Sara’s Market

Sara and Steven Valdes own Sara’s Market. 

Less than a 10-minute drive from Downtown, in a relatively sleepy corner of East Los Angeles on a largely residential stretch of City Terrace Drive, a tiny storefront market has established itself as a vital hub for culinary pop-ups, food trucks and vendors since 2017.

Sara’s Market has been a family-owned and -operated business in the community for more than 60 years. The market’s namesake, Sara Valdes, and her husband, Steven Valdes, represent the third generation of family operators at the store.

They are also responsible for the lively rotation of culinary pop-up events occurring just outside the store that have helped to transform their business and their neighborhood.

“So originally the store belonged to my great uncle Pedro Martinez,” Sara said.

“When he had it, it was called Hilda’s Market. He ran it for about 30 years or so. When he was getting ready to retire, he passed it down to my mom and my dad, so they ran it for another 30 years. So same thing, when they were getting ready to retire, Steven and I had just gotten married. They sat us down and they asked us what they should do (with the store), sell it or hand it down? They asked us if we wanted to take over. Steven always said he wanted to play ‘store.’”

Steven quickly interjected, “I had a Fisher-Price cash register when I was younger, so it automatically came into play.”

In conversation, the pair all but complete each other sentences and there is the sense of an ineluctable chemistry between them. Steven recalled the beginning of the relationship.

“We met in high school at Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills,” he said. “Sara used to get bused out there. I used to live out there.

“One day — I should have been in class — and she came out and knew one of my friends and I told Sara, ‘You don’t know it yet, but you’re the love of my life.’”

Sara added, “It’s funny because I had never seen him ever before and we had mutual friends. We just never ran into each other up until that day.”

“From that day on, I saw Sara everywhere,” Steven said.

Sara affirmed that he was everywhere. The couple have been together for 17 years. They are frequently asked how they get along so well because they’re together all day.

“It just works,” he said. “We’re total opposites. I’m a morning person; Sara’s a night person. I’m up at 6:30 in the morning. She’s up until 3 in the morning. So, we both still have things to talk about, which is very interesting, even though we’re together all the time.”

In 2012, newly married, the two were both educators. At the time, Sara’s parents — Teresa and Juan Carrazco — approached them about taking over the family business. Sara was a teaching assistant at nearby Harrison Elementary and Steve was a campus aide working out of the dean’s office at Woodland Hills Academy. They each transitioned into working at the store over the course of a year.

The idea of hosting food trucks and pop-ups was born out of necessity.

“Since we’re there all day, it’s sometimes very difficult for us to actually cook something,” Sara said. “So, it got to the point where, whenever we did want to go out to get food, there really wasn’t much around in the area other than your typical fast food and taco stands. I could probably eat tacos every day.”

Steve said the last straw was a Bottega Louie order from Uber Eats that was $160. He said he would rather support the neighborhood than spend that kind of money on food delivery.

“So, Steven and I started throwing the idea around to invite food trucks and food vendors to come out and see how the neighborhood took it,” she said.

“At the beginning, we got rejected plenty of times. People did tell us the neighborhood wasn’t for them, or some people were asking for a guarantee of 600 or 700 people. From the get-go, we were very honest. We have no idea how many people are going to show up, just because this is brand new to us and the neighborhood.”

In 2017, Sara’s Market hosted its first pop-up featuring the Carnitas el Momo taco truck. The owner, Billy Acosta, sold out in an hour and a half.

“I will never forget this, when we met Billy, he came by the store,” she said. “We were able to meet him face to face. We gave him the concept, and I’ll never forget, he did tell me, ‘If I sell just five tacos, that’s five extra tacos I’ve sold in a day and five new people.’ So, he came out and it was a huge hit.”

Acosta’s Carnitas el Momo kicked off a successful pop-up series. The market served as a successful launchpad for a number of successful ventures, notably Bootleg Pizza, which started as a pop-up, moved to a truck, and then opened its own store on West Pico Boulevard in December.

“It’s also really nice to see how some of our vendors have evolved throughout their journeys,” Sara said.

“Some of them, when they come to the store, they tell us, ‘We’re brand new; we’re starting up.’ We don’t care if you’ve been around or if you’re just starting up. We’re always here to provide that space. There are some vendors that have gained some good momentum, and it’s really nice to see.”

Bootleg Pizza also helped with the pandemic pivot, implementing a timed ordering system for pickup to avoid crowds and appearing on a regular schedule at the store. Meanwhile, the couple struggled to keep the store shelves stocked and relied on the local community of vendors to help them.

“I’ve really got to say that we wouldn’t be where we are right now if it wasn’t for our small-item vendors that we carry in the store, because they stuck by us,” Steve said.

In addition to a neighborhood market’s usual necessities, the store stocks an intriguing variety of products from local craft vendors like Kernel of Truth tortillas; Tijuana Freddy’s salsas; fresh chorizo and wings from The Chori-man in San Pedro; artisanal prepared teas from Holy Basil; Chinese Laundry brand condiments and sauces; even tortillas and frozen burritos from nearby Burritos Las Palmas. Custom six-packs of local craft beers can be assembled, and there’s a credible selection of natural wines.

“They were also very patient with us,” she said about the market’s customers. “Our hours were constantly changing because we were just trying to figure everything out, and they were very, very patient with us. So we’re very grateful for them as well.”

Pre-pandemic, their pop-up schedule was booked six months in advance and there were no “regular” slots. Now they book one month at a time. The weekly schedule is posted on the Instagram page

@sarasmarket.

On Tuesdays, there are two regulars — the Los Dorados truck (@losdoradosla) serving flautas and Hustle n’ Dough

(@hustlendough) serving fresh artisanal doughnuts.

On a recent late Tuesday afternoon, patiently expectant customers formed a line halfway down the block as the trucks set up for business.

“We’ve always loved this sport,” said Adam Bunnell, Hustle n’ Dough’s doughnut master. “It’s been an amazing spot for pop-ups.”

Meanwhile, Los Dorados’ Estiven Orozco worked the line, taking advance orders from customers. He was even more effusively emphatic about the value of Sara’s Market.

“I live in the community,” Orozco said. “There’s a shortage of food options in the neighborhood. It’s good for the community. It creates community.”

Sara summed it up, “It’s been very interesting. It’s been a great journey. Come visit us. Come by. We’ll be there. We’ll always be there.”