Virtu Coffee

Virtu Coffee owners Justin Geeter and James Fastiggi anticipate their concept in Santee Passage will open in October or November.

Downtown will soon be home to another food hall, but this one prioritizes giving first-generation business owners a space to try their concept in a hip open-air environment instead of pop-up stands. 

“We want to create essentially a community-based food hall that is not populated by Starbucks or those kinds of major retail players of the world,” said Nam Trang, portfolio manager at Essex Property Trust, developer of Santee Passage and the Santee Court Apartments above it.

The purpose for Santee Passage at 700 S. Los Angeles Street is to “hone in the up-and-coming Angeleno concepts and incubate them to potentially give them a platform to grow, and hopefully they become something bigger than what they are today,” Trang said.

The first two tenants at the 23,000-square-foot building hope to open within the few months. They are Vegan Hooligans, a pop-up restaurant serving vegan comfort food since 2018, and Virtu Coffee, making its debut within Santee Passage. 

Other future tenants include Holy Basil, a DTLA pop-up serving Bangkok street food, as well as Korean-inspired BBQ+RICE and specialty beverage retailer The_Base.

“Our end goal is you can be dirt poor but if you make this amazing concept, we’ll find a way to put you in there,” Trang said. Many tenants have a cult following in the community, where they constantly get requests for a physical location, he said.

Vegan Hooligans runs its pop-up restaurant by renting out an Eagle Rock 1950s diner after hours and using its kitchen. The pop-up has almost 45,000 followers on Instagram and is known for its fast-food favorites like the McDonald’s McRib and Taco Bell’s Crunch Wrap. 

“What we want to do is reach out to the whole community and not just vegans,” said owner Jose Mejia. “The biggest misconception is that a lot of vegan food just consists of salads and fruits and stuff like that.”

Vegan Hooligans is the only all-vegan vendor in Santee Passage, which Mejia said has its benefits. If everything goes to plan, they hope to be open for business in the next three weeks, he said.

The space at Santee Passage will allow them to offer their new widely anticipated breakfast menu featuring breakfast burritos and chilaquiles, Mejia said, also mentioning that they’ll keep running their pop-up in Eagle Rock.

“That’s the location where I was born and raised, and I definitely want to stay back and continue to serve my community,” he said.

The developers of Santee Passage aren’t just signing leases with anyone; they are taking their time to select the best vendors that will create an authentic Angeleno food hall. 

Rather than have a bunch of similar food options, Santee Passage strategically chooses unique vendors to offer a variety of tastes and flavors, also offering spaces for offices and boutiques, Trang said.

Becoming a part of Santee Passage is almost like dating in a way, Trang explained. He said he gets to know potential tenants for sometimes as long as six months, meeting with them often to taste the products and ask them their goals and values as a business before he decides if they are a good fit. 

“There are two reasons why people want to go into the restaurant business,” Trang said. “One is because they want to make money” and two is because they “want to share the concept with the rest of the world.”

Younger “mom-and-pop” vendors who want to make a difference in themselves and their community are most likely to get the green light to move in, Trang said. While Pizza Hut will be grandfathered in, as it was a legacy tenant in the building.