A part of Downtown Los Angeles’ diverse history, the Grand Central Market is celebrating its 103rd anniversary this year.
Grand Central Market has endured two global pandemics, COVID-19 and the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Creative Director Erin Mavian said like the city, the market has been through ups and downs, but it has survived by constantly reinventing itself.
“It’s been a cornerstone of Los Angeles culture since Los Angeles started,” Mavian said. “There weren’t a lot of things that were around at the turn of the century in LA. Grand Central Market is one of them.
“Downtown Los Angeles has a rocky history. The resilience and perseverance of the market and the vendors, knowing what they’ve gone through in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, all the way up through today, it is inspiring.”
To celebrate its anniversary, the market recently held a Market Mashup series, in which vendors worked together to create special dishes.
Mavian said thus far, customers have responded positively to the mashups, and these types of collaborations are likely to continue.
“To see a collaboration between your favorite vendor and another vendor at Grand Central Market is really appealing. We wanted to think of reasons to bring people to the market in a safe way,” Mavian said.
“Because the mashup only runs for a certain amount of time, it is limited edition. That creates a sense of urgency. You definitely want to try it and taste it.”
The market is planning to bring in chefs and restaurant concepts for pop-ups. Wexler’s Deli spotlights guest chefs as part of its Hustle and Motivate series.
Sticking with restrictions
This year, the market has evolved as it has to adjust to changes due to the COVID-19.
The biggest adjustment is many of the vendors have had to offer takeout, curbside pickup and delivery options.
Mavian said with changing times, it is important for vendors and the market as a whole to develop innovative offerings that attract new and returning guests.
The Oyster Gourmet, for example, created disposable trays in which oysters stay fresh for three to four hours.
“It’s a moment of innovative, invention and reinvention,” Mavian said. “We are not afraid to try things. We always look to our community of vendors but also to LA as a whole for what we should do next and ways to interest and excite people about Grand Central Market.”
From Thursdays to Sundays, the market has been holding a weekly bazaar where artists, makers and merchants can sell their work. The bazaar starts at 11 a.m. and goes until closing.
The 30,000-square-foot market offers a mix of more than 35 vendors, some of whom have been in the space for decades and others who are newer to the market.
COVID-19 has been tough for local businesses, and market vendors are not immune to this. Two vendors, Press Brothers Juicery and Kismet Falafel, closed their market locations this year.
Over the next few months, a handful of new vendors are expected to start operating.
Mavian says it is important for the market to offer diverse, high-quality food options for guests.
“It’s a really special place,” Mavian said. “Because there is limited space, we are careful with who and how we lease. We are very thoughtful. We root for the underdogs because at one point Grand Central Market was an underdog as well—people who are local to Los Angeles, born and raised or moved here and are invested in the community and Downtown, people who have incredible stories and backgrounds and are committed to enhancing the experience of Grand Central Market and serving world-class food on a daily basis.”
A buffet of food
Grand Central Market has been in operation since 1917 and has attracted a variety of customer bases over the years.
When it opened, it was frequented by wealthy homeowners from Bunker Hill, who bought their groceries, ate lunch and attended theater Downtown.
Later, the market was popular among working-class people who worked and shopped in Downtown, including members of the Latino community.
These days, the market draws an eclectic mix of foodies from different parts of the city, many of whom are longtime supporters of the mom-and-pop vendors.
At the beginning, the open-air market offered bakery, deli, meat, fish, flower, candy and specialty item stalls. These days, vendors tend to sell prepared meals and artisan items such as cheeses, meats and baked goods.
Many of the vendors draw customers looking for specialty or seasonal foods, such as strawberry or peach doughnuts from the Donut Man.
A few of the vendors offer exclusive items that are only available at their market locations. Customers can find fried artichokes at Golden Road Brewing, LA-style pastrami sandwiches at Wexler’s Deli and duck fat fries at Belcampo Restaurant and Butcher Shop.
At the heart of the market are longtime “legacy” vendors, who have helped to bring in loyal customer bases and shape the space into what it is.
“The majority of those businesses are either family run or generational, which we love,” Mavian said.
The oldest vendor, Roast to Go, which sells tacos, burritos and meats by the pound, opened in 1952.
China Café offers dishes like chow mein, fried rice, chop suey and wonton soup. It started at the market in 1959.
Another of the market’s longtime vendors, the Latin grocer Chiles Secos, has operated at the market since 1975 and offers homemade moles, dried beans, rice and specialty products.
The owner of Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, a vendor offering items such as tortas, tacos and burritos, started working at the market in 1972. His stall, which opened in the ’90s, continues to be one of the most popular spots at the market.
Grand Central Market has been at the center of Downtown LA’s culture since it opened in October 1917 on the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building, Downtown’s first steel-reinforced and fireproofed building.
This structure, along with an adjacent annex building, has been home to the market throughout its history.
Throughout the market’s 103-year history, these buildings have always been privately owned.
Adam Daneshgar of Langdon Street Capital, the latest owner, recently purchased the structures, along with the historic Million Dollar Theatre, in 2017.
Before this, they were owned by developer Ira Yellin and his wife Adele, who worked to update and bring in new vendors to the market.
Mavian said it is important for the market to continue to grow along with the Downtown area to meet the needs to those it serves.
“Downtown is definitely having a renaissance moment,” Mavian said.
“Having new, interesting and unique concepts is important, as trends, restaurants and lifestyles change. We do pay attention to what people are talking about, if there’s a new up-and-coming chef or any type of cuisine. We’re always in touch and talking as a community and with our vendors.”
“It’s important for us to pay attention, especially as Downtown continues to build up with so much residential development. Anticipating what the needs of the Downtown residents and the DTLA community are going to be in the next five, 10, 15, 50 years is also really important to us.”