After years of developments, millions spent on construction, and a heavy marketing effort, Tartine’s big Downtown LA Manufactory lasted under a year before closing. The San Francisco-based restaurant and baking operation continues to use some of the original 40,000 square foot space for its wholesale bread and pastry production, but its front-facing cafe, coffee window, bars, and restaurants are closed.
At the moment, Chris Bianco, one of the original partners, is slated to take over the two restaurant spaces, formerly Tartine Bianco and Alameda Supper Club, some time in the next year. One of those will be Pizzeria Bianco, his celebrated Phoenix pizza restaurant, while the other will be a more ambitious Italian trattoria. Here now, Eater editors discuss why they think Manufactory closed, from basic questions of “why” to issues with the Row development overall.
Tartine Never Answered One Simple Question For Its Customers: Why
Earlier this year in the sunny Tartine market area at the Row in Downtown Los Angeles, I picked up a hand-thrown ceramic cup to admire it. It was just one small moment inside a massive joint Tartine and Chris Bianco (the Phoenix Italian food star) operation that spans some 40,000 square feet and two floors of wholesale and retail space. The market area sells Bianco’s own canned tomatoes and $6 pastries and lots of cups and other kitchen tools, while the Tartine Bianco just beyond had a bar area (with its own menu), a dining area (different menu), and access to Alameda Supper Club (a whole other restaurant, still) just beyond.
The mug cost $72. My first thought was, “Don’t drop this.” My second was: Who would pay $72 for this mug? My last was: Someone would. There are million-dollar lofts nearby in the Arts District, boutique hotels, a Soho House location, and Warner Music Group’s brand new headquarters — to say nothing of the many upscale local tourists who deign to drive from the Westside to check out the rebirth of Downtown Los Angeles. So is the Row built for folks like that?
Not exactly, it seems. Tartine’s market, retail baking and takeaway spaces, and multiple restaurants all closed this week after just 11 months of business and a build-out rumored to have run into the tens of millions of dollars. All of the Row is struggling to find sustained weeknight retail traffic right now, but the loss of anchor tenant Tartine has hit the development’s brand particularly hard. There simply were not enough $72 mug buyers around to keep the place afloat, and that seems to say something about Tartine’s visibility and draw, and about the Row overall — not to mention the cost of goods inside.
More than a few outside restaurant groups (Pok Pok, NoMad, and beyond) have descended upon Los Angeles in search of its fabled restaurant riches; few take the time to appreciate its nuances. In other interviews, Tartine’s Chad Robertson has described Downtown as the “Eastside,” a contentious enough conversation that helps to displace the millions of Angelenos who live on the eastern side of the LA River.
Others have bet big on expensive build-outs and dinnertime dishes in Downtown, only to find that hundreds of LA locals would rather spend their time queueing up in front of Sonoratown for sub-$10 plates of spectacular Sonoran tacos. These may seem like small differences from the outside looking in, but they all matter very, very much to the bottom line — especially when a restaurant group like Tartine has bet so big on so many square feet of space.
Simply put: Tartine didn’t find a good way to consistently speak to Angelenos, and in a city where driving four miles to have dinner can mean sitting in your car for an hour, answering the “why” of the place not only proved tricky, it likely proved its undoing.
In a capitalist society, there’s nothing inherently wrong with selling a ceramic mug for $72, but it helps to give a clear reason as to why that mug costs what it does. Tartine struggled to give diners a reason to explore the Row on a rainy random Wednesday night. It struggled to explain why Chris Bianco was doing flatbread, not pizza. It struggled to more accurately delineate the difference between one restaurant, Tartine Bianco, and another, Alameda Supper Club. More than anything, it struggled to define its place at the Row, in Downtown, in a city brimming with home bakers and panaderias and other local bread legends like Friends & Family, Clark Street, and Bub & Grandma’s.
It’s hard to fill a 40,000 square foot space when large swaths of the city likely never really knew why they should be compelled to come in the first place. It wasn’t for the mugs, and now it’s not for the fantastic croissants and thoughtful cooking from Bianco, either. —Farley Elliott, Eater LA Senior Editor
Tartine’s Business Wasn’t The Problem. ROW-DTLA Is Very Tricky
Why do restaurants fail? Specialists are paid tons of money to figure this out, but still can’t come up with a knowledgeable strategy. In Tartine’s case, the cause comes back to a familiar note: location.
Tartine’s branding is outstanding. But ROW-DTLA is still under development after decades of being surrounded by sweatshops and produce/meat distributors.
Gaining traction at this hub on the outer stretches of Downtown could be a reflection of a few things. But LA residents were clearly uninterested in driving to a fairly remote area, parking in the huge garage, and figuring out which direction to go just to eat. Though it takes time to build a loyal customer base at something like ROW, where all restaurants outside of the Tartine-plex are not particularly busy.
There’s no precedent for something like Tartine Manufactory in LA. The massive 40,000 square foot space housed so much, a retail and wholesale bakery, cafe, and two restaurants all in one building with incredibly high prices.
We’ve seen other restaurants take hold in new areas. Steve and Dina Samson brought Rossoblu to light in a mostly industrial part of Downtown. But they also had a strong base from Sotto to follow them across town.
Was Tartine too soon for ROW? One could argue that crowds make it out to Smorgasburg regularly, so why not to Tartine? —Mona Holmes, Eater LA Reporter
Manufactory’s Impressive Space Didn’t Translate to Standout Dining
LA is a notoriously fickle dining city, like all great restaurant scenes. There are winners and losers, and no one can successfully say they know how to make a hit. Just like movies and television, the primary economic and cultural engine that drives the City of Angels, and has for the past century or so, no one makes a guaranteed moneymaker (except maybe Shonda Rhimes). People can follow formulas and well-established patterns, but the restaurant business is relentlessly unforgiving.
When I first stepped into Tartine’s massive space and received a tour of the entire space, I marveled at the expansive two-story facility: Ovens and grain silos for the baking operation, a massive coffee roastery, a huge subterranean catering kitchen, and of course, all the front-facing parts such as the cafes and pastry counter to the two restaurants. It was one of the most ambitious food-related projects to open in Los Angeles, and I wondered if the company would ever get its return on investment.
Sources familiar with the deal told me the coffee roasting and wholesale baking would help keep it afloat until the masses came to the restaurants, coffee window, and pastry counters. When I saw the menus for Tartine Bianco and Alameda Supper Club, which veered toward the familiar and safe, I was a little bit skeptical about how Angelenos would respond, because many of the dishes were things you could find elsewhere in town. The two restaurants offered solid executions of dishes like toasts, patty melts, and pastas, but they’re not special gems in a sea of classic American and Cali-Italian restaurants across the city.
There’s a certain formula I like to call the Bestia Rule that founders Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis created when they opened their incredibly successful restaurant seven years ago in Downtown LA. If you build a phenomenal restaurant with a killer vibe in a high-ceiling Downtown warehouse-looking space, Angelenos will come. To expand on that, the food needs to offer bold flavors that stand out, serve dishes that you can’t find elsewhere like tableside smoked short ribs or dry-aged duck kebabs, and ensure there’s a vibrant big-city energy in the dining room every night. You need all of those elements, and restaurants like Nightshade, Rossoblu, Bavel, and Majordomo have followed this formula to success.
LA diners have no problem schlepping over to Downtown’s traffic-riddled streets for a great meal. I think the issues I saw with the now-closed Tartine Bianco and Alameda Supper Club restaurants is that they both had solid ambiences, but nothing to write home about, with its minimalist, semi-industrial design. Tartine Bianco especially tried to follow the Bestia Rule with its sweeping square-shaped dining room offering few soft surfaces or anything of visual interest outside of its factory-like windows. Alameda Supper Club felt more intimate, with well-executed but familiar food like handmade ravioli and grilled vegetables.
Still, LA Times critic Bill Addison complained the restaurant’s nearly hidden entrance was not welcoming, clamored for more of [Chris] Bianco touch, saying it, “has to find the dynamism and individuality to distinguish itself.” Alameda Supper Club didn’t get the chance to do that with only nine months of operation before it closed.
Talk to someone who have been to those “Bestia Rule” restaurants, most will relay a memorable experience. I wished Tartine Bianco and Alameda Supper Club had been maverick, engaging restaurants that pushed the boundaries serving one-of-a-kind dishes and showstopping flavors. Instead they were safe, familiar, and comforting despite the big names of Chad Robertson and Chris Bianco as headlining chefs.
Look at Hayato, a highly decorated and awarded seven-seat restaurant in the same complex as Manufactory. In its first year it’s received a Michelin star, a high LA Times 101 Best Restaurant ranking, and numerous other accolades. The accolades might not have been enough to save the Tartine Bianco and Alameda Supper Club, but note the relative absence from end-of-year “best-of” lists for both places. Not every Downtown LA restaurant has to reach for that bar, but Manufactory didn’t really aim that high to begin with.
It’s a shame Manufactory didn’t get the chance to adapt, figure out how to tweak the formula, and develop a steady clientele. If and when Chris Bianco opens Pizzeria Bianco in the former Tartine Bianco space, I think it could become the citywide destination that this location needs to be successful. Pizzeria Bianco is, in my mind, one of the top pizza destinations in the country, one that I have waited hours for in Phoenix, Arizona. I do hope Bianco’s forthcoming trattoria-style menu at the former Alameda Supper Club rises to a more ambitious level, drawing in a crowd that could have had the choice to dine at Bestia or Rossoblu. —Matthew Kang, Eater LA Editor
Does LA Love Lines the Way SF Does?
The success of Tartine’s original San Francisco location is arguably one of the reasons that SF gained a reputation as a place where people would wait in line for any sort of “cult” food item. I’ve written countless city guides since Tartine’s launch in 2002, and every time the bakery or its offerings was mentioned, commenters would complain about the lengthy wait they face at the spot. It became a self-perpetuating myth: The same long lines that might dissuade you from, say, stopping at a place for lunch are what started to attract people to Tartine (because people willing to wait 45 minutes for a pastry can’t be wrong, right?) And with that, lines became even longer.
It must be a heady thing, seeing that people are inclined to line up around the block for the stuff you bake. It’s the kind of buzz that draws investors and advisers who urge expansion, the kind of buzz that makes you believe your own hype. But is hype a scalable business model? The apparent struggle Tartine’s expansion had into Downtown LA suggests that it might take more than a NorCal rep for long wait times to build an actual, sustainable business. —Eve Batey, Eater SF Senior Editor