WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Urban Epicuria, the upscale, gourmet specialty store on Santa Monica Boulevard, recently closed its doors after nearly two years of business, its owners citing insufficient funds for necessary expansion as the main factor.
"The original location was built with the intention that its [production facilities] would support two satellite stores nearby," said co-founder Alan Baral. "The business plan always expected a three-store cluster, a hub-and-spoke arrangement. The cluster would have allowed for an increase in sales on the items being produced in the one facility."
Urban's co-founders -- Baral; his wife, Gail Baral; and Wayne Davis -- had decided the time was right to move ahead with the anticipated expansion and were in the process of raising the necessary funds through an investment bank in San Francisco. But it seems the fervor that surrounded the fresh-meals business and spurred heavy investment in such retail and food-service concepts only a few years ago has dwindled in light of more enticing ventures, Baral noted.
"The appetite to invest in food just wasn't there," he said. "[An investor] isn't going to get a 100% return in 18 months, like they might with technology investments, and that hurt us."
It was that lack of interest that prevented them from securing the private financing necessary for the expansion. Baral said they had no choice but to reach the "heartbreaking decision" to shut their doors. The owners and staff, many of whom had grown close to regular customers over the years, weren't the only ones upset by the closing. And, like all great Hollywood legends, Urban Epicuria left its fans wanting more.
"We had people crying outside the store the night we left," said Baral. "One woman told me she was so disappointed -- she thought she had found [heaven]."
What set Urban Epicuria apart from local competition, and standard supermarket formats, was its dedication to gourmet fare and super-personalized service. The operation employed not only a full-time chef and pastry chef, but a "food concierge" as well. The concierge would literally escort customers through the entire shopping process, offering advice on pairing foods and wines, portioning, and serving suggestions. The store's focus on upscale, prepared meals made it a welcome staple in the hectic -- and showy -- Hollywood atmosphere.
An influx of competitive markets, such as Gelson's Markets, Encino, Calif.; Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas; and Bristol Farms, El Segundo, Calif., also contributed to the demise, since all offer meals options. And, in an indication of how fickle today's convenience-driven consumer can be, long-term heavy construction nearby diverted traffic from the store and caused Urban Epicuria to lose ordinary street traffic.
"Ultimately, there just weren't sufficient sales to support the one unit," Baral said. "But we feel good about the accomplishments we did make, and there were many. We took people out of culinary schools and made them kitchen managers and sous chefs, we put people in strong retail positions that will help them in the future and we fed our customers and made them happy."
Urban Epicuria was also very active with local charities like Project Angel Food, Foundation House and Planned Parenthood.
Baral said the three co-founders may work on something again, but nothing has been decided as yet.
"Gail and I each have other businesses, which I think we'll focus on for the immediate future," he said. "But we like the food business, and Wayne likes the food business. We do have other ideas, but they are in the very early stages. The future is the future -- who's to say what will happen?"