Magee's has been selling the same unlikely mix of huge, meaty sandwiches and jars of house-churned peanut butter at the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax for as long as anyone can remember. The family that owns the two stalls opened up shop there in 1934, making Magee's the oldest still-extant vendor — even Du-par's didn't open up until 1938. But Magee's did not begin at the Farmers Market. In fact, 2017 marks the humble eatery's 100th year of service, and for all that time, it's been helmed by one family.
Dwayne Call is now the general manager of Magee's. He began working for the family business as a youth and took over entirely in 2014 when his Aunt Phyllis retired. He thinks of the staff, some of whom remember him as a small child running through the market stalls, as his family.
“I love this place,” he said. “I always say, this is what I was born for. I enjoy customer service and I love the food, so it was perfect for me.”
Magee's began in the early 1900s with Blanche Magee, Call's great-great-aunt. Blanche was born Snowdie Blanche Sizelove in Indiana in January 1898. Her first name was inspired by the weather; it was snowing, as it often does in the Midwest in January, on the day of her birth. She chose as a teenager to go by her middle name instead. The Sizelove family moved away from the snow to California when Blanche was a child. They had a ranch in Signal Hill, and her father made and sold horseradish and peanut butter at a market the family ran in Long Beach. They were one of the first families on the West Coast to produce small-batch peanut butter, using a machine built out of spare parts from farming equipment. A similar machine can still be found at Magee's House of Nuts at the Farmers Market, grinding peanuts into a smooth butter with no added ingredients. A photograph of President Eisenhower marveling at the machine hangs prominently over the counter. For the horseradish, the family built a machine with a spinning wheel that worked kind of like a food processor but featured a carved mule, whose leg would kick as the machine worked. The gimmick earned their horseradish the tagline “with a kick like a Missouri mule.” The machine was damaged in recent years when it was sent it out for repair, though Call is trying to get the beast back in action.
“It looked like a donkey, and it would literally kick up its back leg. I used to think the mule was kicking me, but it was the pungent aroma of the horseradish,” Call said. “It would make you cry.”
Blanche fell in love with a grocery deliveryman named Raymond Magee, and the two married in 1916. In October 1917, the newlyweds established one of the original vending stalls at Grand Central Market, and were present on opening day. Their stall was 7 feet by 7 feet, and they used a cigar box for a cash register. The couple were delighted when they rapidly sold out of their wares and, at the end of a long day, were able to pay off the carpenter they'd hired to build their stall, as well as a $20 loan they'd taken out and their first month's rent at the market. Though not every subsequent day was as fruitful, the stand expanded and began offering other homemade sauces and dressings.
In the 1930s, the entrepreneurial Fred Beck and Roger Dahlhjelm approached E.B. Gilmore with an idea. They wanted to turn his Gilmore's former dairy farm, located at the now-bustling corner of Third and Fairfax, into a market. Though in the midst of the Great Depression, Gilmore agreed and the once-vacant plot of land launched as the Farmers Market in July 1934. Blanche spotted the market one day on her commute home, and decided to poke around.
A dozen or so farmers were selling produce and goods out of their trucks, and she knew many of them. On her next trip to the market, she toted along a basket of sandwiches and potato salad. Some of the customers were interested in purchasing sandwiches as well, which gave the ever-industrious Blanche the idea to set up a shop there. She spoke with the Gilmore Company and convinced them to open a restaurant. And so, that same year, Magee's became the very first restaurant and permanent stall at the Original Farmers Market, selling salads and sandwiches. Raymond maintained focus on their operations at GCM while the Farmers Market iteration was Blanche's concern, making Magee's at the Farmers Market maybe one of L.A.'s first on-the-record woman-run businesses. Blanche would often use the produce sold by the farmers to make the dishes, which Call says is “the original farm-to-table.” Magee's also helped bring in electricity for refrigeration and to run the peanut butter machine, plus on-site bathroom facilities for customers and vendors. She also advocated for tables and chairs.
“She saw one of the customers sit on a produce crate and get poked with a nail,” Call said.
It rained a lot that year, turning the dirt lot into mud. The conditions, combined with the Depression, soured spirits, but Blanche and Raymond maintained optimistic. In an interview with the L.A. Times in the '90s, Blanche recalled, “My husband and I begged the tenants to stay one more year, because the sun would shine again. They did.”
The Farmers Market grew and soon became one of L.A.'s prime tourist attractions. Disneyland would not open until 1955, but the Farmers Market and adjacent property boasted sports stadiums, a drive-in theater, a gas station and the Pan Pacific Auditorium. And as the market flourished, so did Magee's. When several of the family members went off to fight in WWII and the family found itself stretched thin, they closed up shop at GCM and focused on their stalls at Third and Fairfax. Though just the eatery and the nut stand remain, Magee's also had both bread and cheese shops at one point, Call said.
Raymond died in 1962, and Blanche continued to work at the market through the late '70s, before retiring and moving to Claremont. Blanche died in March 2000 at 102 years old, accomplishing the unusual feat of living in three separate centuries. The Magees' son Paul and his wife, Phyllis, took over managing the market, and Paul's cousin, Call's father, Dwight, a CPA, came on to handle the business's books. Call says his father can recall walking from Beverly and Doheny to help out at the market as a kid, a task that would become a job as he worked his way toward his accounting degree at UCLA.
Ask anyone who works at Magee's today what you ought to order, and they'll tell you to get the Original or the Reuben. The Reuben consists of corned beef, carved to order and layered onto grilled rye with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, 1000 Island and spicy mustard. The simpler Original is just corned beef and spicy mustard on rye. These sandwiches can be paired with sides like Blanche's beans — lima beans in a tomato and brown sugar sauce — or macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes. If you’re not in the mood for a sandwich, they sell Mexican fare, including enchiladas and hard-shell tacos. It’s more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican cuisine, but still quite popular with customers, according to Call.
Call explains that corned beef entered the Magee's roster in the '40s when Blanche decided to produce a special meal in honor of St. Patrick's Day. Doris Perez, one of Magee's longtime employees, grew up in Ireland. She will readily tell you that in Ireland, they choose boiled ham over corned beef, but accuracy did not stop the dish from becoming Magee's most popular and signature menu item. And, Perez says she prefers Magee's corned beef to the kind she's had in Ireland.
Perez had just returned from a trip to her native country and was fussing over the new point-of-sale computer system at the nut stand this past weekend, but the market has been integral to her life for more than 53 years. She began working at Desert Date Shop, then spent nearly 40 years at Du-Par's as “the pie lady” before moving to Magee's House of Nuts in 2005. She works 25 hours a week these days, and has an effulgent personality that makes it easy to see why regulars look forward to seeing her behind the counter.
Perez remembers many famous customers, including actors Katharine Hepburn, Jeanne Crain and Danny Thomas. The younger, fresh-faced stars of today she doesn't recognize so much, but she fondly recalls former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, actor Glenn Ford and host Huell Howser. She said Ford, who suffered several strokes prior to his death, called her after he fell ill, and Howser sent her a tape of an episode of his show after Perez told him that her daughter enjoyed that particular program and was hoping it would air again. To her chagrin, it was her day off on Oct. 5, 1964 when The Beatles stopped by. The group did swing by Magee’s, and wrote a letter thanking them for their “fab” peanut butter.
Call names Magee's consistency as the key to its longevity, and hopes to keep the family tradition alive for another 100 years. As such, he has no plans to change up anything as Magee's moves forward into the next century. If anything, his plans are to look backward, not forward. He still has the recipes for the house-made mayonnaise and dressings they made up until the '90s, and would love to produce them again.
“We still get calls from people asking for them,” he said. “I think it'd be awesome to have the Magee's line of dressings, and to go back to our roots. How fitting is it, at 100 years, to go back to where we started?”
And though he wouldn't mind opening up additional outposts in other parts of town, the Farmers Market will always be the place for Magee's.
“People will say, 'My grandmother brought me here to watch this peanut butter machine, and now I am bringing my grandkids.' It's a generational business with generational customers. It's really awesome to be a part of their family tradition, too. Our employees, our customers and the market are all our family. This is our home.”
6333 W. Third St., Fairfax; 323-938-4127, mageesnuts.com.