Over the last 16 months or so, our shopping habits have fundamentally changed—and likely for good. Rather than spend an afternoon wandering Melrose with a friend during the pandemic, we stayed indoors browsing Etsy and Wayfair, or One Clicking items we didn’t really need on Amazon. We took the occasional trip to the supermarket, sure, but most other local businesses felt the crunch: retailers saw a 98 percent drop in sales year-over-year for much of April 2020, which in turn caused some 12,200 stores to close nationwide (a 22 percent increase over 2019). And it was Los Angeles that suffered more than any city in the U.S.
But a year and a half of isolation and our increasing reliance on e-commerce left many wanting more, and a crop of independent business owners seemed to sense a desire to return to something more local: the neighborhood market.
In January, Wine + Eggs opened in Atwater Village, followed swiftly by Open Market in Koreatown, and then Sesame L.A. in Chinatown (which is currently on a summer hiatus), each one an intimate retail space focused on community and driven by a strong sense of personal narrative.
“I was mainly thinking that I wanted to share some of the things I grew up with, highlight Asian makers, and also have a reason to help my mom open up her kitchen,” Linda Sivrican tells Los Angeles of the concept behind Sesame L.A.
Sivrican, the owner and perfumer behind Capsule Parfumerie, found herself in Chinatown recently, and noticed that the neighborhood, which she has been frequenting since she was a young girl, had been hollowing out. So, she decided to stay in her pop-up space and open Sesame LA. “That’s when we decided to turn it into a market because I felt like the neighborhood needed something that they could really embrace that they didn’t have yet,” Sivrican says. “It seemed like it needed a community market.”
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This personal connection to (and intimate understanding of) the communities they serve is a trait also shared by both Wine + Eggs and Open Market.
Wine + Eggs owner Monica Navarro has called Atwater Village home for the last decade, and had grown tired of hopping in the car and driving at least then minutes to Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake or the Whole Foods in Glendale when she wanted some fresh produce or wine for the night. Navarro wanted to create an inclusive market for herself and the community that didn’t “just carry really high-end products,” says Crystal Kim, COO of Wine + Eggs. “We wanted to carry things that ranged in price points” from just a few dollars on up.
Brian Lee, co-owner of Open Market L.A. in Koreatown, had a similar realization. “We really started honing in on this idea where Koreatown is going to evolve, it’s going to change, how can we be a healthy part of that change?” Lee, who is Korean American and grew up visiting Koreatown his whole life, explains. “How can we do it in a responsible way, in terms of educating the consumer?” And we, the consumer, are as ready as ever to invest in our communities.
“Even though we were socially distanced over the past year, we really saw this return to community engagement and being part of something bigger and on your local home turf,” says Meghann Martindale, head of retail research at commercial real estate service MadisonMarquette. She notes that, as we emerge from pandemic life, the consumer trend is to support small, local businesses. “We are clearly seeing this pent up demand from consumers, and we’re seeing it in the data in terms of traffic and sales,” Martindale continues. We don’t want to be relegated to shopping only online, detached from our environment, Martindale explains, and so we’re returning to “small business, the local mom and pops, because of that need for connection.”
In fact, a report by global consulting firm Accenture found that “56 percent of consumers are shopping in neighborhood stores or buying more locally sourced products, with 79 and 84 percent respectively planning to continue with this behavior into the longer term.”
“The pandemic touched us all at a very human level and with that came a new appreciation for frontline workers and for our neighbors who were working in our local communities,” Jill Standish, global retail lead of Accenture, recently told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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As I talk with Sivrican, her mother and father enter the store delivering carts of food. “Seventies are the new sixties,” she says as her father unloads trays of egg rolls, pickled vegetables, and other prepared meals. Most of the ready-to-eat food sold at Sesame comes from Sivrican’s mother, Judy Mai Nguyen, while some of the dishes are made by monks at the Truc Lam and Pho Linh Buddhist temples. “It’s good juju,” Sivrican says of supporting them, adding that most of the products in her store are sourced from the local Asian American community. She cites a Chinese American woman who entered the store with some samples. The woman pitched Sivrican on her homemade granola, and now Sesame L.A. carries Art of Snack granola.
The same woman, Kimberly, walked into Open Market L.A., which now carries Art of Snack too.
“We could bring in basically half the lineup at Whole Foods, and we know that they are good enough products where people will recognize them and will buy them,” explains Brian Lee, co-owner of Open Market. “Or we could change the conversation and say, we know a friend down the street that’s making hot sauce, and it might not be health department-permitted hot sauce yet, but let’s get them there,” he continues. It’s a vision of working within the community, building relationships, and letting the rising tide of mutual success raise all boats. “Those $300 from us can help [the hot sauce maker] out so much more than let’s say the multinational corporation.”
It’s this idea that is the antidote to the digitalization and corporatization of our lives. Fostering community is as much a goal for Open Market, Wine + Eggs, and Sesame as selling a sandwich or hot sauce.
And consumers want that engagement too, says Martindale. We want the vibrancy of local artisans and niche purveyors as “there’s a newfound appreciation for that coming out of COVID and how our shopping patterns were forced to change since March of 2020.”
“We always create a space for our customers to come talk and hang out,” says Wine + Eggs’ Crystal Kim. “We never force any ‘you need to buy this product or you need to try this’. Even if [customers] walk in and they walk out empty handed, we had a great conversation.”
It’s a business practice shared by all these small markets, Sivrican says, “where you feel like you want to linger.” It’s her hope that “more markets like this open up that are specific to the community.”
In South Central L.A., Olympia Auset has been working to turn SÜPRMRKT, her organic grocery pop-up, into a brick-and-mortar pillar of the community, while in City Terrace, Sara’s Market has grown into part-market part-incubator for local restaurants. Sivrican herself has been considering opening a second location for Sesame L.A., but before entering a new community “you have to make sure that you understand the food—it’s not just about the culture, the food tells you a lot about the culture.”
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