Phyllis Magee, Magee's Kitchen / Magee's House of Nuts
Phyllis Magee, owner of Mageeís Kitchen and Mageeís House of Nuts, joined the Magee family enterprises at the Farmers Market in the 1960ís. In the 1970ís, she took over the stores after her mother-in-law Blanche Magee retired. Blanche opened Magees the same summer the Market opened in July, 1934, making it the first restaurant at the Market. Mageeís is beloved by Angelenos, American tourists and foreign visitors who know Mageeís for its corned beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes, particularly on St. Patrickís Day. We recently talked with Phyllis about her 40 year plus years at Farmers Market.
My late mother-in-law Blanche Magee and her husband Raymond owned several stalls at the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. The Mageeís came from the Midwest to Oakland in the late 1800ís and then Los Angeles, bringing their peanut butter and horseradish with them. Those same items are still sold at our store, same recipe, same process. The original peanut butter machine and horseradish grinder are still with us, still working.
In July of 1934, during the Great Depression, Blanche noticed group of about six farmers at 3rd & Fairfax, some of whom she knew because they supplied her stores at Grand Central. Then, the next week, she saw more farmers. As a way of encouraging them, she brought them some ham and potato salad from the Grand Central store. The farmers werenít sure it was going to work. They were quite anxious, but Blanche and Raymond kept encouraging them to hang on.
It began to grow and she kept bringing them food. One day, a woman shopper asked her for some of the ham. She said she wasnít selling the ham, she was just giving it to the farmers. The customer became quite irate, saying she wanted some of the ham. Blanche thought about it for a moment because she didnít even know what she would charge. She asked the woman for 10 cents, the woman paid her and that was how Mageeís became the first restaurant at the Farmers Market. Blanche was always one to see an opportunity when it crossed her path.
When Blanche realized she wanted to be in business at this new enterprise, she knew they would need water and electricity. There were no restrooms, no utilities for a kitchen. She and Raymond made the investment and had water and electricity installed. They opened in October of 1934. That first fall and into 1935, there were about 11 people in business, mostly farmers.
In the 1960s, I came to the company as their bookkeeper, they were having troubles with their accounting. Our families were friends, one of my sisters was married to a Magee cousin. One of the cousins asked if Iíd come and try to help them straighten things out. Thatís how I started with them. I met their son Paul at family events over the years and we got married. Eventually, Paul and I and some other cousins were beginning to take over the business. Paul was a natural. But after a while, he tired of it and we left to move north for several years. After about four years, it became clear that the family needed our help and we came back. Eventually, with two other cousins, Paul and I bought the business from the family.
Paul and I really ran it after that and within a few years, I took over. I felt confident because Paul was a natural and I learned everything I needed to know from him.
What was already inside me was my love for people. I got that from my mother. I love our customers and our employees. The day to day operation is the real job, gut as long as you love your customers and employees, it makes it a lot easier.
In the 60s, my biggest hurdle was the men. Back then we had about 40 employees and most were men. They wouldnít listen to a woman. Blanche was still coming in to work back then and one day she asked one of the men to do a small, simple task. He acted like he didnít hear her. I thought ďWell this wonít do.Ē I was going to be taking over full time and I knew I had to do something about this. I thought he was very disrespectful. So I took him aside. Heíd been and employee for quite and while and I said to him, ďYou can pick up your pay check in about 20 minutes.Ē
That set the example in the kitchen, that this wasnít going to be tolerated. I had one more man after that who was rude and I did the same thing to him. After that, itís been smooth sailing. But it was very hard in those days to be a woman business owner because the men wouldnít work for a woman in charge.
I canít easily tell you my favorite Mageeís dish. I have to taste everything every day because thatís how we keep up the quality. But I think Iím partial to our French dip. When I donít know what I want, I go for that French dip.
Everyday we offer five salads and fresh fruit in the summer. Then we have the full steam table. We have parsley potatoes and cabbage for the corned beef. We have vegetables, carrots and green beans, which many will take over the cabbage. Mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. A full Mexican line of tacos, tostados and burritos, three types of enchiladas with rice and beans. In 1934, we only offered the salads, bulk items like pickled pigs fee, the horseradish and the ham. Everything we make, we make right here in our kitchen. Itís all homemade.
Iíve been here 40 years. I should be semi-retired and Iím half way there. I donít want to leave altogether. I feel good about what Iíve accomplished, that Iíve got employees whoíve been with me for those 40 years. I feel very good that Iíve done as much as Iíve done, as well as Iíve done. I have no regrets. I used to worry about bringing my son to work with me but he turned out to be a wonderful man.
There arenít too many places in the world like our Farmers Market. Iíve done a lot of traveling and I know this is such a unique place. Iíve been blessed to be here. Itís been a great ride.
Magee's Kitchen, open M-F, 9 AM Ė 9 PM, Saturdays, 9 AM to 8 PM, Sundays, 10 AM to 7 PM. 323-938-4127, Stall #624
Magee's House of Nuts, open M-F, 9 AM Ė 9 PM, Saturdays, 9 AM to 8 PM, Sundays, 10 AM to 7 PM. 323-938-4127, Stall #218