How should a new restaurant open in a gentrifying neighborhood?

BLVD MRKT is a food hall and business incubator in the city of Montebello. Local developer Barney Santos turned to community input in deciding how this space would be used, in an effort to avoid gentrifying the neighborhood. Photo courtesy of BLVD MRKT.

John Urquiza was one of around two dozen protesters who showed up when a restaurant called Dunsmoor opened in Glassell Park in June. He says a restaurant with $40 entrees isn’t culturally relevant to the neighborhood’s long-time residents. So the restaurant must be looking to newcomers for customers.

“What [it really is]about is the economics,” says Urquiza. “You're talking about a class of people who have way more income, way more assets, and way more resources [coming] into a neighborhood.”

When it comes to real estate, what’s affordable for well-heeled outsiders can be one or two rent hikes away from eviction for locals in a working-class community. Urquiza is a photojournalist and he experienced this firsthand when he lost his studio in Highland Park because of rising rents.

In Glassell Park, the restaurant Dunsmoor offered their employees a living wage, and after the protests, they hosted a community dinner. Urquiza is very skeptical that these gestures of goodwill make a difference.

“How do you balance the displacement you create versus the exploitation you're having on the community?” asks Urquiza.

It raises a question that owners of new restaurants in gentrifying neighborhoods often ask themselves: Is there a way to do this responsibly? Or does their presence make some people in this community feel unwelcome, or price them out? 

The art deco building where Dunsmoor is located on Eagle Rock Boulevard is quickly filling up with new tenants. One of those businesses is a bustling breakfast and sandwich spot modeled after an old school diner called Bub and Grandma’s.

Owner Andy Kadin lives five minutes away in Highland Park, where he says he saw entrepreneurs do “lots of dumb things, lots of good things, lots of completely unaware of things.”

One of the first decisions Kadin’s team made was to keep the Bub and Grandma’s menu affordable. He says sandwiches are around $12 because that’s what people were already paying in the neighborhood. “I don't want to take advantage of anyone in order for this business to be successful,” says Kadin.

Also, locals get a 5% discount when they show the cashier a blue metal keychain that has the words “Bub’s Local” etched into it. He’s given out 500 so far. They also give bread to the mutual aid fridge across the street and to other nonprofits. 

Glassell Park locals can show this metal keychain tag at checkout to get a 5% discount on menu items at Bub and Grandma’s. Photo by Megan Jamerson/KCRW.

“It wasn't like we weren't going to engage with them anyway,” says Kadin. But following the protests at Dunsmoor, he says, “It's all the more imperative that everyone who lives here already knows that we're thinking of them.”

Restaurant business consultant and chef Jenny Dorsey says every owner of a new restaurant should prioritize building trust with the community. Her consulting business Studio ATAO recently released a toolkit for business owners with tips on how to create responsible business practices that include community interests.

“It's often not some sort of intentional thing that people are trying to do some harm,” says Dorsey. “However, as a result of perhaps not intentionally thinking about community investment, it becomes a complicit vehicle for gentrification.”

Leondaro Vilchis has seen it play out in Boyle Heights, where he is co-founder of Union de Vecinos, the local tenants union. He points to the aesthetics of upscale businesses that refer to the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood but price their products out of reach of most people in that ethnic group. 

“This aesthetic is a cartoon of the locality that is trying to appeal to the white, more affluent customer,” says Vilchis. “And I would push that [it] is not just about whiteness, it’s class.” 

Vilchis says the standouts are often hospitality businesses. Think of bright modern coffee shops or restaurants offering upscale versions of local fare like $24 shrimp and grits. Activists say once those businesses arrive, rents start to rise faster, there are more evictions, and long-time locals are forced to leave. 

“It changes the market for the community and it sends a message to the people in the neighborhood that this is no longer a place that is accessible to them,” says Vilchis. 

That is not news to developer Barney Santos, who grew up in Downey and wants to invest in southeast LA County. 

Santos and his wife, Montebello native Evelyn Santos, started a consulting business called Gentefy to bring economic development to Montebello that is centered around the wants and needs of the community.

They’ve worked with the city to bring money to support legacy businesses. And in their first big project, they bought some property in Montebello. Before they settled on a plan for what to do with the land, they had a series of small town halls and talked to over 200 people of different ages. 

Santos says the biggest takeaway was that millennials like him wanted a community gathering place centered around food. He says a lot of local people between 26 and 41 years old are becoming upwardly mobile. “Our palates are changing because we're traveling more. We're watching Anthony Bourdain shows,” says Santos. “And we’re looking at our communities and thinking, ‘Well there’s not a lot of that stuff where we live.’”

In 2021, Santoses opened BLVD MRKT, a food hall and incubator space for local entrepreneurs. Barney Santos has gotten mostly positive feedback from locals who he says love the space, but he’s still nervous about his impact on the city. As outsiders buy homes, he’s been approached by at least one person who thanked him for building the food hall and told him, “We moved here because of you,” says Santos. “As intentional and as responsible as we are, are we also contributing [to gentrification]?” Santos wonders.

Hospitality businesses can stand fully with a community, but it will take systemic change to stop gentrification, says Jenny Dorsey. She advises they work with a local tenants union to help keep the workers they employ in their neighborhood. She also suggests they get more involved in the local political process.

But “hospitality, business owners are not going to fix gentrification. It would be great if they could, but that's just not how it works,” says Dorsey. “Gentrification is decades in the making. And it's not going to be unraveled overnight.”