Carrie Kommers: How would you describe your role in the LA food world?
Shawna Dawson: Accidental. People think I’m a PR person, but I’m not. I want to spread the word about and support the things that I feel are important and close to my heart. And a lot of that has to do with the local food movement and the people behind it.
The way my personal life has evolved—being a native and having grown up around these businesses, being with Yelp and then doing marketing and consulting and starting my own events—I think there’s an assumption that I’m a publicist, but I really enjoy supporting things that I feel passionate about. I was born and raise here, I love LA, so one of them is my city. It’s the same thing with my own projects—people assume I’m an event producer. It’s not really what I do. I do Artisanal LA and LA Street Food Fest for myself because I enjoy them.
I enjoy helping and supporting some of these local projects that I feel passionate about—and one of those is the local movement, on all fronts. I say that as I’m stuffing my face with this amazing roast beef that I got from Lindy and Grundy. I’m convinced that happy cows really do taste better.
CK: How’d you get your start?
SD: I have kind of a curious background, a couple of degrees—religion and bioethics and physical anthropology, and I was on a pre-med track and then ended up dropping out. When I came back to USC one of my professors asked me to take on a project developing and rebranding USC’s masters health administration program. I was able to present the findings to the board and was invited to do a marketing project with them. I was like, But I’m not a marketer. I just fell into it. I had a number of marketing positions for a decade after that before I found myself at Yelp. I worked in health and wellness, then alternative health and wellness, but my passion has always been food. I’ve always loved it, really enjoyed cooking, collected cookbooks. So when I came across Yelp it was in many respects the perfect job for me.
CK: What did Yelp arm you with?
SD: If I had any inclination that there was nothing that I couldn’t do I walked away owning that. I ran both of the markets in LA when there should have been two managers based on the sheer size of the market; it was just me. I wrote two weekly newsletters, hosted multiple events, did all my back-end management, all the community-facing work that people saw, did all the writing, grew our database from 25K and to 250K in ten months doing nothing but grassroots and partnerships, all without a budget. Once I did that I realized that if I extended half that energy towards my own projects I’d be very successful. I haven’t looked back since.
CK: What was the first project you worked on post-Yelp?
SD: The LA Street Food Fest. I’d brought the idea to Yelp, as a massive promotional event for their brand. I wanted to do this and the response from Yelp was that I was that I was biting off more than I could chew. It was at that time that I left Yelp. I knew I didn’t want to completely go it on my own. Independent food and design really go hand in hand, and I knew Sonia [Rasula of UniqueLA] and said, Hey listen, I want to do this street food thing, do you want to do this with me? In like two months? We literally put that first event together in six weeks.
CK: What is SauceLA?
SD: It was my blog. Years ago (in the digital world 6-7 years ago feels like another era), back in the day, I had a blog. When I went out on my own I had this domain, and email address for it. Before I knew it, it was a catch-all for what I was doing. Since then it has become the brand for the consulting projects I do. I’m actually incorporated—the company is Angeleno Inc.
CK: How do artisans fit into our food scene?
SD: The way I look at it, they are just really cool small business owners. It’s the same as looking at the food trucks; it’s just a lower barrier of entry for people starting their own businesses. Look at Roy Choi –he went from his truck to two brick-and-mortars. That’s why I became a passionate supporter of these businesses, supporting entrees into the business world for people who may not have had them. I wanted to create a space for these small business owners who were making these amazing products.
For instance, there are these Downtown honey makers called the Old Bank District Bees. I thought that was the coolest thing. The fact that I could get local Downtown honey is incredible. The average laymen would never now about them. I wanted to find ways to create a showcase for these vendors. For the everyday Angeleno you probably wouldn’t know about these things but you should. It gives you an appreciation for the people that are here, what they’re doing, and what’s happening in LA. There’s a renaissance for what’s happening here in food. People are far more hyper aware of where things are coming from.
CK: Talk to me about the upcoming Artisanal LA at Santa Monica Place.
SD: I’m happy to do events all over the city, but I’m an Eastside girl, and there was never the right venue to do anything like this before. Then Santa Monica Place approached me about hosting an event at their Market that opens next month. Their CEO was at the October Artisanal LA and they really wanted to find ways to collaborate. I was less than receptive, I really wasn’t interested. After quite a few conversations and sitting down with them and hearing firsthand that he was also a trendsetter and wanted to find ways to support these businesses and bring unique vendors to the market place—I had a different feeling about coming into the place. They took the empty third floor of Bloomingdales and are converting into a beautiful event space for us. That’s the commitment; they really wanted us to be here. The event Downtown was able to take place because it was fairly under the radar, without vendors having to be permitted. This event is entirely above the radar, all vendors are permitted.
CK: Did you lose any vendors that weren’t able to get permitted?
SD: There are a couple of vendors who ran into permit problems, generally the cheesemakers, and that’s largely due to their governing board that they’re permitted through. We’re excited to bring this to the Westside.
October we had about 50 vendors. This time we have upwards of 90. We had a lot of sweets vendors last time. There are lots of bakers out there. We could do just one event on sweets. This time we really wanted a balance between the sweet and the savory, but also including other types of vendors.
CK: What new vendors are you excited about?
We’re also excited to be able to preview some of the Santa Monica Place Market vendors—Gourmandise, Curious Palate, Primi Al Mercato from Piero Selvaggio, Venokado. Also, Daily Dose who will be opening Downtown soon is doing one of our café areas so people can preview the food they’ll be doing. Mystic Pizza LA, who we’ve heard amazing things about, will be there, as well Intelligentsia. Ani Phyo is a raw food specialist who has a number of books out and her publishers pushed up the release of her current book, Raw Food Asia, which she’ll be premiering and signing at the vent.
CK: Can you talk about your permanent project Downtown?
SD: It’s still in the works; it’s on a hold a bit. There’s also a second location that I can’t talk about yet. My goal right now is just to get one open. I’m still working on Downtown but it’s just had to take a bit of a backseat. I have a team that helps me with events, but I’m still basically a one woman show.
CK: What’s next for you?
SD: I have other things I’m working on, but I can’t talk about them yet.
CK: What LA food neighborhood is close to your heart?
SD: I’m living in Altadena now. I was in Carthay Circle for 15 years, but I spent some of my younger years in Mount Washington in South Pas. So I’ve always liked the Eastside. By a fluke we ran across this house in Altadena and we went back and forth—Is it crazy to move this far out? It’s quiet, we wake up to birds, go to sleep to birds. It’s wonderful. My food neighborhood is the entire city. Now I’m a lot closer to the San Gabriel Valley. I’m a dim sum lover on the weekends.
The food neighborhood up here is kind of underground, with the underground urban farmers market which is done on a private membership basis on a private property. There’s a lot of urban homesteading up here. There may be a couple of chickens in our future.