At the Farmer's Daughter motel of the past, the price was certainly right. But almost nothing else was.
As its surroundings morphed the Grove opened and the Farmer's Market lured hipsters to share Patsy D'Amore's habit-forming pizza with comedy writers in bifocals the Farmer's Daughter made its turnaround after decades of stagnation in style and substance.
It hadn't had a facelift because the Farmer's Daughter, despite its central location it's on Fairfax Avenue, jogging distance to Beverly Hills and a straight shot to downtown never really kept up with L.A. Before 1997, it was owned by a Chinese couple who lived in Hong Kong. They dropped by occasionally and seemed to be satisfied with full rooms even if prostitutes and drug users were the primary guests.
"I am not sure they cared what the hotel looked like," said Mark Panatier, a vice president at A.F. Gilmore Co., which owns Farmer's Market. "It was not well-managed. I don't think the owner paid much attention to how the hotel fit into the neighborhood."
The first real improvement in years came in 1997, when Korean-born William Cho and his wife bought it. They began operating it with the help of their daughter, Christina and soon, with another daughter, Ellen, and her husband Pete Picataggio, began to shift the course of the 66-room property. They renovated it with a younger, savvier customer in mind, turning it from a motel to a hotel and adding a restaurant, Tart, which was recently finished.
"This was a typical motel. The model needed to change. The area certainly called for it," said Picataggio. "It didn't take a genius to see the property value had to go up. We saw an opportunity to put our own flavor into it."
It wasn't the first time the Chos had had picked up overlooked real estate on the upswing. They had purchased a hotel called the Minute Man on what is now the Las Vegas Strip and, with Vegas taking off, hit the jackpot selling it to a corporate development firm. They also fashioned delis and lofts out of a building in New York's TriBeCa and were rewarded when the neighborhood became home to a Robert De Niro-backed film festival and a favorite of Wall Street execs with alternative tastes.
The family suffered a tragic setback before extensively overhauling the Farmer's Daughter. Christina died in a car accident. Reeling from the loss, Cho asked Ellen, 36, and Picataggio, 37, to take over the place and spearhead the renovations. Ellen had a bit of business experience, having watched her parents' work, but Picataggio had been trained as an engineer and came out of large corporations in Silicon Valley without a hospitality background.
"I was a (preferred) member of Starwood and a (preferred) member of Marriott," Picataggio said. "Does that qualify me?"
Picataggio did have strong ideas about how to reinvigorate Farmer's Daughter. It had to appeal to a desirable demographic the 30-year-old to 40-year-old professional who totes rolling luggage and racks up the frequent flier miles on trips between New York, San Francisco and L.A. without the exclusivity of many boutique properties.
Picataggio, a half-Portuguese, half-Italian family man with two young sons, wanted to make the hotel suitable for guys like himself, who are not too trendy, but willing to spend money for a unique experience. At some unrelentingly hip hotels, he often felt uncomfortable. "You would have some great looking model serving you, sticking his or her nose up at you," he said. "I never liked the pretentiousness."
Picataggio's vision and the reality of the Farmer's Daughter were out of sync. It did draw customers who came to L.A. to be contestants on "The Price is Right," the perennial game show filmed across the street at CBS. But a criminal element was prominent; vagabonds and prostitutes who could pay the cheap rates of under $60 per night were frequenting the motel.
"There was a time that unless you were shooting up heroin, you weren't staying here," said Picataggio. Since professionals and heroin addicts don't mix, the Farmer's Daughter would have to drive out the latter to attract the former. The word had to get out on the street that criminal behavior wasn't tolerated at the Farmer's Daughter.
To do so, Picataggio allowed vice officers at the Los Angeles Police Department to run stings from three to four rooms at the back end of the property. That move, among others, made the Farmer's Daughter safer, indicated Lisa Hansen, deputy chief of staff for Councilman Jack Weiss. "This property used to generate many calls to the LAPD and many complaints from neighbors. With a new owner (and) better management complaints about the hotel have stopped," she reported.
With crime gone, Picataggio turned his attention to the physical property. Originally, he estimates ground was broken on the current restaurant site around 1940, although the Farmer's Daughter's early history is murky. The name on the elevator certificate reads Robert Barton, presumably the initial developer. As the story goes, Barton dabbled in many real estate projects, but was only successful with the Farmer's Daughter.
The reason behind the Farmer's Daughter name is a mystery. It seems a natural fit with the neighboring Farmer's Market, but Picataggio said the hotel's name and the market probably are not connected. One story has it that Barton chose it as a lure to draw men to an on-site restaurant he filled with pretty waitresses. After a few drinks, Barton thought they'd crash for the night in the motel's rooms.
Over the years, several different iterations of the restaurant one of the most recent being the Olive were tried and the property was expanded, with the last rooms added in the 1970s. Little changed in the years following. The Farmer's Daughter was designed for an automobile lifestyle, and cars could be parked directly under the rooms. It was white and lime green, a color scheme that made its way into the rooms. In the far back corner was a small lobby.
"It had that old hotel smell in it from 30 years of cigarette smoke ingrained in the walls," Picataggio said.
The hotel's main selling point was its location, although the sign in front screamed "Our Rooms Are Tops." Ruth Handel, a native of the area who now works for l.a.Eyeworks Inc., which has a nearby store on Beverly Boulevard, remembers her grandparents staying at Farmer's Daughter when she was young. "It was very convenient to Farmer's Market, where we used to go for breakfast or coffee. It was also walking distance from Canter's," she said. "It was basic and slightly run down."
Come on down
It is basic and run down no longer. Although the budget was constrained it ended up costing $1.3 million to redo the hotel and $700,000 for the restaurant Picataggio selectively made remodeling investments for high-impact results.
Delta Wright, a local designer, was brought on to revamp the interiors and architect Dean Larkin, a principal at Dean Larkin Design in West Hollywood, took care of the structure and exterior. Even though he wasn't making a fortune, Larkin said he was thrilled to participate in the remaking of the property, which he was familiar with from growing up in L.A.
Larkin's visual concept for the Farmer's Daughter came out of a country shadow box in which everyday items, such as ribbons or children's shoes, are presented for display. There's a large window that faces Fairfax Avenue that frames people walking by. And the window, along with the refurbished lobby, is inviting to pedestrians.
The outdoor color scheme is blue and white gingham. The pattern meshes with the Farmer's Daughter country theme, as do decorative oversized tools, barn siding and the logo of a girl with a watering-can. "We didn't have much budget, and we didn't have a lot of opportunities to aggressively go after the exterior architecture, so we had to do lot with paint," said Larkin.
So far, the renovation has paid off. Picataggio said the hotel's occupancy rates are averaging 90 percent to 95 percent. The room rates have been raised to $139 to $159 from $57 when the Chos bought the property, still considerably less than the $300-plus it costs to spend a night in Beverly Hills.
The trendy crowd isn't Picataggio's target. An early brush with the hip didn't work out a party that was thrown for Maxim magazine in 2000 was stopped by fire marshals and police and Picataggio said he wouldn't be booking any other big events soon.
These days, he eschews celebrities. "The Price is Right" contestants are about as glitzy as his guests get. There's an alcove in the lobby dedicated to Bob Barker, featuring Polaroid pictures of winners. The hotel staff, with bolo ties to prove it, is as folksy as the game show's fans. The clientele gives the Farmer's Daughter a customer base Hollywood types can't, however.
"Oddly enough, it is hotel known nationally by people from Kansas, Kentucky, wherever," said Handel. "They are coming to have the most exciting experience of their lives."
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