Eric Gitter wants you to try the pistachio butter. “It’s life-changing,” promises the co-owner of specialty food store Epicurus Gourmet, while guiding some regulars over to the store’s tasting bar. Hillary Hirsch, one of Gitter’s co-owners, agrees with his praise of the green Ladurée spread. Although he seems to be overselling it, the butter, which tastes like a glorious mix of Nutella and heavy cream, does actually seem like something that could change one’s life.
In fact, much of the merchandise at this food warehouse, located in an industrial section of North Hollywood better known for truck parts than truffles, seems potentially life-changing. Started two years ago in another location, this neighborhood anomaly carries culinary specialties that range from rabbit to boar sausages to canned tomatoes so exceptional they come with actual serial numbers. Wholesale and “wholesale to the public,” Gitter, Hirsch and co-owner Kevin Jones opened at this site in 2017.
While the inventory is large — Hirsch reports they carry almost 1,000 items — the warehouse has a carefully curated feel. “We taste everything,” she says, joking that they want to see every product “go to a good home.” Whether for its seductive packaging or its taste, no product here has been chosen accidentally. Sleek black bottles of shoyu sauce so beautiful they could be recycled as vases sit just a few shelves away from bags of fennel pollen, a product the store cheekily refers to as “Culinary Fairy Dust.” Bottles of lobster oil — yes, lobster oil — from French brand A L’Olivier share real estate with freeze-dried packages of black spaghetti alla marinara, an Italian alternative to generic microwavable noodles. Here, with complete charm and zero pretension, the staff refer to their butter inventory the way some people speak of their art collections. They refer not to, say, the Kandinsky, but to the Bourdier, using all the excitement, awe and enthusiasm of someone referring to, well, a Kandinsky.
That they’ve kept the industrial aesthetic makes it feel truly clandestine, as if a friend has told you about an incredible secret. Gitter notes, “You’re not coming here for the frou-frou,” yet there is an unmistakably happy, homey, European vibe here. French music plays on the speaker system, a touch that makes you want to buy a baguette and a big hunk of cheese and find the nearest park bench. Next to the sampling bar are brochures filled with recipes direct from the food suppliers themselves. A nearby fridge is covered with advertising stickers from wheels of cheese, most of which were clearly French. That the effect feels remarkably uncontrived can be attributed to the fact that much of the inventory is “European-based,” according to Hirsch.
“We have so many European expats. They feel this is how they like to shop. We get such nice feedback because people tell us it’s smaller here, it’s more intimate,” Hirsch says with pride. Gitter agrees, remarking that the personal feel of this potentially very impersonal space was meant to reflect the owners’ affinity for the European way of life: “When we’re spending time in Europe, we don’t shop like we do here. We shop every day. We do not go and do a month worth of shopping!”
Much like the experience of visiting a French cheesemonger or Italian butcher, there’s a true specificity in the customer service here; and while the products may be intimidating for a novice cook, the staff is anything but. Whether you’re Thomas Keller or someone with a hot plate, you’ll be accommodated, which, for those on the hot plate side of life, is a true gift. That special attention pays off not just for the customers but for the staff. Team member Samantha Garen reports it’s not at all unusual for customers to return with the fruits of their labor, to show and share, especially on Saturdays when the place is full. Gitter agrees: “Saturdays are fun,” he says with a smile. “We do a lot of sample stuff. Saturday is like a little party here.”
While the customer service is far above average, the prices are far below, thanks in large part to the unglamorous location. Gitter says they chose the industrial park “for the same reason you don’t find Costco in Beverly Hills.” In fact, he refers to Epicurus as “Costco for foodies,” noting, “It’s truffles and caviar instead of Cheerios and toilet paper.” Looking at the prices, it’s easy to see what he means. A 9-pound, 6-ounce can of cornichons, those tiny, sophisticated pickles one might serve with raclette or fondue, is $17.28 here, while a 7.5-ounce jar of another popular cornichon brand at a local supermarket is $7.29. Of course, not everyone needs an almost 10-pound can of anything, which is why so many items here come in more than one size. Also available is a 5.64-ounce jar of cornichons for $3.02.
If there is a star product here, it has to be the truffles, which, as Gitter explains, are sold by the pound and in advance: “Truffles are done like a commodity, so every week you get the truffle pricing. It can fluctuate. You send in your truffle orders and they’re here for pickup Friday or Saturday.” The newsletter is worth subscribing to if just for the polite but adamant instructions about how not to handle the precious fungi (“Please do not cook with a Burgundy”) and the notifications about discounts on “Ugly Whites,” as they refer to less-than-perfect white truffles.
Keeping its doors open in the midst of a major remodel, Epicurus soon will have walk-in refrigerators and an even bigger inventory. It will add more varieties of bread and, hard to believe though it is, even more cheese. But no matter what is added to the menu, don’t leave without trying the pistachio butter. It’ll change your life.
Epicurus Gourmet, 12140 Sherman Way, North Hollywood; (818) 658-3637, epicurusgourmet.com.