In the desperate quest to revitalize brick-and-mortar shopping, developers are turning every sleepy strip center, office park and industrial zone into a mixed-use lifestyle laboratory.
Some call them foodie districts, anti-malls or hipster havens, complete with curated, vegan-friendly, free-range certified, conflict-free, sustainable fair trade.
If you ever wonder if you’re in one of these places, just look for reclaimed wood and exposed pipes.
Artisanal is the word of the day here. It’s used so frequently in marketing materials to describe modern shopping that one would think India, China and the other manufacturing powerhouses were suddenly filled with actual crafty artisans.
In Orange County, it started more than 20 years ago with The Lab Antimall in Costa Mesa, which was way ahead of its time. Now there are little pockets of alternative shopping like The Mix, Anaheim Packing District and Union Market.
The Mix, off Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa, was simply contrived out of a moribund furniture center surrounded by big office buildings. If there wasn’t a Google Maps, you wouldn’t find it.
But here’s the thing: It has some really great stores and restaurants.
Taco Maria, for example, has been called “the most important Mexican restaurant in California,” according to Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times.
When you meander through these mazes — and they are mazes — there is a start-up feel to many of the shops. Some are still being built out.
It’s unclear how many of them will stick, but it’s not for lack of creativity.
Greenleaf restaurant in The Mix claims a “farm-to-face spirit.”
“At the crossroads of delicious and simple, our drive to love, laugh and live longer was born,” it says on the menu. “We look beyond today, forging our legacy out of authentic experiences, fresh ingredients and exceptional people.”
In reality, the place — you know — sells salads and stuff.
But they’re good. You can make your own with thai chili, ricotta salata, agave-roasted walnuts, lemongrass lychee dressing and other things I can’t pronounce.
Most of these alt-stores have a carefully created brand that’s not supposed to look like a brand. It’s an odd mix between nostalgia and farmers market chic.
You’ll see lots of mason jars and Bing Crosby vinyl, beards, wool caps and Red Wing construction boots that look a little too new. In fact, there are more varieties of boots walking around than there are tennis shoes.
Unsigned indie music plays overhead. It will never be on the radio, but that’s the point. It has an audience here, and that’s OK.
Portola Coffee is hot right now. The company has six locations in Orange County — almost all of them in alternative sites. The slogan is “their hands, our hands, your hands.”
It’s a sustainable thing. But if you’re a coffee snob, you will want to experience it. Chances are you will soon be driving 20 miles out of your way for a cup, thus erasing any environmental benefits.
This new lifestyle shopping approach has some critics. A couple of years ago, the New York Times saw this metamorphosis happening on a city level, where people were basically priced out of Brooklyn, so they went to the suburbs and created these zones. The Times called it “hipsturbia.”
Certainly you can see the trappings of the hipster elite. A more generous term is “creatives.”
In these places, you are more likely to see people carrying vintage viewfinder cameras and drinking craft beer. Their tattoos tell an ongoing story.
In the parking lot are an unusual number of Fiat 500s, Subarus and VW Tiguans. Their owners have a rugged, yet bespoke appearance — and they are not afraid to wear hair product.
At Union Market in Tustin, however, it’s a different vibe. First of all, it’s a box within a mall, so it doesn’t have the iconoclastic panache of an Anaheim Packing District.
You can’t escape the affectation. It’s clearly a little better than a traditional mall, but it’s still surrounded by acres of asphalt and faux buildings with signs that tout a theater-style font. Perhaps someone thought the flair would make the experience more dramatic.
In this pop-up culture, entrepreneurs will want to reach a younger audience. They will try to say and do all the right things.
The challenge will be to sustain actual buyers. With couches and caffeine, it’s easy to lounge in a temperature-controlled space all day. But how do you capture lightning in a fickle market?
The hip things today become dad jokes tomorrow.
But, hey, at least we’re eating better.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.