Tropic of Groceries

Dallas' pent-up lust for exotic foods has finally been met with the opening of Central Market. Will shopping ever be the same? Will our appetites?

Henry Miller would be dumbstruck. The New York-born author of sexually explicit novels often castigated Americans for their chronic paralysis of taste and crude cuisine. "Americans will eat garbage," he once wrote, "provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper or any other condiment which destroys the flavor of the dish."

What, then, would Miller make of Central Market, the H.E. Butt Grocery Co.'s 75,000-square-foot orgy of fresh, hard-to-find produce, meat, seafood, wine, cheese, beer, spices and whatever else the celebrity chefs on the Food Network convince us is required of a hip pantry? Would he eat his words?

It's hard to know. What is known about Miller, author of Tropic of Cancerand Tropic of Capricorn, is that he spent his life struggling to free himself from what he regarded as the puritanical boundaries of his German background. So perhaps he would have savored the irony of this Dallas gourmet market's inception--a collection of bars, strip clubs, a pawn shop and a liquor store were plowed under to make way for an emporium stuffed with extravagant comestibles, no doubt representing another puritan headache. The transformation of this 9-acre "blue" corner at Lovers Lane and Greenville Avenue has been dramatic. The only element that seems to have survived is the intensity of the hunger its commerce elicits.

Peter Calvin

Top: Shoppers leer at the expansive "chef's case," which draws from a rotating roster of some 250 recipes. Bottom: A sample of the 15 fresh apple varieties in the produce cooler.
Peter Calvin
Top: Shoppers leer at the expansive "chef's case," which draws from a rotating roster of some 250 recipes. Bottom: A sample of the 15 fresh apple varieties in the produce cooler.

Judging by the near-religious fervor with which Dallas residents anticipated the store's opening--employees report that carloads of consumers regularly visited during construction begging for opening dates--it's clear that Dallasites are no longer content to eat rubbish juiced with condiments. (Though, notably, Central Market offers some 80 different mustards.) No, they're prepared to consume with reckless refinement, bagging live oysters and clams, dipping into bulk reserves of olives and coffee and grains and spices, lifting fresh-baked bread, grabbing "meal kits" with ingredients in recipe-specific quantities and plunking down cash to reserve slots in the Market's lengthy roster of cooking classes.

When in the throes of selecting from among 15 varieties of fresh apples, it's hard to know what yearning brought this apparatus upon us or how it will change our shopping habits or alter the supermarket market for that matter. Central Market distills the classic chicken-egg conundrum: Are food professionals driving demand for mind-numbing variety by constantly challenging consumers with their discoveries and creations? Or are the hungry driving the pros to offer food in ways that won't insult consumers' tastes or their Sub-Zero fridges?

And why do we need California wine grape leaves at $15.99 per pound anyway?


Tucked in a back pocket of Central Market's thick portfolio of publicity materials is a sheet titled "Central Market, Profiles in Produce." The document bullet-points several fruit and vegetable factoids. Chief among them is the fact that Central Market bananas are given a bath after harvesting to clean the surface of the peel. There's a line explaining that the store's strawberries are in season from mid-January to mid-October and that the store's greens are grown in specially allotted Central Market fields in California, Colorado and Texas.

Stocking some 700 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs, Central Market has made produce the core of its operation. That core belts your senses the moment you enter. Melons are piled into wooden crates. Head greens and crucifers are plugged into slopes of crushed ice. Leafy vegetables spill over and veil their refrigerated shelving, creating the illusion these crops are growing out of the wall.

"It assaults all of the senses," says Central Market Vice President John Campbell, 51, who is credited with creating the Central Market concept. "You get color; you get aroma. We wanted to drive a stake in the ground on produce."

But it was an odd stake to drive in the supermarket business. Campbell says Central Market's emphasis on produce runs counter to the prevailing supermarket model, which seeks to minimize the variety of fresh produce because it is so costly to stock and manage. He adds that the produce department in a traditional supermarket reflects less the wishes of the customer than the desire of the merchant, which boils down to operational convenience. Produce constituted a yawning gap in food retailing and provided an opportunity to create a significant distinction.

Finding a way for his company to distinguish itself was on the mind of H-E-B Chief Executive Officer Charles Butt years ago when the idea for Central Market was still simmering. Campbell says that in the late '80s H-E-B brass concluded that the entire grocery game would eventually boil down to one thing. "It was really going to come down to who could sell Tide soap at the best price," Campbell says. On a landscape increasingly dominated by Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation, going head-to-head on price alone is a sure prescription for failure.

In lieu of bruising price brawls, Butt was determined to gobble up market share by shifting from the traditional supermarket model. H-E-B's quest to differentiate itself revealed just two viable avenues: people and perishables.

The former meant that H-E-B would have to spend a bundle on headhunting and training. Campbell says his goal was to make Central Market a combination of Southwest Airlines, Disney World and Nordstrom, companies that at one time or another were known for their shrewd use of human resources. A natural smile suddenly became an important qualification. "You can't tell people to 'smile, dammit' and get them to do it," he says. One of the outgrowths of this drive is Central Market's "fabulous foodies," chirpy culinary pros who prowl the aisles itching to deploy food tips.

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