During a recent cooking class at With Love Market & Café, Karla Vasquez prepared what she described as a healthier version of a grilled cheese sandwich, using pepper Jack, pesto and sautéed vegetables.  

“We can use less cheese with a more flavorful kind,” says Vasquez, the store's director of community programs. The grilled cheese sandwich demo was the second in the store's free, twice-weekly instructional series, which kicked off with a how-to on tofu tacos.

It's doubtful that you'll come across a similar cooking demo at any other nearby market. It's doubtful you'll find a similar market nearby, period. At With Love, you can pick up a horchata latté, shop for fresh produce and unwind in the community garden out back, a respite from the constant traffic on Vermont near the 10. And if you're there at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can take one of those cooking classes, too.

The market, which opened last month, is not located in a food desert, at least not by USDA standards. But the area has been underserved when it comes to fresh food. With Love aims to be not just a grocery store but a social enterprise as well, one focused on community empowerment through food. There are three main components to its mission: improving access to healthy food, expanding job opportunities and educating the public.

“We're fighting against gentrification,” explains founder and co-owner Andrew McDowell. “We're trying to reinvest in and care for existing folks, so people don't have to get pushed out.” 

A cooking demo at With Love Market & Cafe; Credit: Courtesy With Love Market & Cafe

A cooking demo at With Love Market & Cafe; Credit: Courtesy With Love Market & Cafe

Five years ago, McDowell began thinking about solutions to the lack of healthy options in the neighborhood. He brought on his first employee a year and a half later, and the two began gathering research, community feedback and expert opinions.

“We're truly formed in our community and by our community,” says McDowell, who adds that it took nine months to find a location and 18 months to fundraise. “We wanted to create a replicable model, whether we open up another one or pass it on to urban poor neighborhoods in other cities.”

The area's predominantly Latino population and the market's wellness mission inform the items stocked in the 3,000-square-foot space. The produce section includes jicama, plantains and yucca. You'll see jars of crema alongside packages of tofu and turkey bacon. Even the placement of the inventory is intentional, avoiding common industry practices that put certain snacks at eye level. 

In 2008, South L.A. banned new fast-food restaurants from opening. The move drew support and backlash alike. As some critics have pointed out, the prohibition of fast food failed to increase the number of affordable, healthier options. 

McDowell and his 12-member team understand that behavioral shifts will not result from the mere availability of healthier food. In addition to cooking classes, With Love offers workshops on financial literacy and healthy parenting, as well as a neighborhood walking club. 

And Vasquez is in the midst of starting a support group for people with chronic illnesses. “We want to provide a space to talk about what you're going through,” she says, “and share how your family may not understand when you say you can't eat certain foods.”

With Love Market & Cafe, 1969 S. Vermont Ave., Pico-Union; (213) 817-7290, withlovela.com

With Love Market & Cafe; Credit: Christine Chiao

With Love Market & Cafe; Credit: Christine Chiao

LA Weekly