Last year at this time, downtown El Segundo was celebrating the opening of a new bakery and preparing for Fresh & Easy to replace Cooke's grocery - the only full-service market on the city's residential west side.
Both businesses were supposed to be a boon for the quaint downtown, where merchants were working with the Chamber of Commerce to attract more foot traffic.
But today the sites sit vacant, paper covering the windows of the recently closed Schat's Bakery Cafe and a real-estate sign posted outside the Cooke's site near Grand Avenue and Richmond Street.
The vacancies leave two holes in a complex around the corner from City Hall - along with a challenge for the city and the property owner in finding new tenants.
When David Schat opened his bakery and restaurant in late November 2011 after spending months renovating an old Blockbuster store, civic leaders predicted it would be a downtown anchor.
A master baker and city resident, Schat comes from the family behind the venerable Schat's bakery in Bishop, which is known for its sheepherder's bread and caters to travelers headed to and from Mammoth Lakes.
The El Segundo bakery offered sandwiches, salads, speciality cakes, pastries and breads, including the kind that a century ago was popular among Basque sheepherders driving their flocks through the Owens Valley. Schat said the business attracted a healthy lunch crowd, but it struggled on weekday mornings and in the afternoons, leading to the decision to close on Dec.
"Really our main issue was, it was just too big of a space for the amount of business that we had ... and the lack of customers in the off hours," Schat said.
While he'd planned to serve dinners, he found the demand wasn't there.
"There's so many restaurants (in the downtown), there's just not enough customers to go around," he said. "It's very quiet at night."
For now, Schat said the family has not discussed plans to relocate. "We're going to take a little breather and enjoy the holidays and move on from there," he added.
Ted Shove, a city economic development analyst, said he believes the Schat's site could easily lend itself to a new restaurant use. But the Cooke's location could prove harder to fill.
Cooke's closed in April in anticipation of Fresh & Easy taking over a space that's seen various grocery stores over the years. The first hint of a transition came last December, when Fresh & Easy filed papers in City Hall requesting exceptions to city size regulations for storefront signs.
By the time Cooke's closed, a Fresh & Easy spokesman said the company had signed a lease for the site and considered it a "high priority."
But several weeks later the property owner - Mark Neumann of 612 Twin Holdings LLC - approached the City Council to say the deal had fallen apart after Cooke's had moved out all of its refrigeration equipment. Neumann said the store owners cleared the space at the company's request, but that Fresh & Easy had backed out.
Attempts to reach Neumann last week were unsuccessful.
The company's future is uncertain; British retail giant Tesco said earlier this month that it is conducting a strategic review of its El Segundo-based grocery chain that could result in the sale of the unit. The first Fresh & Easy store opened in Los Angeles.
"From a community perspective, our first goal would be to try to get a grocer in there," Shove said of the downtown space.
But he's learned through other chains that the site has some drawbacks - one being the size of the population surrounding the store. The second issue is the location itself, which is obscured from Grand Avenue by a parking structure the city agreed to subsidize before Cooke's 2003 opening.
"It's kind of a challenge to get something like a Trader Joe's or a Gelson's ... that's not to say we're not going to continue trying," Shove said.
Parking is one issue a Chamber of Commerce-backed committee sought to address last year as it unveiled revitalization plans for the downtown. Members had heard the parking structure wasn't easily recognized and displayed confusing signs. They'd suggested better street lighting, more outdoor dining and fresh banners advertising the area to Sepulveda Boulevard motorists.
From the front door of her Vintage Canvas art studio, where customers can spend a couple hours learning how to paint on canvas, Linda Pack can look across Grand Avenue to see the shuttered Schat's site.
She shares the former bakery owner's concerns about downtown foot traffic, and believes a more diverse mix of retailers might help. Pack said she's worried about the health of her own business, which has yet to make a profit after 2<MD+,%30,%55,%70>1/<MD-,%0,%55,%70>2 years.
"I'm afraid this town's going to end up becoming a ghost town," Pack said. "We still have other spaces on Main Street that are vacant."
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