Tucked away in the heart of the Arts District of Los Angeles is a boutique market called Urban Radish. I was first introduced to the owner, Michael Aivazis, by our friends at Proprietors LLC. while location scouting. Urban Radish is one of the first markets to land in the area that caters to the sense of wellbeing and quality that is expected from the community of the up-and-coming Arts District.
After I sat down with Michael, I left feeling inspired and grateful for his sense of responsibility as the grocer of the community. He only wants to offer the healthiest, most sustainable, and best options for eating well. Not only is he doing good on the food end, but also paying his employees livable wages and helping those with troublesome pasts that would normally have difficulty finding a job.
Here is his story.
Where did you grow up?
Athens, Greece. Very small neighborhood in a very large city. At the time, there were maybe 3 and half or 4 million people in Athens. But just like in New York, your immediate focus is the block that has the grocer, the baker, the butcher, or the news stand. As you grow older and older, your awareness expands.
You grow up eating well, and Greek cooking is very decent. My mother would cook two different meals a day: one for lunch and one for dinner. Nothing elaborate but things that involved a salad and a main course. There was good food but no fast food. No one would let a child eat fast food—it wouldn’t occur to them.
In ‘81, I moved out to Chicago to get a PhD in theoretical particle physics. Then I went to Dallas to be a professor at SMU. The kind of physics I would do depended on this accelerator that the US was building—the Superconducting Super Collider—and that project got canned in ’92. So I stopped doing physics and started working for a software company. In ’97, I went back to the academic world. Starting working in CalTech up until June of 2013.
How did Urban Radish get started?
In 2011, my wife started thinking where to put a market and sounded like fun to her. She was working in a consulting firm and had done a lot of work in craft beer, and how it was starting to eat market share from low-end brands such as Miller and Budweiser but also the very high-end beers that were being imported. There was something in the middle that no one was paying attention to and all of a sudden that became a real thing. She watched this thing happen and at the same time she was involved in doing due diligence for all sort of retail operations as a consultant. She started seeing retail channels from the investor and operator side, but also the supplier side. The thought was that she would take all of this expertise and build a market. But where? Our partner said there was nothing in the LA Arts District where the community is screaming for a market. It looked like a great fit. It’s a community that consists of people with very strong opinions—that is both a blessing and a curse.
The property value in the neighborhood must have seen a bump since a grocery store came here because all the real estate agents that are showing lofts or units within walking distance will bring their clients here to show them the market. Everybody wins.
What can you tell us about the type of product you offer?
Getting a market for the area is complicated. The area isn’t demographically uniform. There is a sizable chunk of population that are in their late twenties and early thirties that are starting out trying to do stuff in an urban setting on a tight budget. They need to put dinner on the table for little money. Then there are these people that are 45 and older that are moving down here because it is cool and money is no object. Then there are the artists that have not yet moved or were not pushed out from the influx of young people and the people with money. Originally, this was essentially an artist colony. Practically free industrial space to do studios and crazy things with landlords that charged very little and didn’t care about the space. So these are the original people in the area. Then, others started moving in and some people got pushed out because property rent went up and some stayed. So we have three distinct classes of people in the area. You can’t make all of them happy. We need to be conscious about the fact that there are people with tight budgets that are looking to eat healthy and put decent food on the table. So, you have to have produce and fruit—the staples available at reasonable prices. That is one class of product that we have on our shelves. In order to survive, we need to attract those with money, not only those in the immediate neighborhood but also greater LA. For that, you need to bring them here and attract them with something: fancy cheese case, fancy meat case, fairly sophisticated wine selection that includes very high valued bottles of wine but also reasonably priced produce and fruit. It’s like two markets overlaid on top of each other.
Eating well is cheap in the long run because the likelihood of getting sick is smaller and you live a healthier lifestyle. Our philosophy is very simple: if the item can be had organic, we will carry it organic and no other way. If an item can be non-GMO, that is how we will carry it in the store. If someone can guarantees us that the animal was treated in a humane way and we can verify it, that’s the rancher we will go with for beef. I think it is extremely important to eat well and eat healthy. You cannot do one without the other.
In order to control the cost, we do crazy things like go straight to the farmer. So the clementines on the shelf were hanging on a tree a day and half ago. We do that as much as possible. With fish, we look for wild as much as possible and we look at fish that can be sustainably fished. For farm-raised fish, we only go to farms where we know that the fish are being treated correctly, they are being fed correctly and have room to swim around. I don’t know if you have ever seen a typical salmon farm but it’s the most disgusting thing you will ever see in your life. When we have farm-raised salmon, the salmon we get comes from one of two places: one is in mainland Scotland and the other is off of the Shetland Islands where the farm owns both a chunk of the ocean and a chunk of the river, so the salmon is allowed to live as close as its natural life as possible. They’re not force-fed or live in a barrel. We try to make sure what we have on our shelves is food raised correctly and is healthy, but the struggle is to bring it here at a price point that is accessible to everyone.
The things that you eat raw, rare, or not cooked all the way are much more significant sources of risk. The greens that you eat raw need to be high quality. So, there it matters how the greens were treated. Potatoes that are grown in colossal farms are constantly sprayed with systemic pesticides which is one that the plant absorbs. It does not just sit on the leaf and kills the pests that landed on the leaf. If you buy potatoes from Ralphs or Vons, the potatoes have to sit in a warehouse for anything from four days to six weeks for all of the chemicals that they have been force fed to degas. The potato ejects all the nasty chemicals. And only then, they are safe to eat. Before then, they will kill you like the way they kill the bug that eats the potato. We make sure that thats not the stuff we have on our shelves and is part of what we do.
Urban Radish pays employees higher than average wages than typical supermarkets. Why was this conscious decision made?
Many of our employees are Homeboy graduates. They are struggling some serious resistance at home, among their friends, and neighborhoods. They have left gangs and left behind a life that is extremely oppressive. The last thing they need is going home with a paycheck that doesn’t pay bills which introduces stress into their lives and children. It’s the right thing to do. It’s true that these guys would have a hell of a time trying to find a job anywhere. They all have records and have done terrible things in their past.
Typical employers go one of two paths: one, they don’t want these guys on the premises on the likelihood that they might do something bad or they will lose their temper and since they’re used to violence, things will get out of hand. It gets too risky so they don’t hire these guys for the same reason most places don’t hire ex-felons. Then there is the other kind of employer that says “free labor!” Since these guys can’t get any job elsewhere, they’ll take anything. If you go down the first path, these guys have no solution for getting their life back together. If you go down the second path, you are essentially taking advantage of them. It’s the wrong thing to do. It’s not only bad for the employee but it’s also bad for the employer because the turnover is very high. If it takes 6-7 weeks to teach these guys to be self-sufficient and do the job right, you don’t want to constantly be turning these guys around. You’re constantly investing in these people and getting no return. The right thing to do—from both a humanitarian standpoint and a business standpoint—is to pay them well enough, so they stick around. The investment you put in so they can do their job, you will eventually recoup. Otherwise it makes no sense. We decided to do well by doing good.