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DOWNEY - For many restaurants, their location can be just as crucial to their success as the food they're dishing out. When the gourmet burger shop L.A. Buns first emerged in February of 2012 promising the "best buns in L.A.," it was unknown whether the tiny restaurant's stellar, made-to-order food would be enough to overcome what at that point was still considered a "cursed" location. The hole-in-the-wall located at 8237 2nd St. had previously been a hamburger stand and Lebanese restaurant, both of which closed without much notice. L.A. Buns owner, Mike Gavica, has proven that if you make great food, it doesn't even matter if you're eclipsed by Porto's two-story parking lot: the people will come.
L.A. Buns continues to grow in popularity thanks in part to the restaurant's excellent customer service and warm, inviting atmosphere. It's a family restaurant through and through, with Gavica's brother-in-law developing recipes, his brother Marcus working alongside him on the flattop, and the restaurant owner's 18-year-old stepdaughter, Destiny Zazueta, working the register. Zazueta says the restaurant has changed her family, bringing them closer together, and the same could be said of the bonds the burger joint is building with community members.
L.A. Buns staff members know many customers by name, firing up their favorite menu items upon spotting them walking towards the eatery, oftentimes before the customer even walks in the door. Along with the food, it is this familiarity and level of care that keeps customers coming back. L.A. Buns even has volunteers, like 22-year-old Sean Anderson, who initially found out about the restaurant while working as part of the city's bike patrol. In exchange for free food and one of L.A. Buns' distinctive black and red shirts, which Gavica intends to begin selling to the public in the coming weeks, Anderson serves customers and helps clean up.
It is because of fiercely loyal fans like Anderson that Gavica decided to give away free French fries with every order on February 12, commemorating the small restaurant's one-year anniversary.
Gavica contends that he's still "figuring it all out", but he's having fun while doing it and it appears as if his customers are more than happy to come along for the ride, especially if the restaurant's evolution continues to result in delicious food and increased attention for Downtown Downey's revitalization efforts.
"It's shocking to me, but people are coming here from Santa Ana, Anaheim, L.A. - from all over just to try the food and a lot of time it opens them up to what's going on around town, stuff they wouldn't have found out about otherwise," the young restaurant owner said.
Gavica is of course referring to the downtown area's increased efforts to build an arts scene and create some semblance of a nightlife in Downey, which is considered by many to be a sleepy suburb offering little to do past 10 p.m.
L.A. Buns' introduction to the downtown arts scene began in an unusual way: when street artist Bumblebee created a piece outside the restaurant literally as tall as the building itself featuring a young girl cutting her own hair. Slowly but surely, at first just by virtue of its location, L.A. Buns became ingrained in the effort to revitalize downtown. When comedy nights began to get sponsored by The Avenue Press at the Epic Lounge next to the restaurant, the crowd eventually made its way over to Gavica's for a late-night bite. When the Downey Arts Coalition began hosting a monthly movie night at the Lounge, Gavica gladly offered his services to the hungry masses. At first it was accidental, but during his second year of business, the restaurant owner wants to be more intentional about his efforts to give back to the community.
"I really had no idea the arts scene in Downey was this strong," Gavica said. "My first year was really spent figuring out the business and getting used to running it, but I want my second year to be about becoming a bigger part of the scene and helping to fundraise for some of the local arts organizations because once you're helping one, you're going to be helping all of them."
A few months back Gavica mentioned to his brother that he was interested in partnering up with Stay Gallery for a fundraiser. Before long Stay Gallery executive director and Downey Art Vibe (DAV) co-founder Valentin Flores caught wind of Gavica's interest and gave the restaurant owner a call. In a matter of weeks the gallery and the restaurant decided to collaborate on the creation of a menu item offered for a limited time, with 30 percent of the proceeds being donated to the gallery.
This is how the Stay Gallery Chicken Sandwich was born, featuring grilled chicken, slow-roasted tomatoes, avocado, L.A. Buns' spicy slaw, white American cheese, and "Stay Secret Sauce," a blend of aioli and pureed California peppers all piled onto high onto one of Gavica's signature brioche buns. The sandwich was offered at a fundraising event January 31, but Gavica continued to sell the sandwich until he ran out of ingredients. As of the second week of February, Gavica sold nearly 90 of the sandwiches to benefit Stay Gallery, who recently exceeded their $20,000 fundraising goal, enabling them to move forward with their plans to build a loft.
"We're honored and humbled that L.A. Buns wanted to do something to help us out. What began as a random conversation turned into a great collaboration and in the coming months, we're hoping to develop a burger that remains on the menu permanently," Flores said. "It's not just about the food or the proceeds, it's about creating synergy Downtown."
The next year will be a new chapter for L.A. Buns and by extension, for downtown. Gavica plans to widen his focus to branding and social media, hoping to create buzz outside of city limits, bringing more attention to downtown events and new menu items. The restaurant owner is also interested in continuing to build partnerships with local business and organizations, even when they seem a little unusual.
Such is the case with Gavica's interesting relationship with the man he only knows as Frank, a local resident who helps Gavica prep each morning for service. In exchange, Gavica lets Frank operate his "taco bar" in front of L.A. Buns after hours, selling asada, chicken, and al pastor tacos for $1 on Friday and Saturday nights.
Featuring the work of local artists will also be another focus for the restaurant. L.A. Buns already showcases artwork by local artist and DAV member Don Lamkin, but moving forward Gavica would like to feature the Los Angeles-centric photography of Stay Gallery creative director Gabe Enamorado. The restaurant is also in talks with Downey and Warren High Schools for future fundraising opportunities. Given the popularity of the restaurant's buffalo chicken fries, Gavica's brother Marcus is also kicking around the idea of launching an L.A. Buns food truck that will solely offer French fries with interesting toppings, like chorizo and queso fresco.
"I can't help but feel this is a really great time to live in Downey," Gavica said. "I grew up here, went to school here, but I can feel things changing. I'm excited to see the Lock & Key Social Drinkery open up. I want to check out the sports bar that's opening where Granata's & Tapas was. I want to keep seeing this art scene growing. You know you're in the right spot when there are so many exciting things going on around you."
Published: February 14, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 44