A Chat with the Queen of Corned Beef

As much a Los Angeles institution as her famous comfort food, Phyllis Magee has a few tips about building a business for the long haul

When Blanche Magee started selling ham sandwiches to the truck farmers at Fairfax and Third in Los Angeles in the 1930s, the business world was still very much male-dominated. Nearly 70 years later, about 30% of the small operations at the historic Farmer's Market are women-owned. But even today, the business world is not "soft" -- and female entrepreneurs can't afford to be perceived that way, says Magee's daughter-in-law, Phyllis.

The award-winning owner of Magee's Kitchen and Magee's House of Nuts sat down recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein to share a lifetime's lessons -- not just about the food business, but also how to handle problem workers and sexist suppliers. And she has another message, too: Any business that puts growth above quality and service is riding for a fall. Edited excerpts of that conversation follow:

Q: Not many people would guess that one of the founders of the Farmer's Market was a woman. What was Blanche like?


She was a strong lady. She grew up in Missouri, selling her family's homemade horseradish, peanut butter, olives, and pickled pigs feet door-to-door. When the family moved to California, they brought those specialties with them. Blanche borrowed $20 from their cigar-box savings fund in 1917 to open a little stall at the Grand Central Market downtown. She knew all about food, sales and display, and she put her husband, Raymond, in charge of the business end of things.

Q: How did she get started at the Farmer's Market?


She had a house near here, at what was then the far west corner of the city. On her way home from downtown, she'd drive past this field and see farmers...selling vegetables and fruit from their trucks. She started bringing lunch to them, and their customers saw the ham and the turkey sandwiches she made and started insisting that she sell to them, too.

By that time, she had a big operation downtown, selling salads and farmer-style cottage cheese, along with the bulk food and sandwiches. Eventually, she started a second operation out here at Farmer's Market, which became popular with the people working in the Hollywood movie industry, which was close by.

Q: How did you take over Blanche's legacy?


I married her son, Paul, in the 1960s. He had been working at Magee's since 1947, when he came out of the service, and I worked with him until 1977 when he became ill and I took over. Blanche lived to be 102 -- she died in 2000 -- and every chance she'd get, she'd have someone bring her down to the Market to look over the business.

Q: In those early days, how did she -- and you -- fare as women business owners?


Blanche was the first businesswoman in here, and she was not treated with respect. The farmers had an "old boys club" -- and the management were all men, too. Even today, it's still not a soft business for a woman to run.

Q: What challenges did you face as a women business owner in a man's world?


It was tough going, especially when I first took over from my husband. We had a male cook who had been with us for years, and he didn't want to take orders from me. Dealing with the reps from the food distributors wasn't easy, either.

Q: How'd you handle it?


I put a stop to the trouble right away. A lot of women don't do that -- they try to make things better, live with the situation, hope for the best. Not me. The cook was fired immediately, and that fixed a lot of problems.

With the distributors, I saw how they interacted with my husband, but [also] how there was a wedge in their interaction with me. It was very strange, but they didn't treat me the same as they treated him. Instead of living with it, I started shopping around for better quality and better prices.

The food business is a very small world, and our regular distributors knew pretty quickly what was going on. Once they heard that I was looking, they came around and made some changes in the way they did business with us. That first Christmas, I had so many gifts coming in from suppliers trying to win me back that I couldn't even get into my office!

Q: You're in charge of a family business that's endured for a long, long time. How have you kept it successful?


Well, for one thing, I resisted making a lot of changes. Restaurant owners often follow fads in making up their menus. I've never done that. Magee's Kitchen has always offered real food, comfort food -- corned beef and cabbage, real carved turkey, baked lima beans, roast beef. I still use the same recipes Blanche developed for carrot-and-raisin salad, macaroni salad, and coleslaw. We still use her horseradish grinding machine and her recipe for St. Louis horseradish. And Magee's House of Nuts ships her absolutely pure, churned peanut butter -- made from nuts roasted right on site -- all over the world.

We've added a few things, like gift baskets and homemade food gifts. And we deal with international suppliers now for some of our nuts, but I still try to get most of them from California, if I can. That consistency means a lot to our customers -- and it builds up tremendous loyalty.

Q: There are increasing numbers of female entrepreneurs opening businesses, or buying them out, at the Market. What advice do you give them?


Do your homework. Make sure you have enough capital to get through two years, because you'll have lots of ups and down in your first year. Don't be afraid of working seven days a week. Don't move too fast. Lots of restaurants think if they're doing well, they should open a second location and business will double, but it doesn't work that way. It's much better to grow very slowly.

Also, personnel is so important. You have to have patience and develop your employees if you feel they have potential. Even when my managers tell me someone is not going to work out after a couple of months, if I have a good feeling about that employee, I ask for more time. When people start a new job, they're nervous, they're scared -- it takes them a long time to feel comfortable. I'd rather give a promising employee a chance to work into the job than see people come and go constantly. Some of my employees have been with me 35 years, because I spent some time training them when they were young.

Q: Are you thinking about retiring?


Oh, one of these days. I work less now; I leave around 2 p.m. But I still come in every morning at 7 or 7:30. An owner's presence is really important in the food business. The customer loves seeing you on that counter.

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