DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Aside from the massive chipmunk mural on its eastern wall, there’s never been anything special about the 8,200-square-foot metal structure at 660 Mateo St.

That will change on Thursday, July 4, when the building, basically a large shed, transforms into Urban Radish. All of a sudden it may be the most popular destination in the Arts District, as it becomes an upscale grocery store that focuses on farm-fresh produce, meat, artisan cheeses and prepared foods. 

“We thought that opening a store in the Arts District was going to be a great opportunity,” said Carolyn Paxton, a former sales and marketing executive in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. She is the co-owner of Urban Radish along with business partner Keri Aivazis. 

It’s an eagerly anticipated addition to a quickly changing neighborhood that has seen an influx of restaurants and coffee shops. Yet until now, anyone needing a big grocery run had to trek to the Ralphs Fresh Fare, a car ride away in South Park.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Jonathan Jerald, an Arts District resident and secretary of the Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association. “It’s got nothing but unanimous support. It’s a much needed resource for our community.”

Paxton, a Barker Block resident, spent about a year looking for the right location for Urban Radish. She decided to come out of retirement to open a grocery store after Aivazis approached her with the idea.

When they came upon the Mateo Street shed they saw a lot of potential, even if it was basically a collection of metal sheets on a frame. 

The nine-month construction process added interior elements such as walls, lighting, a commercial kitchen, back offices, windows and a patio. Paxton said the project cost about $1.7 million. It will create 25 jobs.

Paxton said the July 4 date is a “soft opening,” and warned that it could be pushed back. Although she said all permits have been secured, everything depends on making sure the software system for the cash registers works as planned.

Early last week the market was mostly bereft of groceries, with a few items such as bottles of olive oil, chips, cookies and honey stacked on shiny metal shelves on a polished cement floor. 

Variety of Goods

Although far smaller than a traditional full-size supermarket, which is about 35,000 square feet, Urban Radish has a variety of goods pitched to the fairly affluent Downtown loft resident. 

At one end of the store is a small section with dog food and other pet products, an important element considering the animal-loving neighborhood, Paxton said. 

There’s a section where produce will be displayed in a way similar to farmers markets. Nearby is a table with several large glass jars containing spices such as paprika, oregano and garlic powder — customers will scoop what they need into containers. Next to that, in front of a white tile wall, is a refrigerated glass display case where fish, poultry and beef will be sold. A butcher will be on hand to slice meat and help customers.

A counter near the front of the store will serve made-to-order sandwiches and coffee. It will also have a selection of small production artisan cheeses chosen by the store’s enthusiastic cheese monger, Kia Burton, who sports a tattoo of the Parmigiano cheese label on the inside of her right forearm. 

A wine section is next to the deli counter. A patio with about 30 seats is in front of the entrance. 

For Yuval Bar-Zemer, the developer of the nearby Toy Factory and Biscuit Company lofts and the 7+Bridge apartments, Urban Radish is a sort of missing link in the development of the area.

“It’s going to be a new era in the Arts District,” said Bar-Zemer, who is also the market’s landlord. “It’s the first medium-sized market in the Arts District and it’s the first time people can walk to buy their groceries.”

Further proof of the neighborhood’s desire lies in a 2011 survey commissioned by the now defunct Arts District Business Improvement District. It found that, like the rest of Downtown, Arts District residents wanted a grocery store, preferably an upscale chain. The top choice was a Trader Joe’s. 

Urban Radish does not have the selection or financial power of a Trader Joe’s, and despite the desires of the neighborhood, it is usually difficult for small markets to survive, said David Livingston, a Milwaukee, Wis.-based supermarket consultant who specializes in site analysis and planning. 

“Generally they don’t do very well,” said Livingston, who was not familiar with the Urban Radish concept before being contacted by Los Angeles Downtown News. “Primarily people shop for groceries based on price, so they have to offer them a compelling reason not to go out to another place.” 

There is also increasing competition in Downtown. The Ralphs Fresh Fare is a little more than two miles from Urban Radish in South Park and Woori Market, a Korean-based grocery store, is less than a mile away in Little Tokyo. Groceries are sold in the Target at Seventh and Figueroa streets and other under-constriction options include the Smart & Final Extra in South Park and a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market near Chinatown.

Livingston said success also depends on population density, and that a market the size of Urban Radish ideally should have about 10,000 residents living within a half-mile radius. Although some housing complexes are close by, a June 2012 estimate from the office of 14th District City Councilman José Huizar found the residential population of the entire Arts District at about 2,600. More densely populated areas, such as the Historic Core, are about a mile-and-a-half from Urban Radish. 

Still, Paxton is confident that Downtown residents will come to the market.

“What people are going to find is a full-range grocery store of products they would look for in a Ralphs, a Whole Foods,” she said. “The difference is in the types of quality and the products.”

Paxton pointed to the cheese and meat selections as elements that will stand out. Leading the meat department is Chad Christianson. He said they will stock items such as cured hams, prosciutto and a selection of American dry-fermented salamis

“Our goal is to bring people the old world tradition of cured meats,” he said. “Our offerings are going to be European and American.”

Burton said the cheese selection will focus on small production artisan brands, among them a Manchego with an unwaxed exterior.

“That allows it to develop a full flavor, and it’s really hard to find,” she said.

What may also be hard to find is parking, since there are only 16 spots designated for the grocery store through its Imperial Street entrance. 

Paxton, however, expects Urban Radish to be a place where people from the community walk for a few needed things. She also believes they will return frequently and stay for a meal.  

Just don’t try to walk home with one of the charcoal-colored shopping carts. There are no electronic stopping devices like at some big chain stores, but someone will posted at the entrance, keeping an eye on them. 

Urban Radish is at 660 Mateo St., (213) 892-1570 or urban-radish.com

Contact Richard Guzmán at richard@downtownnews.com.

©Los Angeles Downtown News.