Thursday, a former Luby's cafeteria in Grapevine becomes home to the newest branch of eatZi's, the European-style market-bakery founded in Dallas by restaurateur Phil Romano in 1996.
This not only gives Grapevine residents a cosmopolitan foodie spot you would more expect to find in New York, it marks the rejuvenation of a brand that is ready to take a second crack at creating a deli-market experience in Dallas-Fort Worth.
On its first go-round in the go-go '90s, eatZi's expanded ambitiously, opening seven branches in Dallas, Atlanta, Houston and New York. Troubles soon emerged, especially at the two New York outlets, both of which were poorly located and unable to divine the New York market. By 2007, the chain had essentially crashed and burned: six branches had closed, leaving only the original in Dallas.
However, eatZi's was near and dear to Romano, the man responsible for hatching such concepts as Romano's Macaroni Grill, Fuddrucker's and Nick & Sam's. He regrouped and in 2009, opened a second smaller 5,000-square-foot store on Lovers Lane in Dallas. Grapevine is the third, and they've signed a lease for a fourth branch in Plano to open in 2013.
"New York looked good on paper," says CEO Adam Romo. "But the area wasn't as high-income as it looked. You learn from your mistakes. We're confident with what we're doing now. We're excited about going into Grapevine."
Long renowned for its wineries and independently held restaurants, Grapevine has become one of Tarrant County's growing foodie hot spots, home to new restaurants such as Fireside Pies, Mi Dia and Winewood Grill.
The Grapevine eatZi's is patterned after the store on Oak Lawn Avenue. A larger "flagship" model, it has 10,000 square feet, filled with gourmet groceries, takeaway meals, artisan breads and cheeses.
When it first opened, eatZi's was at the cutting edge of the "home meal replacement" trend, offering ready-to-go meals for customers who were too busy to cook. It also has specialty foods such as artisan crackers, imported olive oils and fancy mustards, as well as a nominal produce section that seems as much for show as for sale.
Its bakery, however, is a standout; the bread alone is worth a special trip. Aside from the number of varieties -- at least 15, such as olive, raisin-pecan or white-chocolate-apricot -- the quality of the bread is high, with a well-developed sourdough flavor and fine, hefty crust. Few bakeries other than Empire Baking Co. in Dallas do breads this good; not coincidentally, eatZi's recipes were developed by Peter Nyberg, who worked at Empire Baking Co., and the head baker is Jean-Christophe Blanc, a native of France.
EatZi's is also an experience: The store layout is designed not only to present items for you to buy but to create a sense of excitement, with food stations, bustling employees and Italian opera music playing over the sound system.
At first glance, Grapevine looks and feels like the original, but the floor plan and merchandise reflect a few tweaks.
But first, the cafe
One major change at Grapevine was to move the cafe, currently in the back corner of the Oak Lawn store to the front -- a shift that came about by accident, Romo says.
"At the Lovers Lane store, we had to put the cafe in front because of that space and the layout," he says. "Then we found that it added energy and excitement. People like sitting in front. It becomes a real people-watching spot -- you can see the patio, you can see everyone going in and out, you can see the bakery where they're making the breads and pastries, you can see the entire store. In Oak Lawn, it's in the back corner and it's isolated. We found that, even though the Lovers store is smaller, its cafe is busier than the one at Oak Lawn."
Premium wine section
The Grapevine store has more space devoted to wine, upping its number of labels from just fewer than 100 to 140, and it will be the first with a section dedicated to premium wine.
"Wine has become so much more popular," Romo says. "From 1996 to now, we've seen a complete shift from beer to wine. I think part of it is that, as you get older and discerning, you gravitate to wine. But I also see now that people in their 20s are buying wine. When you get exposed to better foods, wine is part of that."
They'll also stock wines from Grapevine's legion of winemakers.
"Grapevine is the city of grapes -- we'll carry special local wines made there," Romo says.
About 70 percent of the menu that eatZi's started with in 1996 remains. Big sellers include flank steak, hummus and pasta salad made with twisted gemelli pasta. Its No. 1 seller is the tuna salad -- a subtle recipe with chunks of albacore and just a hint of chopped onion, tossed in a mayonnaise dressing.
"If we took that off the menu, we'd have a riot," Romo says. "But we've evolved the menu. We need to keep it fresh, and right now, that means doing more seasonal items."
As a gourmet store/cafe, eatZi's profile is unique. Its closest competitors, geographically speaking, are Market Street in Colleyville, five miles down Route 26, and Central Market in Southlake, four miles away. Like eatZi's, they have prepared meals for takeaway, bountiful cheese counters and well-stocked bakeries. But Market Street and Central Market are tucked into residential areas where they serve in a traditional supermarket capacity, too, while eatZi's freeway address obliges commuters looking for grab-and-go, as well as Grapevine locals.
EatZi's next store will open in Plano in 2013, but Grapevine is also to get a second smaller store.
"That's our plan, but it's down the road," Romo says.
The Grapevine eatZi's will host a ribbon-cutting at 10 a.m. Thursday.