Pioneering a neighborhood with no other restaurants and little foot traffic takes a lot strategy, perseverance and a lot of luck. Steve and Dina Samson share their tips on making a new development in an uncharted area work for them in Los Angeles.
— Lesley Balla
In a big sprawling city like Los Angeles, some of the best restaurants are located in the unlikeliest of places.
You can find everything from stellar edo-style sushi to fermentation mastery and high-end tasting menu concepts stuffed inside nondescript strip malls or tucked along dark industrial strips. With every existing pocket of the city filling up fast, it’s not surprising to see whole walkable neighborhoods literally sprouting from blocks of unused warehouses or swaths of bare land.
What happens with these more obscure locations is Development 101: Newly built lofts and offices bring businesses — i.e. restaurants, bars and coffee shops — to support those living and working in them.
Those, in turn, bring more foot traffic and even more businesses, and the cycle continues until the entire area is a new dining and drinking destination. Being the first to pioneer these uncharted areas has its challenges but also many benefits, from financial perks to a good news hook that generates interest and buzz.
Finding the Next Great Neighborhood
Chef Steve Samson and wife Dina aren’t ones to shy away from unique locations. Their first restaurant, Sotto, sits below street-level on one of the busiest east-west thoroughfares in Los Angeles. Surrounded by plenty of other businesses and residential neighborhoods, with its small sign, you wouldn’t know it was there unless you knew to look for it. But the right people found it: Open since 2011, the intimate Italian charmer received accolades from local and national media almost immediately, and continues to have a strong regular and word-of-mouth customer base.
So when they decided to open a second restaurant, the Samsons were more interested in finding the right space more than the best neighborhood. Like many, they were already priced out of red-hot areas like the Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles or along Abbot Kinney in Venice, so they expanded their scope.
One thing Los Angeles still has is a lot of is unused space, especially in areas surrounding the Downtown center. High-profile chefs like Ori Menashe (Bestia, Bavel), Jessica Largey (Simone), and David Chang (Majordomo) are just a few capitalizing on this. In 2015, the Samsons met the principles behind the LENA Group, developers and investors who planned to turn the city’s original wholesale produce center into 2.5 acres of hospitality and creative businesses. Embedded in what’s now known as the Fashion District, the swath of land included 75,000 square feet of unused brick-and-bow truss warehouses and open-plan concrete structures, all built in the early 1900s.
The City Market South project was still years away from coming to fruition, but when the Samsons toured one of the original buildings, Steve could see his vision for Rossoblu come to life. The only foreseeable challenge: Getting people there.
With the building located in a courtyard hidden from any main street, and the only nearby Santee Alley and Fashion District businesses having daytime hours, there was little to no foot traffic for a dinner-only restaurant. And none of the new lofts sprouting across Downtown were really walking distance.
“That was the biggest gamble,” Steve added. “There was nothing there, but that was out of our control. What we could control was finding the right deal. Our thing was to never let the rent curtail our potential success, and we knew that doing something in an area like this, it should be in our favor.”
Dina agreed. “I was afraid of the dead zone, but Steve kept saying, ‘Can’t you see it, the patio, the rent will be great.’ I just had to go with it, and I’m so glad we did. After we committed, we had to figure out what was around and if and how we could take advantage of it.”
One key was making sure the LENA Group would promote City Market South and its tenants, including Rossoblu. The developers needed to build a website and hire a PR firm to help get the message out. Meanwhile Dina started meeting with the community, including Business Improvement District heads and city council representatives, to talk about the restaurant. She made sure to connect with the right players on social media, and the restaurant’s PR team started dripping details about the project.
There are a lot of pros to opening a restaurant in a yet-to-be-established neighborhood, especially on the financial side. Since the Samsons were the first to sign in the development, to protect themselves, they asked for an occupancy clause in the lease. That way if the place didn’t fill out by a certain amount of time, they could get out of it. They asked for rent abatements, which included free rent during the build out. That was particularly helpful, says Dina.
“We learned from Sotto that when you have that inexpensive rent, it gives you time to build clientele,” she added. “You can get to know your neighborhood and your customers. Once you get the locals support, they’ll keep coming back. There are a lot of people living and working downtown, and we’ve nurtured those relationships.”
Finally debuting in 2017, Rossoblu was everything the Samsons wanted it to be: A love letter to both Bologna, where Steve spent his childhood summers, and L.A., the city the couple called home. Even being so off the beaten path and hidden, the worry about customers not finding it faded away.
After all, with everyone using GPS on their phones, every ride share, taxi and commuter got there easily (without it, you might end up in Skid Row a few blocks away).
As new tenants opened — Cognescenti Coffee was already established, then came women’s apparel company Lovestitch, film studios and event spaces, and Dama, a Latin-inspired restaurant and lounge (Charles Phan was supposed to open The Slanted Door in the same complex, but the deal fell through) — it started to feel more like a community instead of an experiment in urban planning.
In 2018 the Samsons opened Superfine Pizza, a take-out window spot, around the corner, which brings in a different clientele than Rossoblu. And although it shares a courtyard and probably some intersect of diners, the Samsons never saw Dama as competition. Instead, they saw the opportunity to develop a new customer base.
“There were a lot of synergies,” Steve said. “People going to Dama might not know that Rossoblu exists and vice versa. I figured we’d get a second wave. Same with the movie studios and event space. Even Superfine. We knew it would all work, that we would play off our neighbors, maybe get overflow, and vice versa.”
The Samsons were particularly grateful for having neighbors when Rossoblu experienced a hood fire on a busy Friday night in September. With the restaurant at capacity, they had to evacuate quickly. One of Dama’s managing partners, Steve Livigni, was first on the scene to offer support; the fire department wasn’t far behind.
“They actually made it to us very quickly,” said Dina. “They knew our location since our building has been around for a hundred years. But, as City Market South gains more tenants, it does create more awareness around our location.”