Stealing home

Cutting-edge grocery City Harvest does home-cooking for busy Cliff-hangers

The big food news a few weeks ago was all about Harry's Market getting in bed with Boston Chicken.

If you're holding your breath, waiting for a punch line, let it out. That's it: Harry and the Chicken.

In the restaurant world, the marriage of one of the most successful restaurant chains in the country (Nation's Restaurant News says that Boston Chicken "posted profits of $67 million last year") with one of the most imaginative food entrepreneurs in the country (Harry Blazer founded Harry's Farmers Market and Harry's in a Hurry in Atlanta) is positively titillating--just imagine what might be produced by such a union. Everyone is betting those eggs will be golden.

But no one can really predict this outcome because as far as the restaurant business goes, this coupling takes place a in a gray zone, in no-man's land, on a food frontier where no restaurateur has dared to go before. Boston Chicken isn't quite a restaurant and Harry's is, frankly, a grocery store. It all sounds like more of a mundane Supermarket News story, instead of real restaurant news.

For years, Americans ate at home (mostly) or went out to dinner (occasionally). In recent years, as we've gotten busier and busier, as more women work outside the home, as we burden our kids with more and more extracurricular activities, as more families are headed by a frazzled single parent, that proportion has been shifting; now we eat out nearly as often as we eat at home, moving the food focus from the grocery store to the restaurant. It's not really a satisfying family solution, as I know from the juggling act that is my own life. Not only is it difficult to do your fourth-grader's math project in a restaurant booth, but according to family therapists and child psychologists, eating out indirectly undermines family values. How many times have we heard that the most important time a family spends together is around the dinner table? Does that include the time it takes to decide between General Kao's chicken and Szechuan-style pork? Technically speaking, is this "quality time"? And who has time to worry about it when you're trying to help someone find out how many times 42 goes into 211 without using long division at the same time you're teaching them to use chopsticks?

Home meal replacement, of course, is the answer, and that's where Harry and the chicken come back into the story. Boston Chicken owns the takeout market segment, except for the heat-and-eat category, which is what Harry's does so well. The idea is that Harry will help Boston Chicken develop a brand line of chilled, fresh-prepared foods for reheating, which will be available in supermarkets, further filling the gap between eating out and eating in. Light some candles, Honey, and open a bottle of wine--we're eating at home tonight.

There are those of you who might be realizing about now that this isn't such new news after all--there have been gourmet shops selling this kind of food for decades. The difference is that except in New York, where people live with kitchens barely big enough to hold their espresso machine, "gourmet" has been the descriptive word. Stores like Marty's, for instance, were independently owned boutiques for food snobs. A visit to Marty's was a shopping spree, more like going to Lou Lattimore's than the grocery store. Now that the big guys are playing, it will be interesting to see whether the broadened market will encourage more independent takeout or whether Harry and the chicken's children will eat their lunch.

City Harvest, for example, an energetic and idealistic fine-food grocery business in Oak Cliff (I said idealistic), is a player in this market. And, fortunately for its owners, I don't expect to see Boston Market opening near Bishop Avenue real soon. City Harvest was opened by a trio of Marty's refugees who fled when the direction of Dallas' oldest gourmet shop started being steered by Eatzi's, the competition across the street (a Harry's-inspired creation, by the way). But City Harvest, unlike Marty's and unlike Boston Market, is dedicated to its own neighborhood, which it describes in its newsletter as "the only true community left in this city." And despite the commitment to quality products obvious from the shelf stock, much of which you can find at Marty's, City Harvest is trying hard to stay away from the gourmet snob image and to be a true daily resource.

The shop has wisely grown slowly, and only recently has its line of takeout foods filled out. Its shelves are stocked with great stuff--White Lily flour, for instance, the single reason southern women are famous for baking, and Boyajian citrus-infused oils. There are high-end chocolates and other food gifts, and grocery store deli staples, like chicken and potato salad. The cheese selection is good--we bought a great goat's milk Gouda--which is what you'd expect from ex-employees of Marty's, as employment there requires a full cheese education. Still to come is a deli counter, with meats and a sandwich program. But already, City Harvest draws outside its neighborhood--a recent Saturday class on spices, vinegars, oils, and herbs was filled not just with people from classy Cliff neighborhoods like Kessler Park, but with Park Cities and Preston Hollow tourists. And while it's unlikely that these people will cross the bridge to pick up dinner, it's indicative of the place's appeal that they checked it out at all. And it's indicative of the demand for this kind of business that City Harvest has enjoyed success at all.

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