Always the maverick, Santa Ana chef Jason Quinn’s culinary dance card is rife with acts of rebellion. He’s faced prosecution for serving formerly forbidden foie gras, told Yelp critics to dine elsewhere if they don’t like his “no substitution” rules, and triumphed over cheaters in a Food Network reality show.
In most of the culinary confrontations, the avant-garde chef behind Playground – known for its haute American cuisine – has come out on top. But in recent weeks, Quinn has faced a formidable foe: morning silence in downtown Santa Ana.
“We need more foot traffic,” Quinn said as he stared at his new bakery’s empty patio two weeks ago.
On that day, he also announced he would give away free food at Dough Exchange, in return for feedback on the bakery’s gourmet doughnuts, pastries and meat pies. Quinn’s money-losing experiment, which is ongoing, has lured more customers but is by no means a sustainable fix.
Quinn believes the antidote to his bakery’s woes is 4th Street Market, a culinary marketplace opening Feb. 16 across the street. The modern food court, which will be home to more than a dozen artisanal eateries, is being touted as the next critical step in transforming the city’s gritty urban core into a countywide destination.
The 30,000-square-foot marketplace at Fourth and Bush will feature an eclectic mix of shops that will sell freshly butchered meats, Wagyu burgers that resemble an In-N-Out Double Double, fried chicken, specialty waffles and gourmet sandwiches. The complex is also home to a Portola Coffee Lab, a premium goods grocery store and exhibition kitchens for startup food operations.
“4th Street Market is probably the biggest game changer to hit downtown in a long time,” building owner Ryan Chase said of his East End project. “It will bring energy and life to the area.”
Quinn will move his 3-month-old Dough Exchange across the street to the food hall when it opens. He expects to benefit from the critical mass generated by the cluster of eateries under one roof. He will have three food stands there as well as a bar and counter inside a grocery store dubbed Honor Roll.
The new Santa Ana food complex resembles modern communal dining projects popping up across the country – from San Francisco’s Ferry Building to Orange County’s wildly successful Anaheim Packing House. The culinary walkabouts are incubators for passionate chefs who create eclectic fare for gourmands of all ages.
The market is a labor of love – and a financial roll of the dice – for the 32-year-old Chase.
In 1919, his great-grandfather launched a shoe store on Fourth Street. Over the years, his family has acquired properties throughout downtown, primarily along Fourth Street between French and Bush.
4th Street Market, he believes, will be a magnet for adventurous foodies looking for a great meal in a community steeped in culture and history.
Chase, who grew up in Irvine and graduated from USC, has been criticized for gentrifying the largely Hispanic business zone, formerly called Fiesta Marketplace. But he maintains he’s breathing new life into an area that has seen its core shoppers flee to big-box discounters like Walmart and Costco.
Four years ago, revenue from his family’s properties started to plummet due to vacancies and falling rent. He faced three options: sell the real estate for a tidy profit, leave things alone or adapt.
He chose reinvention. “We really didn’t want to give up,” he said. “We’re not looking to make a quick buck, but to (redevelop) for the long-term benefit of the area.”
EAST END FOOD REVOLUTION
Chase began his $5 million East End investment in 2011 with the rehabilitation of the historic Yost Theater. Orange County’s oldest theater, a former showcase for vaudeville acts and Latino entertainers, was transformed into a music hall that draws twentysomethings from around the county.
A few blocks away at the Artists Village, Chase noticed the thriving food scene. Concepts such as Lola Gaspar, Gypsy Den and Chapter One were gaining reputations as destinations for hipsters seeking edgy dining experiences.
In 2011, the rising star chef and co-founder of The Lime Truck had just won the Great Food Truck Race featured on the Food Network channel. He left the truck, ready to launch his own restaurant.
Chase and Quinn, both risk takers, cut a deal for Playground to open at the corner of Spurgeon and Fourth. They bet big with Playground, which offered Santa Ana a premium dining and craft beer experience amid taquerias, tattoo parlors, and quinceañera shops.
“Santa Ana is a destination worth traveling 100 miles,” Quinn said.
His seasonally-inspired shared plates cuisine ignited the area. Other bistros, gastropubs, sandwich shops and wine bars have since opened in downtown: Native Son Alehouse, The Good Beer Company, Little Sparrow, The North Left, Robbins Nest Wine Bar, and C4 Deli.
Resident Sean Coolidge, 36, says it’s about time.
Nine years ago, he and his wife moved to a loft near the train station, expecting that the neighborhood would become a “walkable” cultural haven with entertainment, restaurants and nightlife.
“The downtown we thought was happening (years ago) is finally happening,” said Coolidge, a Web designer who runs the “Eat DTSA” website.
FLOODING THE ZONE
The surge of retail and food has benefited city coffers. Roughly 50 new businesses opened in downtown Santa Ana in 2014 – triggering a sales tax jump of 22 percent from 2011.
Food is a key player. This year, about 29 restaurants and bars are expected to open downtown, up from about 10 in 2014 and four in 2013, according to the city. Most of the buzz is centered on the 16 food outletsthat will occupy 4th Street Market.
But some failures are inevitable. Tabu Burgers and Vineyard Roz, for example, opened and closed in 2014. Even the most critically reviewed restaurants face the hurdle of operating in a city desperate to shake its reputation for being a haven for gangs and homeless people.
“There’s an enormous amount of promise here,” said Bruce Marsh, owner of Little Sparrow on Main and Third. “The challenge is that we’re in the dead center middle of the county and people won’t get in their car and drive here.”
BUZZ ONLY GOES SO FAR
Marsh opened Little Sparrow two years ago in a building that had been vacant since the late 1990s. The bistro has earned accolades for its California cuisine and cocktails. It’s one of 16 restaurants selected from across the country to compete in Bravo’s “Best New Restaurant” reality show.
The free buzz packs seats on weekends, but not so much during the week, Marsh said. “Santa Ana has changed, but people haven’t gotten the memo,” Orange resident Onia Vititoe said.
Last week, Vititoe and a friend met at Dough Exchange to take advantage of Quinn’s two-item freebie. She said Dough Exchange suffers from being the lone wolf in the morning.
“It’s dead here,” she said.
Though the population at the nearby Civic Center is estimated to reach 40,000 Monday through Friday, C4 Deli owner Jeff Hall says getting government workers and jurors to patronize restaurants has been tough.
When Little Sparrow and C4 Deli opened in 2013, both offered breakfast and lunch. Little Sparrow is now open only for dinner, and C4 opens at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.
Hall, who also owns Chapter One, a gastropub at Broadway and 3rd, believes there’s power in numbers. In addition to 4th Street Market, Eat Chow and Blackmarket Bakery are the next big food establishments coming to downtown. Each will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Some 4th Street tenants will open daily at 7 a.m.
Hall said that by adding more all-day food options the area is close to reaching his goal of becoming Orange County’s downtown. “I think we’re on the right path of making that happen,” he said.
At Dough Exchange, Quinn plans to continue giving away food until he reboots the bakery at 4th Street Market. He has no regrets. One morning last week, customers finally packed his patio, including a woman from Pomona.
“We won. That makes it worth it,” he said.
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