It is Venice’s own tale of David and Goliath, a small family-owned business fighting for survival against a wave of change that washes through the Venice streets. The buzzword is gentrification and La Fiesta Brava, Venice’s beloved Mexican hole-in-the-wall, is fast becoming a poster-child for those against the inundation of new, up-market developments and restaurants in Venice.
The Camarena family own and operate La Fiesta Brava and have done for more than 20 years, after moving to Los Angeles from Mexico. They now face having to find a new location for their restaurant, currently at 423 Rose Ave. in Venice, as a new development is being proposed for the property.
The Venice Ranch Market was also part of the property. The market, which was operated by property owner Miriam Zlotolow, has already shut its doors.
“My Dad built this place. He came here 22 years ago,” said Jasmin Camarena, the eldest Camarena daughter. “People have watched me grow up here, a lot of our customers, they’ve known me since I was 5 or 6 years old. To me they’re like family. We’d love to stay. We know that sometimes change is inevitable but it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Camarena tells of how just five years ago the family were struck a devastating blow when her father was killed in a car accident in Mexico.
“He’d gone back to surprise my Grandmother for her birthday and the car he was in was hit by another car,” Camarena said. “We got the call saying he’d been killed.”
Camarena, the eldest in the family of five children, and her mother were forced to take over running the business side of the family’s restaurant. Something that before had been her Father’s domain.
Jason Smith, a Venice resident who works in a surf store on the Boardwalk, said of La Fiesta Brava, “It’s a go to place for my friends and I.”
Of the restaurant’s possible closing he said, “It’s a sad story, especially after everything the mother and daughter went through to keep the place going after the dad died.”
Camarena explained the family was given no warning from Zlotolow other than a notice for a change in permit use posted on the door.
“I saw the sign and went up and talked to Miriam,” Camarena said. “I asked what it was about and she said ‘Don’t worry about it’ and I said ‘What do you mean don’t worry about it? You guys are applying for a permit to change from a restaurant and market to a big restaurant.’ She was like ‘Oh yeah, yeah it’s a deal that we made. It may happen, it may not happen. If it doesn’t happen, business as usual but if it happens then, you know…’ and I was like ‘You mean you’re going to kick us out’ and she said ‘Yeah, I’m sorry.’ At this point I was ready to cry, I didn’t cry but it was, you know, a sensitive matter. She said ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s all she could say. They didn’t tell us anything. No warning before, no nothing. Just a sign on the door and that’s it. It’s been a rough ride.”
Bruce Horwitz, who has been responsible for some of Venice’s favorite restaurants like Wabi Sabi and Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney, is spearheading the new development and he wants it to be clear, “I am not kicking them out, the landowner (Zlotolow) wanted to realize the market rent of the property.”
“Being a landlord is not a public service, you take a great risk and on the flip side if there was a crash, community members would not be stepping in to help a landlord pay their mortgage when their space is empty and their store front is boarded up,” Horwitz said. “It’s a risk and there’s no safety net.”
Camarena said she thought her family had had a good relationship with the landlord.
“We were here before the landlord even owned the property and Miriam, the owner of the property and my Dad, they got along really, really well. My Dad loved Miriam and we just never thought we’d be in this situation,” Camarena said.
Camarena said that her father’s business relationship with property owner Miriam Zlotolow was more of a friendship. Today the family has no formal lease agreements with Zlotolow, which leaves them in a vulnerable position.
“It’s sad,” Horwitz said. “But if you have a restaurant you have a long-term lease. It’s a bad business decision not too. We all have leases, pay our rents, and when the leases are up we open our wallets and hope for the best. Hospitality is a difficult game. This is a tough business for all of us.”
Horwitz said one of his own restaurants, Wabi Sabi on Abbot Kinney, is no longer profitable and for now he bears the cost of keeping it running and keeping staff employed until the new project gets off the ground.
The tough business of running a restaurant is something Horwitz and Camarena agree upon.
“I grew up seeing my Dad build this restaurant, my cousins have worked here, my aunts and uncles have all worked here, and as we got older we started working here,” Camarena said. “It’s not easy having a restaurant, especially one you’re actually working yourselves. It’s demoralizing watching it be crushed down by someone who has more money than you. It sucks.”
Horwitz signed his lease with Zlotolow a year ago and while the lengthy permit and approval process for the new development is underway, he said he and Zlotolow have been happy to continue to accommodate La Fiesta Brava.
Horowitz even offered to help the Camarenas move their restaurant into a new space in the old Brickhouse Restaurant at 826 Hampton Dr., Venice.
The Brickhouse lease offered to the Camarena family was $10,000 a month, not unreasonable for a commercial property in Venice in today’s market, but a huge jump compared to the amount the family currently pays for the La Fiesta Brava space.
“We’re going to look for other locations and hopefully stay in this community that we love,” Camarena said. “But, hopefully if we don’t stay in Venice people will come visit us wherever we end up.”
As for a plan for the new 2,700 square foot building?
Horwitz said he’d like to create something that becomes part of the neighborhood.
“It’s not going to be fancy and expensive,” Horwitz said. “It’ll be more Rose than Abbot Kinney, a place you can wear your flip-flops.”
It’s a vision that seems to be more in line with what locals in the area want.
Ben Knox is a regular at La Fiesta Brava sometimes eating at the restaurant as many as five times a week.
“Me and my friends always come for dinner,” Knox said. “It’s really low key; it’s obviously family run, it’s really inexpensive and just obviously really good food and a great place to be with your friends.”
Knox, who is a Venice resident, has signed a petition in support of La Fiesta Brava.
Knox lives just off Oakwood Park, a couple of blocks in from Rose Ave. and said that in the four years he has lived in Venice he has noticed big changes along Rose.
“Definitely in the last month or two months it seems that a lot of restaurants, old staples, are having to shut their doors and move on. It’s not good,” Knox said. “If they could support small businesses like this staying, upgrading, advancing their ways a little bit, partnering on that front, it’d be cool.”
On April 23 there was a zoning hearing at the West Los Angeles Municipal Building regarding plans for the La Fiesta Brava location.
Representatives for applicant Horwitz requested a change of use from the existing market and deli to a restaurant with a covered patio and outdoor dining area. This new restaurant would serve a full line of alcoholic beverages within the 8 am to midnight hours of operation.
A purpose the hearing was to gauge public opinion and many stood up to speak against the development. The Camarena family presented a petition with more 1,000 signatures showing support for their restaurant. As a result, Assistant Zoning Administrator Lourdes Green granted a 60-day extension. LUPC, Venice’s Land Use and Planning Commission, has added the project to its May 26 agenda.
A big issue for locals in the area is parking. Many of the old Venice homes on the streets that run off Rose Ave. do not have their own parking spaces and more and more residents are finding themselves competing with restaurant goers for street parking.
The new restaurant development at the La Fiesta Brava location would be required to provide a total of 18 parking spaces on the site. At the hearing on April 23, those speaking in support of the project presented an alternate parking layout of 11 spaces, another four spaces credited as non-conforming, and to make up the final four required spaces, an alternative of 16 bicycle stalls was requested to be considered instead.
Another issue residents are concerned about is the effect of the City approving another liquor license in an area that is already over saturated by planning standards.
“A lot of bigger restaurants won’t operate unless they get the liquor license,” Camarena said. “We’re small enough that we don’t need the liquor license.”
James Allan of Coldwell Banker said he feels even though the gentrification of Venice as a whole and now also Rose Ave. has been a positive thing to the economy of Venice, he would love to see more of the local community, long time residents, and business owners sharing in the booming growth.
“It’s a shame to see many establishments disappear that have helped mold the character and charm that makes Venice so unique,” Allan said. “This is off course is harsh reality of capitalism and the evolution of communities as a whole and would encourage the locals of Venice giving as many of the local businesses the support they need to maintain their business in Venice.”
Horwitz said there’s an idea that if its project fails to get approvals for the new development that La Fiesta Brava will get to stay, but the landlord will lease to whoever pays the most.
“The landlord just wants the market rent for their property,” Horwitz said. “What if it was a Starbucks? There are plenty who want to get a foothold in the next Abbot Kinney.”
Camarena is upset their wasn’t more open communication.
“They’re telling people if it wasn’t them it’d be someone else but may be it wouldn’t be someone else,” Camarena said. “Maybe we’d be able to come to an agreement. It’s the fact that there was never the opportunity is what hurts the most.
“It’s got to the point where people are coming to Venice because they liked how Venice was but they’re changing everything about Venice, what it was about, what it stood for.”
Camarena said a lot of their customers are artists and they’re coming in and saying, “I’m living out of my car right now, they kicked me out of my studio.”
“People don’t realize, they think, it’s only a restaurant it’s not going to effect anybody, but it has a trickle down effect,” she said. “It effects everyone who lives here and they might not see it first hand because they may not interact with the people we interact with but it’s really sad. We have customers and sometimes I’ll give them their meal for free because they’re counting their pennies out on the table. Because of everything that’s happened they can’t afford anything. It breaks my heart.”
Camarena continues, “But now that we’re here, we love the support.”
“We didn’t think we’d have this much support but the fact that we do is very motivating in a way that helps us push through,” she said. “Because honestly, it’s a depressing situation to be in. I’m the eldest of five kids and it’s just my Mom and the restaurant’s our only source of income. How are we going to pay the house and my brothers’ and sisters’ educations? It’s just a devastating blow, especially after everything we’ve been through. It feels amazing that the community backs us up so much. I knew they liked the food, I just never knew they liked it this much.”