A hipster barbershop that offers you a free beer while you wait. The diner that’s attached to the Galpin auto dealership in the Valley. Most of us enjoy pleasant surprises. And surprise food — food when your brain has told you not to expect food — sits at the top, or near the top, of that category.
I used to go to a place called Oasis Cafe in Chicago, which was a small restaurant hidden in the back of a jewelry store. And let me tell you: The food tasted twice as good because I was sitting in the back of a jewelry store.
Part of what makes the new Skechers Food Spot so much fun is that it isn’t supposed to be there. The outdoor food court, attached to the cavernous Skechers shoe outlet in Gardena (and Skechers’ second-ever store) opened in May and has received an onslaught of local media coverage. Like the part of our brains that processes irony, or finds some jokes funny, there’s a certain level of cognitive dissonance that makes Skechers Food Spot appealing. A restaurant at a shoe outlet — don’t you just instinctively want to try it?
I’ve never thought about Skechers seriously and I’m not even sure I could have spelled “Skechers” correctly a few months ago. But I’ve now been to a Skechers three times in one week. Pretty ingenious marketing.
Here’s a quick synopsis of the experience: There’s a Skechers store in Gardena that‘s so close to the 405 Freeway, it’s practically an off-ramp. Attached to, but separate from, that store is Food Spot.
It’s outdoors, around the corner from the store entrance. Once there, you line up in front of one window and pick your food up at another. There are large advertisements featuring Martha Stewart and Clayton Kershaw, who is modestly credited as “professional pitcher.”
There is a playlist pumping as you wait, and it is very eclectic. There are picnic tables with umbrellas for diners as well as a long, red counter and a condiment station. It’s a pretty fun environment.
Skechers, the Manhattan Beach-based brand founded in 1992, has grown into one of the largest footwear companies in the country. It’s also been, at times, accused by other shoe brands, like Nike and Adidas, of ripping off their designs. (Skechers appeared to emerge victorious in at least one prominent dispute that involved Converse’s Chuck Taylor shoe.)
This is only germane because my first thought upon pulling up to Food Spot was, “Oh, this reminds me a lot of Costco.”
Sam’s Club recently undercut the $1.50 Costco hot dog combo by 12 cents. But is it actually better than the loss-leader giant? The results may shock you!
There are similarities, specifically with the menu and how it’s displayed. At Costco’s food courts, items are pictured, oversized, on red-bordered posters with the description and price lettered below in blue on a white background. At Food Spot, they’re displayed in that style but with the description lettered above in white, on a blue background. This was all funny enough until a colleague showed me a photo from when Food Spot first opened, when the menu looked almost identical to Costco’s, with blue-on-white lettering below the food items on red-bordered posters. At some point, Skechers changed it out.
I’m not calling Food Spot a Costco ripoff — I think healthy competition is welcome and necessary in the realm of bargain comfort food, and I’m sure the Skechers legal team is quite capable in terms of knowing how far it can push an envelope. But where there are similarities, comparisons will naturally be drawn. And in the words of Omar Little, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” (It should be noted that Costco requires a paid membership to eat at its food court. Food Spot has no such requirement.)
There’s good news and bad news, as far as that goes. The bad news is that with menu items that Costco also serves, the comparison is largely unfavorable for Food Spot. The good news is that with some other items — things that Costco doesn’t offer — Food Spot really excels.
The most prominent overlap is with the hot dog, pizza, soft serve and churros. Costco wins here, as far as quality and value. Food Spot’s all-beef hot dog, provided by Nathan’s Famous, is generous, with a good snap. There are also raw onions available — a huge plus. But the $2.50 price can’t compete with the near-folkloric nature of the $1.50 Costco combo.
A sundae made with vanilla soft serve is less creamy than icy and doesn’t really do the trick at $4. The chocolate soft serve, with deep chocolate flavor, is much better.
The pizza, unfortunately, is a miss. Pepperoni and cheese slices, at $3 and $2.50, respectively, are more school cafeteria than Mulberry Street.
Now for the silver lining. The double cheeseburger is very good. Patties with nicely browned edges will send you running to look up the definition of “Maillard reaction.” Pickles, diced grilled onions and plenty of American cheese as lubricant puts this up there with your favorite smashburger. And at just $5, it gives the Double-Double a run for its money.
Three chicken sandwiches are on offer. The best of the bunch is the citrus chile roast chicken sandwich, well seasoned and simply dressed with cheddar, tomato, lettuce and a splodge of ranch dressing. The fried chicken sandwiches, one of which is “Nashville spiced,” are tasty enough but have a serious flaw, albeit one that’s completely correctable.
The coating fell right off of the chicken sandwiches I had, leaving the fillets naked as the day they were hatched. This can be due to the fact that there’s too much moisture on the chicken before it’s fried. It’s an easy fix, and one that will leave Food Spot with a couple of primo chicken sandwich options.
There’s a requisite Caesar salad, but the Manhattan Beach Cobb is more interesting: There are the expected bacon, chicken and cheese, but the inclusion of rows of corn and black olives give the salad a fun and slightly surprising dimension. The salad is blessedly free of hard-boiled egg, a welcome development in the Cobb salad sphere I hope to see repeated elsewhere.
The lesson here? Don’t try to beat Costco at its own game. Food Spot is at its best when offering something different.
Skechers President and co-founder Michael Greenberg, who has experience in the restaurant industry (Fresh Brothers, Rock & Brews), first conceived of this project more than two years ago. But why open a restaurant at Skechers?
“Let me start with, why not?” Greenberg said. With the busyness of the Gardena store, he said it was the perfect place to try out an idea like Food Spot. Citing retailers with food options like Ikea, Bass Pro Shops and Scheels, Greenberg said he was interested in enhancing the customer experience. “Shopping and food certainly go hand in hand,” he said.
Greenberg said Skechers worked with Sysco to develop Food Spot’s menu. Many French fry shapes were sampled, from steak to skinny. Some ideas, like a Philly cheesesteak and a calzone-like chicken pie, were left on the cutting-room floor.
“We didn’t just slap this together. We put a lot of thought into doing it right,” he said.
As for the recent changes made regarding the look of the menu, Greenberg said, “In anything we do, we make improvements.” He also doesn’t see Food Spot as a direct competitor to the food courts at places like Costco. “If you’re at Skechers, we’re not pulling from anybody else,” he said.
Greenberg said Food Spot has been “over-the-top busy,” and has exceeded 2,500 orders in a single day, which has him considering the possibility of expanding Food Spot beyond the Gardena location.
The menu at people-watching hangout the Ivy, open since 1980, is unfocused enough that it works in the restaurant’s favor. But did you really come for the food?
I can confirm it is certainly busy. In fact, if you’re visiting Food Spot during your lunch hour, you’d better take the entire hour. Things can move slowly, as they did during one visit where I spent around 10 minutes in line and then another 20 minutes waiting for my food. The staff are uniformly helpful and friendly (and they all wear Skechers — I asked), but they may need a few more hands to keep things running smoothly.
After eating, I decided to go around into the enormous retail portion of the complex to look at shoes. And that, it seems to me, is the great victory of Food Spot: Getting folks like me who’ve never worn Skechers to wander into the store. Someone on our Food team said they’d once heard something to the effect of, “Skechers are either for old people or for children.”
But who knows? Maybe they’re for me. They look pretty comfortable. I might pick up a pair on my next lunch break.
Skechers Food Spot
19000 S. Vermont Ave., Gardena, (424) 271-2361, local.skechers.com/ca/gardena/1381/
Details: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Recommended dishes: Spot double cheeseburger, citrus chile roast chicken sandwich, Manhattan Beach Cobb salad, garlic Parmesan fries
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