and customers are urged to stay home.

Sara’s Market has weathered a lot in its six decades, but this “might be the hardest part so far,” Sara said.

There are some upsides. One customer made Sara, a lifelong baseball fan, a Dodgers cover for the N-95 mask that she now wears at work every day. Alcohol sales are up, as is demand for staples including rice, beans, paper goods and instant soups.

“The wine is selling super fast,” she said. “Especially right now.”

Sara and Steven Valdes
Sara Valdes and husband Steven, owners of Sara’s Market in City Terrace, share a laugh with longtime customer David Ramirez. Another customer made Sara a Dodgers-themed cover for the N-95 mask she’s been wearing since the coronavirus pandemic hit Los Angeles.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The Valdeses are worried about their ability to restock the shop fully in the coming weeks. But for now there are still good organic tortillas and bottles of Czech natural wine, as well as Foca brand laundry detergent from Mexico for the neighborhood grandmas.