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2 Enterprises Bring a Touch of the Old Country to L.A.

December 26, 1985|JERRY COHEN

Pubs and tearooms aside, two other little-known enterprises provide a telling barometer of the British presence in Los Angeles--one is the trade of an unassuming man named Andrew McKee; the other, newspapers published here for former residents of the United Kingdom.

Andrew McKee first. He is redheaded, 48, and grew up both here and abroad because he had an English father and an American mother.

In 1965, he bought a tiny shop in Burbank that had been opened in 1961 by Roy Rowe, a former British naval officer, who sensed a demand for British foodstuffs. Rowe did only a so-so business with his Piccadilly British Shop. But McKee built it into such a success that, in 1971, he constructed an entire British-style emporium on the Burbank Boulevard site, which also houses the Buchanan Arms pub.

"You should see this place at Christmastime; it's mobbed with people ordering plum puddings," said Irene Wyllie, a native of Scotland who works at the Piccadilly.

McKee has set himself up as a full-time importer and supplier for the British-oriented shops that have sprung up since the late 1960s and early '70s. He moved from a Long Beach warehouse that was destroyed by an airplane crash in 1980 into a larger structure near Gardena. The warehouse is crammed floor to ceiling with Cadbury chocolates, pickled onions, stuffing mixes, fish pastes, marmalades, jams and HP sauce--a delicious brown goo that goes with meat and fish and almost everything else.

About the HP sauce. The English manufacturer has a franchise in New Jersey that sells to American supermarkets. McKee distributes only the brown sauce still made in Birmingham, England.

"The Brits say the one made here is not the same," McKee said. "The manufacturer says the water may be different, but exactly the same ingredients go into the domestic one. My customers say the spices are different. It may be a mental thing."

He said that he supplies 200 businesses nationwide, 60 in Los Angeles County and 40 elsewhere in California. "A lot of Brits, oddly enough, live in Texas," he said.

McKee also employs two full-time British butchers who duplicate the sausages, bacon, meat pies and black pudding sold in Britain but that cannot legally be imported. He estimates that he sells 1,000 pounds of the sausages (or bangers) a week. He said his business increases annually by about 20%, an indication of the demand for British products here.

Now, about the three newspapers published locally: The oldest is the monthly True Brit, with a paid circulation of 20,000, based in Chatsworth. The British Weekly, which distributes 9,000 free copies, is published in Santa Monica and a third, the Union Jack, is based in the San Diego area.

All are patterned after London tabloids but, except for an occasional headline, are much less lurid in content. "The British people here are very conservative," observed True Brit Publisher Al Coombes.

Coombes, 45, a former reporter for the Daily Express in London who became a lawyer after moving to the United States in the 1960s, said True Brit, now 6 years old, grew out of a conversation with some tennis playing chums, all British correspondents posted here.

For a Brit here to keep up with news from the homeland by buying the British dailies and Sunday papers, most of which are available here, Coombes said, can be "frightfully expensive. You could spend a fortune on them in a month's time."

Papers Fill a Need

That's where the local papers fill a need, Coombes said. What appears basically are rewrites of what has run in British papers. A handful of non-salaried friends who have mastered the brisk London tabloid style help him in producing what he calls an "off-Fleet Street publication." He said he "breaks even," adding, "If tomorrow I were not to be a lawyer and wanted to be only a publisher, I could have a market enough for a national weekly paper."

When Ian Brodie launched British Weekly a year ago, he also chose the tabloid format.

"I knew the demand was there," he said. "There were so many British papers selling here for $2 or more."

Brodie's weekly is also chiefly a rewrite of British publications, said Brodie, 39, and a local resident since 1980.

"I'd like to think we give the readers a good idea of what's happening in England every week," he said. "We try to avoid the man-bites-dog and vicar-arrested-for-indecent-exposure stories."

British football scores are a big attraction, he said.

'We're Not Losing Money'

Brodie, who makes a living by contracting with printers to publish community and ethnic newspapers, said his publication "is doing better than we expected. We're profitable now--rather, we're not losing money."

Brodie is anything but an old-country chauvinist. Quite the contrary.

"Most Brits fit into American society readily," he said. "The national interests of Britain and America are so similar. I don't think it's possible to survive here as 'a little bit of Britain.' I feel more and more a part of America the longer I'm here.

"When I go home for a visit and hear someone criticize Americans, I say, 'Hey, wait a minute. . . .' I find I've become a very strong advocate of America."

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