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?

Chuck Gilmer, editor of the Shelby Report, a supermarket trade journal covering the South, says Central Market's Dallas beachhead is more symbolic than anything. "The bigger impact is more the message it sends--that H-E-B is finally in town," he says. "They'll probably put some hurt on just about everybody. It's going to be a block-by-block battle. It will be hand to hand."

Phil Romano knows a bit about the allure of fresh food deployed with passion. He built his food reputation blending the two, resulting in Fuddruckers, Macaroni Grill, Cozymel's Coastal Mexican Grill, Nick and Sam's and Lobster Ranch--cocky concepts that serve fresh, assertive food. But Romano himself could experience food even fresher than that served in most of his restaurants. The kitchen in his house is larger than most restaurant lines and spills out onto a large pond, which Romano has stocked with bass. He says he and his son have pulled several out of its depths weighing in at 2 to 3 pounds, but it's strictly a catch-and-release diversion executed with barb-less hooks. Freshwater fish are laced with mercury, he insists.

He thinks grocers are laced with something, too, though he might think their affliction is a little closer to myopia than heavy metal. Romano says he's frequently asked to sit on supermarket industry panels and he's amazed by their hardened groupthink. "I'm the only guy with a fancy tie," he says. "The way I think, the way I act, the way I look, is different than these guys. They're just bzzzzzzt. Same hum. They'll never get out of the box...They have so many sacred cows."

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.

Driving this hum is what Romano calls "shelf mentality." Grocers put food on the shelf, and they expect the shelf to sell it. So he's amused when grocery pros pick his brain over one of his more daring concepts: Eatzi's. Romano says he stumbled onto the idea for the tiny food market and takeout-meal boutique after noting the amount of takeout business he was doing in his restaurants.

"Ever since I came up with Eatzi's, I got grocery-store people coming in and looking at us and trying to copy us, and they keep failing," he says. "They keep failing because they keep going into it with a grocery-store mentality, not a food-culture mentality." By food culture, Romano means nurturing an army of chefs supplemented by fresh produce, fresh baked bread, wine and enough opera to make your head spin. Which Eatzi's will, because it is laid out like a merry-go-round that whizzes shoppers past virtually everything in the store before they can check out.

Though Central Market predated Eatzi's by some two years, Romano says he had a hand in its development. Just before H-E-B was ready to spring Central Market on Austin, Romano says, the grocer's president, Fully Klingman, whisked him to Austin to tour and critique the new concept. He admits he was impressed by the distinctive approach--very ungrocer-like.

Then just before Romano unleashed Eatzi's, he called Klingman to see if he would return the favor. He did. "He says, 'You son of a bitch,'" Romano recalls. "He says, 'We've been trying to do this in our industry for 20 years. We haven't been able to do it. You hit it. You got it, right here.'"

By "got it," Romano says, Klingman meant takeout food that's as tasty as it is dazzling, a departure from the sort of warmed-over, curdled leftovers most grocery stores shelve (Klingman didn't return calls for comment).

Which is precisely Romano's point with Eatzi's: People want to get away from grocery stores. They're dull and riddled with drudgery. That's why Romano is skeptical Central Market will catch on in a big way, even if the emporium does have a takeout market with a separate entrance and an army of chefs and food pros headed up by the likes of Jamie Samford (Lola), Helen Duran (Crescent Club), George Howald (The Mansion) and Laura Vella (veteran of New York City kitchens). "They're taking our core concept, and they want to put it in the middle of their core concept to make their core concept better. And it loses it," Romano says of Central Market. "I got to experience the agony and pitfalls of going to a grocery store in order to get what you can get at Eatzi's...People need food every day, and every day they are not going to go to Central Market to get their food. It's too big and cumbersome."

Romano has been tremendously successful with his takeout boutique. His four stores--in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Rockville, Maryland--generate roughly $60 million in annual sales. The most successful of the four is the original in Oak Lawn, which amazingly teases $17 million in annual sales out of a meager 3,500 square feet of selling space. By contrast, H-E-B is hoping the 75,000-square-foot Central Market in Dallas will scare up $50 million in annual sales.

But Romano's Eatzi's adventure hasn't been without its blunders. His company was severely chastened by Eatzi's incursion into Manhattan and Long Island. New York state regulations prohibit wine sales in food stores; the unionized labor market is expensive, and hyper-sophisticated New Yorkers were suspicious of the concept. All these factors converged to choke the life out of the tiny Dallas import. The miscue resulted in a charge against earnings that topped $4 million, and the company was forced to throttle two Eatzi's markets under construction in Boston and San Diego.

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