Humberto Galvez was searching for a spot to test his new idea for a fast-food restaurant.
After his El Pollo Loco charbroiled chicken chain had been bought out by Denny's Inc., he decided to market brochetas, a kind of Latino shish kebab of fish, beef, pork or chicken.
He knew he wanted to start out in a lively, relatively safe neighborhood with a big Latino population, a lot of pedestrian traffic and plenty of nearby shopping. And he did not want to be in a mall.
Galvez looked throughout Los Angeles County for months, he recalled, until he saw a former hardware store at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Logan Street in the shopping hub of Echo Park.
The area met all his requirements and had another asset: a totally rebuilt Pioneer supermarket had recently opened across the street and seemed to be bringing a spark of new life to the aging commercial district tucked in the hills just west of Dodger Stadium.
Galvez leased the store, put in, he said, about $250,000 worth of renovations and opened in September what he hopes will be the flagship of a new chain.
His shiny blue-and-white-tiled restaurant, called Pescado Mojado, is now reportedly doing about $40,000 worth of business a month, with a top-priced item of $2.59, a volume he said he had not expected to reach until spring. He is so pleased that he is planning to open three more outlets in Southern California.
"I think that, if I am not going to make it here in Echo Park, forget it. I wouldn't make it anyplace else," said Galvez. "This area has a lot of potential."
Such optimism is being heard more often these days along the 10-block strip of Sunset Boulevard from Alvarado to Douglas Streets, which is the soul of Echo Park. The longtime "Mom and Pop" businesses there have survived waves of various immigrant groups, competition from the Glendale Galleria and the Eagle Rock Plaza, and a bruising recession.
Now, new stores are opening and some old ones are sprucing up. Commercial rents are spiraling and real estate agents say there is more competition to lease the few available storefronts.
"People tend to be, perhaps, overly enthusiastic about these things. But there is a feeling of regeneration in the area," said Eugene Dudley, a senior grants manager with the Los Angeles Community Development Department.
To be sure, the shopping district is far from fancy. Its customers are mainly low-income Latinos and, increasingly, Asian immigrants. The neighborhood has its share of problems with youth gangs, crime, homeless people, dilapidated housing, graffiti, litter and parking shortages.
But in the biggest change, the Pioneer supermarket between Logan Street and Echo Park Avenue replaced its cramped 60-year-old building and an adjacent tenement with an enormous modern store a year ago. Gone are an unsightly alleyway and a rear parking lot where, police said, gangs and other "undesirables" gathered. The market's new parking lot is in front, well-lighted and patrolled by security guards.
Crime Down Some
"There's no place to hide anymore," said Lt. David Waterman of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, which patrols the area. "It's like the saying, 'You disturb the bird's nest and the birds never come back.' "
In the approximately two-square-mile district around the supermarket, reported street crime has dipped somewhat and police attribute that mainly to the new parking lot. In the third quarter of 1984, the most recent available statistics, there were 1 street robbery, 26 auto break-ins and 7 aggravated assaults. In the same period of 1982, before construction began on the new market, there were 8 street robberies, 33 car break-ins and 7 assaults.
"Let's put it this way," explained officer Eugene Akesson, Rampart's statistician. "Most of our radio calls used to be for gangs thumping away in the old rear parking lot. Now the area seems to be drawing a nicer crowd."
Vagrants in Lot
Although vagrants still frequent the new front lot, it creates a much-desired jumping off point for customers to other stores, merchants say. And the market itself, with its new specialty departments and wider selection, seems to be attracting more middle-class shoppers from nearby Silver Lake and even from apartments on Bunker Hill.
What's more, some gentrification in the adjacent hills, especially the restoration of Victorian homes on Angelino Heights, has helped, as has the boom in downtown offices, only about a mile away. It is not unusual for white-collar employees from downtown to lunch at such Echo Park landmarks as Barragan's, Nikola's or Les Freres Taix for, respectively, Mexican, Yugoslav, or French food.
"The area looks a lot nicer and there have been quite a bit of new openings," said Eleanor Caudillo, whose family runs Celaya's Bakery across the street from the supermarket. Increasingly, customers will shop for groceries at the supermarket and then stop at Celaya's for such Mexican specialty breads as bolillos and conchas, she said.