Tropic of Groceries

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 Cancer and 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.

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.

The perishables part of this equation had its gestation in the late '80s when H-E-B forged a relationship with Harry Blazer, founder of Harry's Farmers Markets in Atlanta. Harry's Markets stock a dizzying array of some 1,200 varieties of fruits and vegetables. "These were very powerful markets," Campbell says. "Harry, we thought, was the consummate perishables retailer in the world." From Harry's, H-E-B adopted a number of innovations, including a minimalist, industrial rack design that receded into the background, allowing the produce to overwhelm and cloak the fixtures, and a "serpentine" floor plan that snaked traffic flow through the store instead of breaking it up with a grid of aisles.

The head of the serpent is a cramped maze with low ceilings and cool, damp air blasted throughout, creating the ideal climate for produce, meat and seafood. "It's like shopping in a big industrial cooler," Campbell says.

The pathway then opens into high ceilings and airy spaces where wine, bulk foods and dairy products reside. The channel constricts again once the world of cheese, olives, bread and deli meats is trespassed.

This deliberate compression-and-release accosts shoppers with an in-your-face, sensual food presentation, no doubt generating impulse sales. Campbell says this sort of forced flow also offers a tremendous boost in retail-display square footage.

In 1991, H-E-B implemented the retailing concepts drawn from Blazer in a San Antonio experiment called Market Place, a precursor to Central Market. Like Central Market, Market Place had a muscular perishables component. But unlike its future progeny, Market Place was stocked with traditional grocery-store fodder plus a pharmacy and a photo-finishing depot. To the surprise of H-E-B brass, Market Place was a runaway success.

Then in 1992, Charles Butt bagged a piece of prime state-owned real estate at Lamar and 38 1/2 streets in Austin. His initial ambition was to plant an H-E-B supermarket on the plot, but he quickly thought better of it. Instead, he called for a new concept that would dazzle instead of just serve. Campbell was tapped to create the box that would contain the sizzle. For inspiration, he scoured some of the globe's best-known grub boutiques, including Dean & DeLuca in New York, Harrod's in London and KaDeWe in Berlin. "Let's turn the world upside down and find every incredible thing we can find and bring it in and let the customer experience it," he says of his mission.

But perhaps more surprising than what Central Market would stock was what it would forgo. Campbell decided to chuck traditional store shelf staples such as Tide, Budweiser, Ruffles, Rice-a-Roni and Ken-L Ration and zero in on unique food items.

"It was a gut-wrenching gamble," Campbell admits. Indeed. Harry's Farmers Market Inc. sold its three superstores and most of its assets last fall to Austin-based Whole Foods Market Inc. for $35 million--a mere fraction of its 2001 revenues--after struggling with mounting debt and losses.

Yet for Campbell, the gamble paid off. Central Market was a hit almost from the moment the doors opened in 1994, quickly becoming Austin's top tourist draw, after the state capitol. The company followed with a Central Market in San Antonio and another in Austin.

Then last year, H-E-B embarked on a breathless Central Market expansion, opening a store each in Houston (May 2001), Fort Worth (October 2001), Plano (February 2002) and Dallas (July 2002), with the latter marking H-E-B's 300th store. This was quick work for the San Antonio-based grocer, born as the Mrs. C.C. Butt Staple and Fancy Groceries in Kerrville in 1905 with a $60 investment. Today, H-E-B is the nation's 12th-largest food retailer and the 13th-largest private company in America, according to Forbes magazine. Stephen Butt, 47, great-grandson of founder Florence Butt and the executive heading up H-E-B's Dallas-Fort Worth front, says the company will rack up $10 billion in sales this year. Campbell projects the seven Central Markets will represent $375 million of that total.

This rapid incursion, with three store openings in just seven months, marks H-E-B's long-awaited plunge into the Dallas area, a gaping cleft in its Texas market presence. H-E-B opened stores in Mexico four years before Dallas-Fort Worth. What took them so long here? Campbell says the company was spooked. With virtually the highest per capita supermarket square footage of any Texas market, the area was just too daunting a landscape to tackle without something special to arouse shoppers.

"People in Dallas, we believe, were looking for something new on the retail landscape," Butt says. "We felt like to introduce H-E-B to the city of Dallas--into the metroplex in total--we really wanted to bring a store that is new and different...a better version of what was already here."

Butt characterizes Central Market as the company's entry vehicle into Dallas. Yet somehow it comes across more as a Trojan horse, a device to secure a foothold by building fierce loyalty before the name brand is deployed. Butt talks about the room he sees in the area for more Central Markets and coyly adds that there may be reasons to install conventional H-E-B supermarkets on Dallas-Fort Worth turf, where the field is largely divided among Tom Thumb, Albertson's, Kroger and Wal-Mart.

It will be awhile, though, before more Central Markets dot the landscape. Campbell hints they may have outrun their headlights in their rapid-fire plunge, leaving them with no real estate parcels in the offing and slim pickings on their human resources bench to populate new stores. "Not just anybody on the street can come in and run one of these things," he says. "They're so dadgum complicated."

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."

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.

But Romano says Eatzi's balance sheet has been scrubbed of the New York mess, and he plans to forge ahead and launch up to seven Eatzi's in the Dallas region beginning with Plano and South Lake. He's even talking about developing 7-Eleven-sized Eatzi's fed by centralized kitchens, steering further away from the dreaded grocery-store paradigm.

"The edge we've got on grocery stores is that when you go into a grocery store, it's a job," he insists. "You're out there to do a job. You've got a list. At Eatzi's, you go in there, no list. You're shopping with your heart."

Heart is what seems to be missing from the conventional food-shopping process. Traditional supermarkets have evolved into huge, high-tech institutions more eager to consume your personal shopping data than you are their toilet paper and olives. Perhaps that's why venues such as Eatzi's and Central Market incite such passion, even though the concepts they embrace have been quietly nesting in Dallas since Whole Foods Market opened on Greenville Avenue in 1986. Whole Foods has ample square footage devoted to fresh produce, whole grains, chef-prepared takeout foods and organic this and that. But it doesn't seem to have the sex appeal that Central Market or Eatzi's possesses. (Central Market is a tourist destination in Whole Foods' home city of Austin.) Part of it is probably age. Whole Foods has been around Texas for more than 20 years, while Eatzi's and Central Market are relative neophytes. The other piece is that Whole Foods appeals to a narrower niche--the organic, socially conscious consumer--although that niche is growing.

"People that go to Central Market might aspire to be gourmets. People that come to our store, they aspire to eat better," says Bruce Silverman, vice president of merchandising for Whole Foods' Southwest region. "[Central Market is] good at creating an exciting shopping experience...We're great at standards."

Romano suggests that Whole Foods is too much like a traditional grocery store to inspire thrills. (Though it's interesting to note that while Eatzi's flopped in Manhattan, Whole Foods recently opened what has become one of its best-selling outlets there.)

But that still doesn't answer the question of why food has become such an obsession. It's certainly odd to puzzle over 14 different kinds of onions, a dozen different pears, 60 different kinds of fresh sausages and a barracuda, flying fish or a mako shark on a trip to the grocer. But that's precisely the point.

James Twitchell, professor of English at the University of Florida, cites a social dynamic he defines as "a characteristic contradiction of our time, the necessary consumption of the unnecessary." In a recent article in Reason magazine, Twitchell argues that since the '80s, the bulk of luxury items--Prada handbags, BMWs, Vulcan ranges, Dom Perignon, Hugo Boss T-shirts, first-class travel (via frequent-flyer miles)--has been gobbled up by the middle class. He says that virtually the only luxury items the rich have left to themselves are time and philanthropy (and maybe a pond stocked with bass). "In the way we live now, you are not what you make," Twitchell writes. "You are what you consume."

And what you consume had better advertise a heightened sense of taste and discrimination. No longer just a necessity to keep the belly rumbles at bay, food has become a mark of sophistication, a form of expression, an entertainment, a topic of conversation as passionate as the babble over sports or politics.

"It takes a lot more to get a consumer excited these days, because they've been there, done that," says New York author Karen Page, who with her chef husband, Andrew Dornenburg, has written five books on chefs and culinary artistry. "If you look at the way that the average American eats today anywhere in the United States, you just couldn't have even imagined it 30 years ago."

Page attributes this heightened sophistication to a gradual convergence of technological and social forces, including advances in shipping, immigration from all corners of the globe, the democratization of travel, the proliferation of food shows and the advent of the celebrity chef. When seasoned with the diminishing resource of time, this confluence has led to a social shift whereby Americans are no longer fed by "Mom." Instead, they are fed--whether it's through restaurants, gourmet takeout emporiums or indirectly via television--by professional chefs.

Page also points out that the global center of culinary art has moved over the past few years. Once upon a time, an aspiring chef who wanted to acquire world-class training would make his or her way to Europe to slum in the bowels of the great Michelin two- and three-star restaurants.

"Now, the great restaurants of France and Europe and all around the world are sending their chefs to the United States," Page says. "European chefs realize that the Americans have surpassed them in terms of experimentation and incorporation of ingredients and techniques...New York is arguably what Paris used to be."

Which can only mean one thing: Our garbage must be getting a lot better. Skip the ketchup.

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