Broadway's West End

Broadway's western end has always hosted a varied collection of food concerns. The corner at 5th is the perfect central location for Vietname-era refugees to sell the fresh fruits and vegetables they grow.

Morgan Ong
Morgan Ong  

            The West End of Broadway:  Food, and Food Industries


            A majority of the vendors at the Sunday Open Air Produce Market are Asian, but a dominant proportion of them are Hmong, Lao and Mien. According to a 2005-2007 American Community Survey, about 30,000 Hmong and Laotians live in Sacramento County. They arrived here mostly from Laos, many by way of refugee camps in Thailand, and tend to be among the poorer immigrant groups in Sacramento. But they brought a way of life based on gardening with them.

            The changes from their lives as subsistence hill farmers in Laos --  where they had been recruited by the CIA to fight on the American side in the Vietnam War -- to their lives in the United States have been enormous. Producing food in gardens and on farms in the Sacramento region (and elsewhere in the Central Valley) has turned out to be significant economically and culturally for these groups.  Because they tend to seek out low-cost housing in South, West, and North Sacramento, the corner at 5th and Broadway provided an accessible, central place for them to sell the fruits and vegetables in a fashion similar to the way produce is sold on the street in Laos. And it adds another layer to the already multilayered food history of the west end of Broadway.


            Broadway terminus -- the waterfront

            Waterfronts near downtowns typically became industrial zones in American cities because of the importance of waterborne transportation, the use of water bodies as places for waste disposal, and other uses of water, such as washing and cooling, by industry.  Typically, accessibility was enhanced by the addition of rail lines.

            The Sacramento riverfront is no exception.  Today, the west end of Broadway—between the Sacramento River and about 6th Street—is the only part of the street that is zoned for industrial and heavy commercial land uses.

            Circa 1930, oil companies began appearing in Sacramento city directories as occupants of parcels near the foot of Broadway.  This locational choice reflects the fact that petroleum products originally were brought to Sacramento via river barge; later, pipelines were built connecting Sacramento to the Bay Area.  Oil company tank farms of modest size remain along this stretch of Broadway.

            Other embodiments of a petroleum-based economy—motor vehicle-related businesses—have a history at the western end of Broadway.  In the late 1940s, the Mack International Motor Truck Corporation opened a salesroom at No. 301.  Truck sales continued at that location for about 50 years.  At various times, tractors, trucks, and boats have been sold at No. 401 Broadway; the motor pool of the United States General Services Administration occupied that space in the 1980s and 1990s.  Auto repair shops and gas stations have come and gone from the 400 block, starting in the 1930s.   


            Food on Broadway’s Western End

            The western end of Broadway was once home to the Kraft Cheese Co./Kraft Foods Co. (in the 1940s); the Cal Pet Foods Co./Bonnie Dog Food Co. (1939-1960); the Country Maid Milk Depot No. 5 (1958-1960); the Colosseum Macaroni Co., (1928-1952), and the Poultry Producers of Central California (1928-1960s).

            Just south of Broadway on Fifth Street and directly across from the Sunday open-air produce market, a cluster of food and beverage distributors remains.  Among them is the wholesaler Sacramento Produce Market. Coincidentally, this business is the modern-day descendent of an early Sacramento Farmers Market established cooperatively in the 1930s by Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese farmers. (For a recent discussion of the history of this multi-ethnic local food spot, see Edible Sacramento, Summer 2008.) Even Setzer Forest Products on 3rd Street in the same vicinity has a link to food.  It began life in 1927 as the Setzer Box Company, producing wooden boxes for packing the Sacramento region’s agricultural output of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

            Industrial districts often host restaurants that serve their workers, and in their modest appearance, affordability, and ethnic flavor they reflect the local workforce.  Three such restaurants come to mind in the west Broadway area.  The Market Club, at 2630 5th Street, #6, serving breakfast and lunch, is embedded in the Sacramento Produce Market.  Jamie’s Broadway Grille, at No. 427 Broadway, was featured this year in an episode of The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”  That address has been a restaurant and/or watering hole since Swiss immigrant Ernest Rudesuli opened Rudy’s Lunch there circa 1937.  The Hong Kong Café, at No. 501 Broadway, was the first restaurant featured in “Around the World in 30 Blocks.”  Asian flavors appear in the food served at all these places.

            By the 1960s, recreation emerged as a competing riverfront land use at the foot of Broadway, with the appearance of the Miller Park Boat Harbor, a yacht broker, and the Sacramento Yacht Club.  The yacht club has since moved across the river and about five miles south on the Yolo County side.  The shift away from goods-producing and goods-handling activities toward recreational uses of urban waterfronts exemplifies the post-industrialization of the American economy.  


            Open air market finds a home

            Perhaps unexpectedly, lower Broadway’s quasi-industrial district provides a welcoming space for the farmers’ market that takes place there every Sunday morning at the corner of Broadway and 5th Street.  This market began informally, as a place with fewer rules and regulations than the nearby Certified Farmers Market at 6th street under the freeway between W and X Streets. Southeast Asian farmers and customers began bargaining there about 1986.  The spot was close to the established market, and on a lot with a defunct gas station in an industrial area where there was little Sunday activity and few retailers and residents to complain.  In the ensuing 22 years, this “renegade” market has thrived and gained legitimacy. 

            The 5th and Broadway market’s sellers and buyers are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but there is a definite Southeast Asian flavor to it, with the fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, soy products, and (live) chickens characteristic of that region on sale there.  Laura Leonelli, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Assistance Center in Sacramento, mentioned the unofficial 5th and Broadway market in her 1987 master’s thesis and wrote about the importance of farmers’ markets to Sacramento’s Southeast Asian refugees:


“Farmers’ markets are popular in this city, operating weekly in several locations.  Families who are unable to grow their own produce may obtain it here more cheaply than in the stores, and, since it is grown locally, the quality and freshness are superior.  For truck farmers in the area it is an important opportunity for earning income, and many of the vendors are Hmong and Vietnamese.  The open markets provide exposure to such exotic Asian vegetables as yard long beans, bitter melon, and luffa gourds for the many Western patrons as well.”

“We Eat What We Are: Food Use Patterns of Hmong and Mien in Sacramento, California,” M. A. thesis in Anthropology, CSU Sacramento, 1987, pp. 29-30.


            Earlier groups of immigrants from Asia, especially from China and Japan, came to be crucial parts of Sacramento’s farming community.  In fact, the presence of Chinese and Japanese farmers and farm workers on the south side of the city helped to establish that area as the preferred locus for Asian neighborhoods as Sacramento grew outward.  In the same general area—Florin—where Japanese farmers once produced strawberries, Hmong farmers do today.  And, the growing numbers of Sacramentans of various Asian ancestries together with the greater culinary openness of non-Asians mean that a highly diverse output from Asian immigrant farmers shows up at 5th and Broadway.

            The University of Minnesota Press has just published (2009) the first major Hmong cookbook, Cooking from the Heart: Hmong Cooking in America, by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang.  This lovely book will help you utilize what you buy at the 5th and Broadway market and also will inform you about many aspects of Hmong culture in Southeast Asia and America.  Relevant academic work on the Hmong in Sacramento, in addition to the Leonelli thesis mentioned above, includes “Landscapes and Lifescapes: Three Generations of Hmong Women and Their Gardens,” a Ph.D. dissertation in Geography by Jan Louise Corlett (U. C. Davis 1999). 


Robin Datel

August 14, 2009