The little shop that could

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John’s Garden celebrates its 30th anniversary at the Country Mart, and three years in a new space. The sandwich/salad shop almost closed three years ago when rent rates were hiked.

By Austen Tate/Special to The Malibu Times

John’s Garden has come a long way in keeping its family-operated and community-oriented business open. June 1 will mark its 30th anniversary of serving its original shakes and snacks in the Malibu Country Mart.

Celebrating its third decade at the Mart and new changes, the restaurant will be holding drawings for free lunches and complimentary T-shirts all 30 days the month of June. With the support of dedicated customers and cooperation of Koss Real Estate Investments, brothers Jim and John Musante were able to overcome the challenge of selling out to bigger businesses and uphold their reputation as a staple in the Malibu community.

Fifty-five years ago John’s Garden started with the Musantes’ father who operated a roadside produce stand. He would sell fresh fruits and vegetables to customers in Beverly Hills, and then extend out to vending in the Malibu Colony. One of their father’s biggest customers was designer Fred Segal, who was the original developer of the Country Mart. Segal suggested their father open up a shop in the shopping center; in 1975, John’s Garden was established, expanding to serve a grand variety of salads and sandwiches, as well as the fresh produce. Jim and John Musante have worked in the shop almost all their lives.

“It is a good place to work,” Jim Musante said in a recent interview. “I like living and working in Malibu. Plus, this place has become dear to my heart.”

John has since retired, six months ago. Jim is the last member of his family to own and operate the business, serving his appreciative customers. Without them, John’s Garden might have gone out of business three years ago.

After Segal sold the shopping center to a bank, Koss Investments took over. Prices of property and space in Malibu rose remarkably high, leaving many small businesses in shambles with high-end stores trying to move in and squeezing out many original tenants-the Mom and Pop businesses.

Much controversy stirred up when it was announced three years ago that John’s Garden would close because of a large rent hike. But Malibu’s community would not let their favorite snack shop go that easily. The customers and owners put up a good fight to keep John’s Garden in business. Customers expressed their concerns through a letter writing campaign and petition, and making comments in a “goodbye” memoir book. In the end, the Musantes negotiated a new, 10-year lease with Koss-however, their space was reduced by almost 50 percent; they no longer had room to sell fresh produce, the staple of their father’s business started more than half a century ago.

No big business could intercept the close relationship of the customers and John’s Garden. “I’ve watched people play in the park as kids and then saw them grow up and bring their kids to the park,” Jim said. “There are a lot of good memories and old time customers here. One customer wrote he would fly from Newport back to L.A. just for us. It was very touching.”

He said he could not believe the emotional cries of his customers over the thought of losing his business. “I didn’t realize until people came in crying and angry, how much this meant to all of us,” Jim remembered. “It took numerous meetings and negotiations with Koss Investments and everyone’s support to make all groups happy.”

Chrome and Hearts have recently moved in to where their old fruit stand would have been. “I listened to everyone,” Jim said about the remodeling of John’s Garden. “It’s working out, everyone seems happy. Some like it better than it was before.”

The trials and tribulations of a little “Mom and Pop” store have made history in Malibu. “I’ve watched them grow, they’ve watched me grow. Everyday is an interesting day and everyone has a story to share,” Jim said.