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East West Lifestyle

Novacane: a Hip Dive Bar for a New Generation

December 29, 2016

A mother and daughter learn to incorporate the best of each generation into business.

On a busy artery just south of Downtown Los Angeles, big-rig trucks roar past industrial buildings, Mexican cantinas and convenience stores. Suddenly, in the midst of the gritty surroundings, you catch a flash of color: hot pink flowing hair framing long lashes and luscious lips, gazing defiantly at passersby from a big mural. Next to that, pink neon letters spell out: Novacane Bar and Grill. This hip neighborhood bar in Huntington Park is the creation of 26-year-old Angie Martinez, who got financing from East West Bank to make her small business idea come true.

Tucked in a mini-mall complex in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, Novacane Bar and Grill is a hipster bar in a decidedly un-hip area of southeast Los Angeles. Art by urban street artist James Haunt and Natasha Lillipore cover the walls inside and outside the bar. Craft cocktails are named after songs –“Lovefool” has tequila, mango juice, fresh organic limes, Tajin chili salt, garnished with a spiced mango. Traditional Mexican food like carne asada tacos and homemade taquitos are served next to vegan options like buffalo cauliflower.

“I wanted to bring the whole artsy vibe here,” Martinez says. “I searched the demographic that was here, and I realized that there’s nothing here that has the whole downtown LA feel, or a cool bar for the younger crowd to go to. I told myself, I’m going to be the first bar that’s like this in the city.”

Angie Martinez, the owner of Novacane Bar and Grill
Angie Martinez, the 26-year-old owner of Novacane Bar and Grill
"I searched the demographic that was here, and I realized that there’s nothing here that has the whole downtown LA feel, or a cool bar for the younger crowd to go to."

- Angie Martinez

Huntington Park used to be a hot spot for shopping and entertainment; Mexican and Central American immigrants flocked to bustling Pacific Avenue to buy bridal gowns and cowboy boots. As times have changed, however, business has dropped off considerably.

Urban planner James Rojas says it’s because of shifting tastes among the new generation of U.S.-born Latinos.

“As newly arriving immigrants sought out their own places for economic, social and cultural survival, Pacific Avenue was that place,” Rojas says. “For the next generation of Latinos, however, they’re pushing beyond their parents' boundaries and are incorporating new American ideas of urbanism. They are a hybrid culture of traditional Latino values incorporated in the American economic, social and cultural trends.”

That trend is spreading, as now nearly six in 10 Hispanics are millennials or younger. Rojas says other traditional shopping districts like East Los Angeles’ Whittier Blvd., Downtown LA’s Broadway corridor, East LA’s El Mercado shopping center and El Monte’s Valley Mall are all struggling because the new generation of U.S.-born Latinos are looking for something different than their parents.

And this attempt to bridge the generation gap is the very scenario being played out between Martinez and her parents, who are her business partners in this family-owned business.

"For the next generation of Latinos, however, they’re pushing beyond their parents' boundaries and are incorporating new American ideas of urbanism."

- James Rojas

Two latina women sitting at a bar and drinking cocktails at Novocane Bar and Grill
Novacane is located in Huntington Park, a predominantly Latino neighborhood

Bridging the generation gap

Martinez grew up in the bar scene, watching her parents run a string of traditional Latin bars in East LA and beyond, called paisa bars, which she describes as places where men in cowboy hats go to drink and listen to old Spanish songs.

“I always loved seeing my dad being so respected as the boss and me being proud to be his daughter,” Martinez says.

When it came time for her to start her own bar, however, Martinez had a different approach, which surprised and confounded her parents. They wanted to open the bar as soon as they got the keys to the building, fixing it up gradually while generating income, but Martinez said no. She had a distinct vision for the bar – from the art, to the music, to the drinks.

Angie’s mother Lupe Martinez, who helps with the business end of the operation, admits she did not understand her daughter’s vision at first. “Being the parent, looking at our little girl, thinking she doesn’t know, she’s never done anything like this before, but we have. So we have way more experience than her,” Lupe Martinez says, “But we decided, in the end, to let her do it.”

Combining art, music and social media

“People go to bars to numb their pain; it’s like Novacane. It’s like what [R&B artist] Frank Ocean sang. So I always told myself when I opened my bar I’m going to name it Novacane because people come to escape the reality,” Angie Martinez says.

One of the first things she did was to commission artists to paint murals inside and outside the bar, incorporating lyrics from her favorite songs. “It was really cool being able to find the perfect artists for my vision…It was very expensive, but I’m really glad we got that because it brings the bar to life,” she shares. The murals help make the bar stand out and establish a distinct visual identity. “A lot of people take pictures with them, and then they tag it, and it’s cool to see it all over social media. And then people already know, you’re at Novacane, huh?”

Angie Martinez has a robust social media following from her work as a model, and she used it to spread the word about Novacane, the power of which Lupe Martinez didn’t understand until opening day.

“In the beginning I said, how are people going to find out that we’re even here? And then as soon as we opened, we started seeing people coming and congratulating us, a lot of return customers, and we have actually built our clientele already,” Lupe Martinez says.

Lupe Martinez, half owner, who helps her daughter with the business side of things
Angie’s mother, Lupe Martinez, helps with the business side of things
"I’m trying to teach Angie to be a businesswoman. It’s not easy."

- Lupe Martinez

Unique drinks

Angie Martinez broke with tradition in the drink menu as well. She asked distributors for craft beers and hired a cocktail consultant to help create new culture-bending concoctions such as “Bombay,” which has rum, Thai tea, coconut cream and cinnamon.

“Rich Kids” is named after a Frank Ocean song and has Ciroc apple vodka, Jim Beam apple bourbon, muddled with fresh granny smith apples, agave and lime juice.

“Everything is fresh; we cut everything up ourselves every day. Nothing is concentrate, everything is organic as well,” Angie Martinez says.

“She picked the beer and the liquor. I didn’t know anything about whiskey—now I like it,” Lupe Martinez says. “Before it was just tequila and vodka, but now I like the whiskey. I said, ‘oh okay, I’m learning too.’”

Mom’s business savvy

Angie had a lot to learn from her mother, as well. In the beginning, Lupe Martinez says, city officials were reluctant to issue a permit because they didn’t understand Angie’s vision. It was Lupe Martinez who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“The city thought we were just going to open another Mexican cantina, and the city doesn’t want any more of those, so it was really hard for me to convince them and to get them to give us a permit to open,” says Martinez’s mother. “Once we did, we were visited by the city council, the mayor and different organizations, congratulating us and asking us if there’s anything they can do for us or if we want to expand.”

The importance of perseverance is something that Lupe Martinez is trying to teach her daughter, who is heading up an all-female staff.

“I’m trying to teach Angie to be a businesswoman. It’s not easy,” she says. “Especially when you have all these young girls working under you, so I’m trying to teach her to be consistent and be responsible so they can see and they can learn from her and can take the job serious.”

The financing

When the idea for the bar first materialized, Lupe Martinez approached Sherrie Carr, vice president and manager of the Downtown LA branch of East West Bank, with whom she had worked with for more than a decade.

“They trusted my vision about what I wanted to do with this business, and they’ve been working with me until we made it happen, and here we are and I’ve had nothing but support,” Lupe Martinez says.

“Because this is a new establishment, it would have been difficult to get a conventional commercial loan and time consuming to do a SBA loan,” Carr says. “But we used equity from an investment property to work toward their favor for low cost. Now they have made their dream come true. I have been passed down to many of my clients to their children, who are adults. They trust me and believe in me to help the next generation.”

The future

Rojas says the children of immigrants are “incorporating American trends within their cultural, social and economic practices,” and Novacane is a case in point.

Angie Martinez works six days a week behind the bar, and her mother is right next to her in the kitchen, making favorite family recipes, from shrimp burritos and chicken quesadillas, to twists on classics such as vegan-style frijoles puerco.

“It’s not your average bar food,” Angie Martinez says. “A lot of people come here just to eat, because I cater to vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians and carnivores.”

And millennial favorite, hot Cheetos with nacho cheese, is free if you check into Yelp. Together, mother and daughter are bringing the best of both generations to the table. And they say the feedback has been encouraging.

“I get the whole community coming here, and they tell me ‘I never thought there would be a cool bar like this in our city, thank you so much for taking a chance here.’ And it makes me feel really good, it motivates me more,” Angie Martinez says. “This generation is taking over right now; we’re changing the game, in a great way. So, it’s really neat.”