They didn't make an announcement. They didn't even get a sign up before noon. They just shuttered the security gate over the front door and, with no more fanfare than that, another piece of downtown L.A. disappeared: Vickman's Restaurant and Bakery ended 74 years of operation.
"It's closed?" asked a disbelieving Seymour Fabrick, 78, a shoe manufacturer, as he came upon the restaurant, his suit jacket slung over his shoulder in the midday heat Monday. "I've been coming here 50 years." He used to drive downtown to his plant with his Beverly Hills neighbor, a beef wholesaler who also worked in the area, and the two would breakfast at Vickman's at dawn. Even after his plant moved, even after he couldn't eat rich meals like he used to, Fabrick would come by for an ascetic lunch of half a sandwich.
"Well, they weren't doing business like they used to," Fabrick conceded.
No one is more acutely aware of that than owner Ilya Kleinman, who says he owes a number of creditors, can barely make payroll and is a year late on the rent. He owes the landlord about $140,000, he estimates.
What is ironic is that the landlords he owes are the restaurant's namesake, Harry Vickman and his wife and business partner, Barbara. Harry Vickman (whose father Mordecai established Vickman's in 1919 in another location) sold the restaurant in 1986 but kept the building. Now, the Vickmans and Kleinman cannot reach an agreement on how to settle the rent.
"I had dropped the rent about a year ago to give them a hand, but that wasn't enough," said Harry Vickman, reminiscing about how the restaurant had once been a popular gathering spot.
"It's very, very sad," said Barbara Vickman of the restaurant's demise. Not that she or her husband--who began working in the restaurant in 1940--considered buying the restaurant back.
"No way," she said adamantly. "We put in all those long hours for many years. We've earned our keep."
There was a time when Vickman's catered to a bustling business trade of merchandisers and manufacturers, wholesalers of produce and meat and flowers. There are still racks of produce and bolts of fabric propped against nearby storefronts, but gradually many businesses have moved away. On this dusty, litter-strewn section of East 8th Street, it looks as if the eastern edge of downtown has begun turning into an urban ghost town.
Arnold Shugar, soap factory owner, and his son and colleague, Ron, emerged from Vickman's with ties loosened. The senior Shugar carried a big white box. "It's the last banana cream pie," said Shugar, 61, a patron for 10 years. "They gave us a free pie after all these years."
A knot of patrons clustered momentarily in front of the entrance, murmuring that they had been there only last week. A note to a lunch date was hastily scrawled and taped to the front: "Meet us at Central City Cafe." The noontime stream of customer traffic through the front door was replaced by the bustle of workers moving carts and freezers out of the restaurant. In a waiting pickup were old muffin tins, still caked with crumbs.
"I will go bankrupt," said Klein man, 44, who asserts that his two business partners skipped out on him. "But I'm OK." Kleinman moved here 18 years ago from Russia and established several businesses. "Nobody ever made me a present," he said.
In its heyday, Vickman's fed 1,000 to 1,500 people a day. At lunch, 40 people might stand in line waiting to pay their lunch tabs. But in the last couple of years, Kleinman served an average of 500 from the 3 a.m. opening to the 3 p.m. closing on weekdays.
"The business left us about two or three years ago," said Kleinman, one of several people to have owned the restaurant since the Vickmans sold it in 1986. "Sixty percent of the buildings around here are for lease or for sale. That's it." He shrugs. "You have less people to feed."
The modest storefront of Vickman's belies what's inside. The restaurant is helplessly, hopelessly too large by today's bistro standards--15,000 square feet with oceans of space between tables. On its last day, it was empty except for Kleinman, a few friends, a salesman, and the last of his 20 employees helping to close up.
A row of decorated white cakes sat imposingly in glass cases. In the last few years, Vickman's had acquired something of a rogue hero's reputation for feeding homeless people who dropped by--it was Vickman's that opened its doors to a group of homeless people who had been turned away from the now-defunct Gorky's two years ago. The cakes will go to the homeless.
In the middle of the room was a boat that served as a salad bar. "For sale," said Kleinman hopefully, patting the side of it. "You can put flowers in it, anything."
In the wake of such a closing, mourners can get a bit carried away. "It's like sitting with a friend at his bedside waiting for him to die," said longtime patron Harry Leff, a half-eaten almond croissant in hand, outside Vickman's. He waxed nostalgic about the pastry. "They had a . . . fellow here who made strudel that was fabulous--like you get in New York."
The grocery salesman standing nearby laughed and pointed out to Leff, "That guy was here six weeks."