Magee's Kitchen December 16, 2013 BACK TO MARKET BUZZ

Phyllis Magee, owner of Magee’s Kitchen and Magee’s House of Nuts, joined the Magee family enterprises at the Farmers Market in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, she took over the stores after her mother-in-law Blanche Magee retired. Blanche opened Magee’s the same summer the Market opened in July, 1934, making it the first restaurant at the Market. Magee’s is beloved by Angelenos, American tourists and foreign visitors who know Magee’s for its corned beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day. We talked with Phyllis about her 40 year plus years at Farmers Market.

My late mother-in-law Blanche Magee and her husband Raymond owned several stalls at the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. The Magee’s came from the Midwest to Oakland in the late 1800’s and then Los Angeles, bringing their peanut butter and horseradish with them. We still sell those items and the original peanut butter machine and horseradish grinder are still with us, still working.

In July of 1934, during the Great Depression, Blanche noticed group of about six farmers at 3rd & Fairfax, some of whom she knew because they supplied her stores at Grand Central. Then, the next week, she saw more farmers. As a way of encouraging them, she brought them some ham and potato salad from the Grand Central store. The farmers weren’t sure it was going to work. They were quite anxious, but Blanche and Raymond kept encouraging them to hang on.

It began to grow and she kept bringing them food. One day, a woman shopper asked her for some of the ham. She said she wasn’t selling the ham, she was just giving it to the farmers. The customer became quite irate, saying she wanted some of the ham. Blanche thought about it for a moment because she didn’t even know what she would charge. She asked the woman for 10 cents, the woman paid her and that was how Magee’s became the first restaurant at the Farmers Market.

When Blanche decided to open the restaurant, she knew they would need water and electricity. There were no restrooms, no utilities for a kitchen. She and Raymond made the investment and had water and electricity installed. They opened in October of 1934.

In the 1960s, I came to the company as their bookkeeper, they were having troubles with their accounting. Our families were friends, one of my sisters was married to a Magee cousin. One of the cousins asked if I’d come and try to help them straighten things out. That’s how I started with them. I met their son Paul at family events over the years and we got married. Eventually, Paul and I and some other cousins were beginning to take over the business. Paul was a natural. But after a while, he tired of it and we left to move north for several years. After about four years, it became clear that the family needed our help and we came back. Eventually, with two other cousins, Paul and I bought the business from the family.

Paul and I really ran it after that and within a few years, I took over. I felt confident because Paul was a natural and I learned everything I needed to know from him. In the 60s, my biggest hurdle was the men. Back then we had about 40 employees and most were men. They wouldn’t listen to a woman. Blanche was still coming in to work  and one day she asked one of the men to do a small, simple task. He acted like he didn’t hear her. I thought “Well this won’t do.” I was going to be taking over full time and I knew I had to do something about this. So I took him aside I said to him, “You can pick up your pay check in about 20 minutes.”

That set the example in the kitchen, that this wasn’t going to be tolerated. I had one more man after that who was rude and I did the same thing to him. After that, it’s been smooth sailing. But it was very hard in those days to be a woman business owner because the men wouldn’t work for a woman in charge.

I can’t easily tell you my favorite Magee’s dish. I have to taste everything every day because that’s how we keep up the quality. But I think I’m partial to our French dip. When I don’t know what I want, I go for that French dip.

Everyday we offer homemade dishes.  Five salads and fresh fruit in the summer. Then we have the full steam table. We have parsley potatoes and cabbage for the corned beef. We have vegetables, carrots and green beans, which many will take over the cabbage. Mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. A full Mexican line of tacos, tostados and burritos, three types of enchiladas with rice and beans. In 1934, we only offered the salads, bulk items like pickled pigs fee, the horseradish and the ham. 

I’ve been here 40 years. I should be semi-retired and I’m half way there. I don’t want to leave altogether. I feel good about what I’ve accomplished, that I’ve got employees who’ve been with me for those 40 years. I feel very good that I’ve done as much as I’ve done, as well as I’ve done. I have no regrets. I used to worry about bringing my son to work with me but he turned out to be a wonderful man.

There aren’t too many places in the world like our Farmers Market. I’ve done a lot of traveling and I know this is such a unique place. I’ve been blessed to be here. It’s been a great ride.