Montebello’s new community hub and food hall is quite the sight. Situated on the northeast corner of Whittier Boulevard and Sixth Street, BLVD MRKT resides in repurposed shipping containers where eight food vendors sling everything from New Orleans cuisine to pupusas, tacos, coffee, or craft beer in a stunning courtyard. And while it took three years for BLVD MRKT to finally open last month, there’s a key element that helps it stand out against other Southern California food halls or restaurants: an incubator program designed for first-time restaurant owners.
BLVD MRKT isn’t the first shipping container food hall in Southern California, but it is certainly the first with a mentoring/incubator system on-site. That program is so new that LA’s health department had a difficult time classifying the property and business, one where prep areas are available on-site and where vendors can serve customers right away, ultimately flying on their own. The program also provides access to mentors, classes, and capital for those in the early stage of their business, those who’ve stepped out on their own at a farmers market, pop-up, or street corner who ultimately want a storefront.
Downey-native and BLVD MRKT founder Barney Santos envisioned the program within the 8,500-square-foot space. In this predominantly Latino neighborhood, he noticed certain socioeconomic barriers to restaurant ownership for minority-owned businesses. He also had a vision for Downtown Montebello.
Two restaurants are currently in BLVD’s incubator program. First-time restaurant owner Keivan Cross owns Nola’s Cajun Cuisine. His family owned New Orleans Cajun & Creole restaurant in Hermosa Beach for 17 years, where Cross worked his first job before a career in operations, food, and nutrition at USC’s Keck Medicine. His family’s longstanding restaurant closed in 2018, but Cross presented a business plan to Santos and now has a coveted slot in a repurposed shipping container creating family recipes for the consumption.
Husband and wife Miguel and Sylvia Garcia, along with her brother Alex Ramirez, started Los Taquero Mucho in their backyard and catering a few years ago. None had food experience, and Sylvia left her job in banking to start the family-run business. Their stall makes tacos with some inspiration from Guatemala and went through Barney’s incubator program to start their dream. Miguel Garcia’s father recently joined the team.
Not all of BLVD’s tenants are in the incubator program. Among the lineup are the experienced and popular Salvadoran food truck Vchos. Co-owner Wendy Centeno is a force in Southern California, she started selling pupusas when many didn’t actually know what a pupusa was. There’s also another well-established business on the property: Pez Cantina, which still operates in DTLA. Co-owner Lucy Thompson Ramirez is from East Los Angeles.
Pilar Casteñeda and Marlon Gonzalez opened the Oaxacan-inspired Cafe Santo in early August, bringing their years of experience from Fred 62 and Glassell Park’s Habitat Coffee. Also serving food are La Crosta Wood Fired Pizza, the Chicken Koop, and Alchemy Craft, where bartenders serve wines from Valle de Guadalupe, ciders, and 12 taps from LA County brewers.
At the center of BLVD MRKT is the location. The lot was vacant for nearly a decade, and locals wondered what would come into their community when Santos took it over in 2018. Some investors wanted traditional anchors like Starbucks, but Santos pushed for more than a corporate invasion. “A lot of stuff happened since then,” says Santos. “We were trying to get the incubation up and running while trying to buy the property from the city. We were full steam ahead. We had some big trip-ups and had to gut the whole project just to make it feasible. COVID-19 killed a lot of business, and investors pulled out. We’re not corporate developers. I don’t have a team of 15 people. This is just a mom-and-pop operation with people from the community trying to build something for the community.”