Daily Dose with Sarkis Vartanian

The Arts District in Los Angeles is gentrifying at a lightning speed. What once was a neighborhood zoned for manufacturing is undergoing an enormous change of scene. As more commercial development pours in, new condominiums are built against a landscape of historic warehouses that once drew artists throughout the 80’s and 90’s.


I learned about Daily Dose over a friend’s lunch break in 2011– he had discovered the café on his way to a denim dye factory. It’s this type of serendipity that first draw people to the Arts District, and it’s serendipity that spawned the Daily Dose. Much like my friends that lived around the neighborhood, Daily Dose became a fixture, relieving our dining option that was once limited to McDonald’s on Alameda or Sushi Gen in Little Tokyo. That’s also one of the most enduring hallmarks of the café, it’s a vestige that brought a community together.

While new restaurants crop up by the week presenting marble countertops and fanciful light fixtures, there’s something familiar and wholesome about the lightly weathered walls of Daily Dose. The tables themselves have no pretenses; its aged wood reveres the simple, slow, natural cycle of growth. Sarkis Vartanian, the founder of Daily Dose knows his customers by name, and there’s not a moment you won’t find him absorbed in catching up with local patrons or arranging the delivery of fresh produce. 

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Tell us about how you got into the restaurant business.
 

The restaurant business was my luck. I owned an architecture firm and had an office right above the alley and was tired of eating at restaurants. I just really wanted a coffee shop. The space happened to be available, and my landlord said, “You should put a coffee shop here.” The floor was halfway done, and there were no vines. The building was completely empty. There was even potholes in the alley. So I took it. A year and half after opening an office upstairs, I opened the Daily Dose. And that’s how I got into the restaurant business. 


Why did you start The Daily Dose? 
 

One of the reasons why I opened up a restaurant (besides the need for having better food) is that I wanted to eat nutritious food. And I knew that subway wasn’t very healthy and those kind of restaurants weren’t great. I wanted home made food that was good for you. It wasn’t about losing weight or trying to stay in shape, it was about a healthy diet with good ingredients. Like what you’d eat at your grandmother’s house. And so when the space was available, I decided if I’m going to open up a restaurant, I want to be able to eat at it. I want my kids to eat at it, and my brothers’ kids to eat at it. Therefore if I open up this place, I want to provide the best food possible. So being local and being organic started from there. 
 

Tell us about the vertical garden behind Daily Dose. 

There are a lot of benefits to a vertical garden, starting with we get to control our own quality of produce, the type of produce we grow and when we grow it. We can ensure the integrity and viability of our food this way. It's direct to table. The only obstaces are being able to produce as much food as possible for the price point we need to be at. Everything is mass produced, even from the farmer's market. Doing it ourselves is tough.

Unlike the new developments popping up in the area, Daily Dose has managed to maintain a lot of its character.
What makes Daily Dose unique?

It’s unique because we try to stay true to our food concept so we don’t cut corners. So if I don’t find something, we just don’t make it. We make a lot of mistakes and we’re trying to fix it all the time. One of the reasons why we haven’t grown the speed of other restaurants is because it’s been hard to manage the quality. We don’t have a real kitchen. We have no kitchen. We cook everything including the duck and eggs that I just made on electric tops. No hood, no grease strappers, and we’re constantly battling the health department. They don’t want us to cook, they only want us to make sandwiches. Another thing is the location. The alley is one of the most unique features about it. You know it’s curved, it has a 35 degree curve. A railroad track ran through here, so historically it’s just a really insane place. This used to be the Nabisco factory before, so they made cookies, flours and cake. Looking back now, being a café at a biscuit factory is kind of cool. It just fits.

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What  drew you to the Arts District in the first place?

I used to have an office on 8th and Olympic where it meets at East LA and Boyle Heights. I used to go back and fourth and drive through the Arts District. It was kind of nostalgic because I used to come to the Arts District in the late 80’s, and that’s when I originally wanted to move here. 

What was over here?
 

Just warehouses. It was cheap. It was just the beginning of the Arts culture. 

Was it already dubbed the Arts District in the 80’s?
 

I don’t think so. I just remember going to underground art shows, music venues and rap concerts in old buildings in the late 80's. In the late 90’s I was about to move here, too. Do you know where the old Cafe Metropol restaurant is? That’s where my first office was going to be, right next to it. So when I was negotiating my lease there, Metropol had just opened for the week and I had my first lunch at an organic place.
This was fifteen years ago. 


How did you discover the office space that eventually lead you to open Daily Dose?

 

Years go by and I open an architecture firm and I’m busy developing properties. One day I was driving from a meeting in East LA, and there was a lot of traffic on the 5. So I exited 7th. When I came down 7th street over the bridge, I saw the Biscuit Building. I remember thinking, “Where is this from? I’ve seen this building in a documentary.” I remembered seeing it on California Gold. I saw my current landlord Yuval Bar-Zemer talk about the building. I thought “This is great.” I made a turn on Mateo, and I noticed that the building was under construction. As soon as I took a look at my left side, I saw that Church & State had just opened. This was in 2008. Immediately I thought, “Wow. This place is really beautiful.” I called my assistant brought her back this way. And I remember her saying, “What are they doing to this area, this is crazy! I mean this is cool and all, but we need air conditioning.”  I came back and I asked for a space upstairs from the manager. When I walked the property, the building was nearly empty. 

There are 30 tenants in the building now. 

What has changed the most about the Arts District since you’ve moved in? What has stayed the same?

I don’t think much has stayed the same. I think everything has changed about the Arts District. We’ve stayed the same, but there’s so much corporate money coming in right now. I think we’ve lost the art, and the artist. We lost the artists in the art district. I mean we have the art, and we have galleries now. I think maybe it should be called the Gallery District. I’m not complaining about it, I’m just saying that it’s changed. A few years ago, I would walk through my alley and meet young artists and talk to them for hours, and we’d trade canvases for food. Now I don’t see those people anymore. They’ve moved away, and I kind of miss that.

It’s good for business, to make money. But then that will price us out too, like what we talked about earlier.  It will price us out to the corporate restaurants. I’m not complaining but I’m not condoning it either. 

Isn't it the natural cycle of a city though, for artists to build a neighborhood then corporate money pours in to make it unaffordable?


I hear and I’ve been told that life changes and shit happens in life, I get it. People like my Yuval are trying to keep the integrity. People like my Yuval are trying to keep the integrity. He's not tearing down such buildings. Yuval believes in our community and he is probably the only developer that still lives in the Arts District. They try to keep the integrity of our district and community. But you know they’re pricing the artist out. I think that if they keep the artist here, they’ll make more money eventually. At the end of the day that’s what draws everybody here. 

Have you been affected by the new developments happening in the Arts District?

Every time a new place opens up, we lose 10% of our business. It’s also been hard to hire quality staff, because the clientele based shifts. and rightfully so. When you come to a place like mine, it’s kind of dirty, it’s old, it’s got good nostalgic feel to it. But you’ll come here once, and you’ll go to Cafe Gratitude three times. But it’s a reality. People at The Springs are my good friends. People at Blacktop are my great friends, and I go there all the time. I go to the American Tea House twice a week. These are the places that I enjoy, but I don’t have to be politically correct to say that they take away business from me.

The reality is, the more stores that open up, the more corporate 5 to 6 million dollar restaurants open up, the little guys like me go out of business. However, if I survive. It’s going to help Daily Dose become so much better. It’s going to help me become more creative, it’s going to help Daily Dose become more delicious. I’m going to raise some more money to buy new tables and chairs. I’m going to do that. I’m going to renovate. But if I can open my bar, that’s going to be the game changer. I’ve got some investors who might invest a million dollars. But since the decline, I haven’t been in front of the big blogs or magazines in over a year. People follow that you know. It happens. Maybe I’ll just make better food. We’ll see. 
 

Last but not least, can you share with us your top 5 places in the neighborhood?

I really really enjoy The Springs. I love their juice. I go there quite a bit. I love Grow. Have you been to Grow? Grow is amazing. I like American Tea Room, I love that place, it’s beautiful and the staff is great. Every time I tell people this, they say “You’re promoting other people.” But the reality is that they’re great! They’re amazing. And of course I love Bestia, but I actually prefer the pizzas at Pizzanista.

 

Interview by Olivia Lopez, Photos by Teddy Nguyen