What began as a public-private partnership bidding process to find a food vendor for a beloved urban park launched a massively successful mid-market burger chain.
Granted, any business gets a leg up when an already successful restaurateur such as Danny Meyer is at the helm. Shake Shack now has locations throughout Manhattan, as well as other cities in the northeast, Florida, the UK, Turkey, and the Middle East.
And it all started in a public space, New York City's Madison Square Park, where hungry people were already gathering and bringing food to a picturesque, engaging environment, and firmly establishing demand. The Shake Shack structure itself is a sharp piece of contemporary design and compatible with its setting. A win-win situation. (Admittedly, it's hardly the healthiest food imaginable.)
Quality food can help reinvigorate public spaces, an area in which Los Angeles needs a lot of help. So why does it so rarely happen?
While it's very good at it, New York City doesn't necessarily have a monopoly on this concept. The Warming Hut in the Presidio and the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Park Café in Chicago's Millennium Park, and the Japanese Tea Pavilion in San Diego's Balboa Park are some other places where park and food experiences merge.
We recreate, and therefore work up an appetite in parks. So how can these factors be better aligned, short of always remembering to pack a picnic lunch, or hoping that the old Russian lady hawking delicious boreks for a buck out of a shopping cart passes by?
In the meantime, what we have is a lost opportunity where food, design, and public space intersect. And the potential to support this form of social and cultural capital in L.A. area parks and other public cultural facilities lies dormant.
Take Exposition Park, for instance. After visiting Endeavour, that marvel of technology designed in built in Southern California that one million people have come to see at the California Science Center, the closest spot for lunch is…McDonald's in the lobby. Which, as a friend mentioned via Twitter, counts as a feat of science and engineering.
It's an amenity this museum shares in common with the granddaddy of all public science and technology educational institutions, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, along with a steady supply of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream available for purchase in the gift shop. Fortunately the Mitsitam Café is a short walk away in Washington.
Granted, museum and park food concessions are different animals, yet they often overlap. You can leave the Expo Park complex and find the Chipotle on Figueroa, or walk over to USC. Mercado La Paloma, an outstanding example of grassroots community economic development where chef Ricardo Zarate made his mark in L.A. at the original Mo-Chica, is just east of the 110. Or the USC campus has options.
But ideally visitors should actually stay and eat well in the park, somewhere adjacent to the scenic Beaux Arts-era Rose Garden. As part of the recent renovation at the Natural History Museum, including gardens designed by Mia Leher + Associates, Trimana Grill was selected following a process that started with requests for proposals provided to over 30 interested parties, according to David A. Sommers, Director of Public Affairs for the County. “More than a dozen operators” visited the site before final proposals were submitted and the winning bid selected, Sommers explained.
The final result isn't the worst case scenario. But probably best not to think about the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which has partnered with local chef Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame. Or if you're lucky, small-scale entrepreneurs around Exposition Park will have handmade foods on offer from carts or makeshift stands near all those leftover concrete benches from the '84 Olympics, ready to make a quick exit if law enforcement catches on.
An outpost of a locally bred food business would be a logical extension of civic pride. Instead there's a Starbucks, whose lease agreement in what was then Civic Center Mall dates back to the erstwhile Pasqua coffee bar's 1991 contract. (Starbucks later bought the Pasqua chain.) According to Sommers, an agreement between the County and Starbucks that was amended and approved in November 2011 means Starbucks's lease term extends through 2021.
Hurdles preventing parks from becoming dining destinations are many. Given the city's reputation for red tape, it's hard enough opening a regular brick-and-mortar business, and creating park dining spots involves dealing with multiple poorly coordinated agencies at the city and county level. Perception of economic viability plays a role, too; residents with deeper pockets who live on the Westside, for example, prefer to play in the privacy of their own backyards rather than visit public parks.
Alcohol sales account for a significant amount of food and beverage revenue, and since permitting drinking on public property is complicated, that might lessen incentive. Beer and wine was flowing while everyone was on good behavior at Taco Madness at Grand Park and during Taste of the Eastside at Barnsdall — granted, in designated over-21 areas. So much for that dream of a Golden Road Brewing beer garden in Grand Park where sampling local brews can be part of a wholesome family park outing.
Outreach is also key. If the Natural History Museum's vending request for proposal started with 30 interested parties, why did we wind up with a new slightly-customized-for-its-setting Trimana chain location? In advance of Grand Park's currently tentative plans for the area south of the event lawn at its eastern edge by City Hall, park operators would be best served by casting a wide net and finding ways to support independent businesses during competitive bidding, rather than relying on the already infrastructure-strong chains.
We've seen some exceptions. The Trails is a success. At its modest rustic setup on Ferndell near the western entrance to Griffith Park, a small, practical menu of house-made sweets and savory treats, as well as quality coffee and tea, makes for great park eating. Kids can run on the bales of hay and flip through well-worn books left to share.
The charming retro Soda Jerks location inside the Carousel at the Santa Monica Pier is another step in the right direction in an otherwise bleak Pier eatery situation. Unless you're prepared to offer an impassioned defense of Bubba Gump Shrimp, don't get me started on that local landmark otherwise.
The Café at the End of the Universe, which was part of the Griffith Park Observatory's major overhaul a few years ago, helps somewhat. But Wolfgang Puck is as involved with this outpost of his empire as he is with food sold under his label at airport terminals in the Midwest.
I know hardly everyone thinks a meal that easily approaches the $10 per head mark is desirable, nor an ideal endgame. If it's one thing Los Angeles consistently does right, however, it's finding creative ways to serve affordable food in unexpected places. Even if the food truck trend has its detractors, the concept's general utility value has been long proven here.
Further, events such as CicLAvia keep proving Angelenos' growing interest in shared space and public recreation.
And museums are getting their food act together. While part of the Patina Group's near city-wide museum concessionaire dominance, LACMA offers quality, non-cookie cutter dining experiences. There's always been that legendary afternoon tea at the Huntington.
We've got the weather and the outdoor spaces. We can brag about our constantly evolving food scene, and the many chefs whose involvement with school gardens and non-profit organizations prove their commitment to the life of the city outside the walls of their own restaurants.
Alternately, getting good food into city parks (and beachfronts, for that matter) need not only involve marquee names. A collection of stellar street food vendors can be a boon to all sorts of community stakeholders — especially since it happens on our streets and in our parks already, with or without adherence to street vending ordinances.
Food can be tool in revitalizing our public spaces, or what Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne recently called “broken works in progress.” As for designers who would have some exciting ideas for food vending kiosks, just pitch a rock just about anywhere in Culver City or near Sci-ARC and you'll find one. The political will and funding mechanisms to support such efforts? That's way tougher in this age of relentless budget cuts.
Since the city's spirit benefits when food and civic engagement interact in commonly shared spaces, it's still a challenge worth taking on.