Downtown L.A.'s Seventh Street Produce Market — a daily hub for locals to get wholesale fruits and vegetables, and home to the trendy Smorgasburg food market — is celebrating its 100th anniversary this fall. As times have changed over the past century, so has this iconic outdoor produce market, which is in the midst of another shift that mirrors the changing demographics in the community.
This 5-acre, open-air market runs Mondays through Saturdays (Smorgasburg takes over on Sundays) along Central Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets, and is flanked by two long buildings. Six days a week, a mix of folks from the restaurant and food industries, and even individual customers who buy produce in bulk for their homes, make their way to the bustling Seventh Street Produce Market. They shop from the site’s 85 vendors, whose produce is lined up in rows, whether it's boxes full of bananas and lettuce or mesh bags cradling onions and oranges.
The market is a part of the adjacent and newly branded Row DTLA, an adaptive-reuse project of several historic buildings converted into spaces for restaurants, retail shops and creative offices. It’s owned and run by Atlas Capital Group, a real estate investment, development and management company from New York, which acquired the property in August 2014.
When the market launched in the fall of 1917, it was called the L.A. Terminal Market and was built as a central marketplace for wholesale produce. That year, renowned L.A. architect John Parkinson (who also built such landmarks as L.A. City Hall and the L.A. Memorial Coliseum) completed the first phase of the project, which was the erection of the campus’s first produce buildings. In the ensuing years, until 1923, he built more buildings and factories alongside it, which would later become known as Alameda Square. The giant campus encompassed more than 30 acres along the Southern Pacific Railroad.
“Alameda Square was one of the most ambitious private developments of early–20th century Los Angeles, connecting the city's port with its downtown by rail,” according to the L.A. Times. “When the complex opened in the World War I era as Union Terminal Annex, it was the second-largest wholesale terminal in the world. ... The vast majority of fruit and produce business for the region was conducted there.”
Needless to say, it was an incredibly busy produce market. In its early days, in addition to shoppers and vendors milling around, the space was packed with horse-drawn carriages and, later, cars and trucks. According to Atlas Capital Group, “At one point in the market’s history, 10 percent of the nation’s fresh food passed through the market.”
Over the years, the demographics of the vendors shifted. “[Currently,] this is a predominantly Latino-owned operation here,” says Juan Santana, the Seventh Street Produce Market property manager. “All the various tenants who have these produce wholesale distribution businesses are 95 percent Latino-owned and probably 80 percent of that would be of Mexican descent.”
From reviewing the market’s records, Santana says the transition to Latino-owned operations started after the 1960s, and by the late 1990s “was well underway."
Carlos Franco, 26, who now runs his two-generation-owned Elias Produce/Adelphia Berries at the market, practically grew up in the bustling thoroughfare. He has seen for himself and also heard from his parents, who launched their family produce business at the Seventh Street Produce Market in 1990, about the demographic changes.
“Back then, the owners were mostly Italian and Greek families and [then] they started to retire,” says Franco, whose parents also are ready to retire and have him take over the business.
Franco’s father, Isaias, who along with his wife immigrated from Mexico to the United States in 1986, first learned about running a produce operation at the market from his mentor, a Greek man. His mentor had trouble pronouncing the name “Isaias,” and would call him “Elias” instead. Franco says the name just stuck, and when his father opened up his own operation, he called it “Elias Produce,” a nod to the past.
Aside from the demographics, the overall way the Seventh Street Produce Market is run also has transformed to become more efficient. “Before it was horses and buggies, and now you have this very complex distribution network of produce that passes through our tenants’ stalls here from all over the world,” Santana says.
The operation of such a massive market has a lot of moving parts. Santana says the produce is grown locally as well as in Mexico and South America. Atlas Capital Group has to organize the deliveries through various freight channels, as well as receiving and loading schedules, parking, rules and regulations and the robust recycling program.
But not everyone is happy with the changes at the market, especially tenants who are worried about increasing rents. The L.A. Business Journal reported last May that since Atlas Capital Group took over the property three years ago, about 70 tenants have seen their rent increase by 20 to 25 percent, and the length of their leases has shortened.
Franco says he doesn’t think it’s just the Seventh Street Produce Market that’s increasing rent; it’s happening all over Los Angeles, including where he lives in Boyle Heights. “The other vendors may talk about all these changes, [that] they thought [the rent increase was] threatening because they thought [Atlas Capital Group] was trying to replace us, trying to kick us out, but that wasn’t the case,” he says. “I think they helped us more with all this stuff that’s happening.”
He says the market is much cleaner and more organized now. Franco also thinks the launch of Smorgasburg in June 2016 brought in more clientele for the produce vendors. In addition to Franco’s regular customers, who are normally folks from restaurants, bakeries and yogurt shops, and Latino vendors who buy fruit for their street carts, he’s now seeing more people coming in to buy bulk produce for their homes. New customers have been approaching Franco for their personal projects, such as making organic fruit popsicles.
“We still have our same customer base, but we’re seeing a lot more diversity of the people who stop by,” Franco says.
Smorgasburg has a mix of food, craft, clothing and vintage vendors. Santana says Atlas Capital Group wanted to bring Smorgasburg to the market downtown because the community is “rapidly growing here and demanding these types of quality markets.”
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There are new mutual relationships that have formed between Smorgasburg and produce market vendors. “Some of our tenants are the suppliers of produce for Smorgasburg operators, so we see this formation of an ecosystem where all these tenants benefit from each other,” Santana says. “There’s a high participation interest of them wanting to be even more involved.”
Not everything at the market has changed. It still carries its ongoing traditions. Every December, Franco looks forward to the vendors celebrating holidays like Christmas and the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “During those times, a lot of the other businesses give out food, like champurrado — these hot drinks — and other companies give out tacos, not just for other customers [but] anyone can come in and get food,” Franco says. “And there’s one company that always brings in an In-N-Out truck. ... [It’s] one of my best memories. It’s nice, you feel a lot closer to everyone else.”
Santana says next month they’ll be commemorating the market's centennial anniversary with a celebration, with details to be released soon. "We will continue to make these upgrades in tenant improvements and we want to position our tenants for long-term success," he says.
It’s come full circle for Franco's generational business: The produce vendor who is passionate about the strawberries he sells is now father to a newborn. “Whole generations of families [involved] in produce,” Franco says. “My dad would take me and now I have my son that I walk around with in the market on Saturdays.”