Saturday night in downtown L.A.’s Arts District. At the doorway of a seemingly empty warehouse on Colyton Street, away from the buzz of nearby nightlife, people queue up, say a password – “Beetlejuice” on this night – and slip $10 to the woman running the show.
Once inside, instead of the steady thump of dance music or the beery, smoky smell of an after-hours club, patrons are hit with the scent of barbecued duck wings, Chinese chopped salad with sesame chocolate dressing and cactus kimchi macaroni and cheese.
The low-key inaugural L.A. Underground Market, the first of what organizer Michaela Graham said will be more in the months to come, was held earlier this month. Essentially a speakeasy food court, the event gave eager cooks, from hobbyists to a chef who once catered to world leaders, an opportunity to try new concepts and gauge diners’ reactions to plates like pulled pork and ox tail served with plantain.
“They can start with a low investment and get feedback as well as some income,” Graham said. “They can build up their fan base. And with that fan base in place, they can then decide to get fully licensed and start their business.”
Different from pop-up dinner enterprises like New Orleans’ DinnerLab, which debuted its prix fixe menu in unconventional venues concept here earlier this year, L.A. Underground is more a secretive gathering of multiple vendors, selected by Graham, serving a variety of dishes. The event also operates in a gray area with the Los Angeles County Health Department, which has limited oversight of food service at private events.
“I curate the vendors and make sure no two vendors have the same niche,” Graham said. “If they have a website, I’ll check it out. But the event is sink or swim. People that don’t do well aren’t going to come back.”
The 28 vendors invited to participate in the inaugural event paid $50 to set up shop for the night, an amount Graham said covered the cost of the venue. In addition to a $10 entry fee, guests clued into the event through Craigslist or Twitter pay $2 to $5 for each dish. Roughly 170 customers attended the debut.
Laura O’Hare, a restaurant consultant with West L.A.’s Hospitality Collective, said it is beneficial for prospective chefs to attend events like this.
“It’s one thing to think that you can cook and cook for your friends,” she said. “The investment is worth it; think of how much money culinary school costs. It’s a small investment to see if you have the chops to pursue this. Worst-case scenario, you learned something about yourself and had fun.”
Pasadena French chef Jean-Paul Peluffo and business partner Patrick Perkins used L.A. Underground to test their pulled duck sliders and duck wings, seeking feedback from diners as they prepare to launch a food truck in the coming months.
“This way, we can tweak things if things need to be tweaked,” Perkins said as Peluffo plopped duck meat onto small burger buns during the event. “We can’t create the market, we have to meet the market.”
Others, like Sun Valley’s Juli Schwartz-Frinhani, who started her food truck BraziLarica last fall, said the intimacy of the event helped her get useful information about her food from customers.
“I wanted to see what people think,” Schwartz-Frinhani said. “It’s hard to see people from up in the food truck. Besides, it’s much nicer to serve food inside.”
Despite the diversity and novelty of its offerings and the edgy, insiders-only feel of the event, these “underground” food courts have met with mixed success elsewhere.
Graham, now based in San Francisco, said she was inspired to start the underground market when she was living in Atlanta a few years ago. She based her first effort on a successful Bay Area concept shut down in 2011 by the California Department of Public Health and San Francisco Fire Department, who said they no longer considered it a private event.
Her Atlanta event was well received. Too well.
“The underground market got too big,” Graham said. “We had lines around the block. People were going and complaining they couldn’t get in. I was afraid we were going to get shut down, and it was either shutting down or going legal.”
She chose the latter option and created a public version of the event called Atlanta Nosh. But with the underground vibe gone and the vendors more established, enthusiasm dimmed and she was forced to close down.
Graham said she chose to relaunch the concept in Los Angeles because operating in a large city makes it easier to find vendors.
“You need a certain amount of vendors and attendees to make the event work,” she said. “People are not going to come out for five or six vendors.”
The inaugural L.A. Underground Market was a qualified success. Graham, who commuted to Los Angeles to throw the event, said she vastly overestimated the amount of people that would show up and managed to just break even. Still, the response was positive enough that she’ll try again.
Johnette Kent, a 41-year-old Hollywood chocolatier and cook who served a dish of cocoa fire noodles with chocolate oyster sauce, said she’ll be back for the next event even though she overcooked and racked up a loss on the night.
“The reception my food got was great for me, getting exposure for what I do. And networking with other food artisans was valuable,” she said. “But I probably would not make so much food next time.”
Peluffo said he was satisfied with the showing, having gone through several platters of his duck products. He, too, is interested in attending next time.
The chef, who once owned a restaurant in Walnut Creek and was a chef at the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy, said he received the necessary feedback and had fun interacting with the guests.
“It doesn’t matter where you cook, food is fun,” he said as he started packing away some the dishes at the end of the night. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a million-dollar kitchen or not, we’re here to have a good time.”