FORT WORTH -- Brian Milligan, a chiropractor working near Seminary Drive and Interstate 35W, was desperate to find a healthy lunch in an area awash in fast-food restaurants featuring factory-prepared, high-fat fare.
Joseph Champagne, who is in the foundation repair business, was looking for something affordable to break the lunchtime monotony.
They discovered little-known food outlets in unexpected places in Fort Worth.
Milligan, who found World Cafe by Googling "healthy food," has not only become a regular at the small restaurant, tucked almost stealthily inside the new Catholic Charities building at 249 Thornhill Drive off West Seminary, but he also "converted" a chiropractor at a rival clinic -- his girlfriend, Atherton Sorrenti.
"Nothing really compares in this area," Milligan said.
"It's excellent, fresh food with no preservatives. I go probably at least once or twice a week. What I like the best is the curried chicken salad."
A filling meal at the cafe, the brainchild of former art teacher Cindy Lucio, runs a few dollars more than at nearby burger joints.
But diners get a changing selection of fresh-made dishes from Moroccan vegetable soup and Indian curries to Texas comfort food like King Ranch casserole -- chicken or vegetarian style -- for $6 with two sides.
Available in the morning are parfaits, costing $3.25 and made of agave-sweetened, Greek-style yogurt, with fresh berries and homemade granola, along with $1.65 scones, baked on site.
Ignoring the summer heat, Champagne was eating on a bench outside Euro-Indo-Mideast Market in the Wedgwood Village Center near Interstate 20 and Granbury Road.
He came on a neighbor's recommendation. He found the gyros and falafel pita rolls so good and so reasonable ($3.69 and $1.99, respectively) that he came two days in a row.
"I was told to try the gyros, which are very good," Champagne said. "But the falafel is my favorite."
If they are among the best in town, it could stem from a generations-old family recipe of owner Tony Shihabeddin's wife, Nadine.
The garbanzo beans are ground with seasonings and parsley. Formed into balls, they are fried in nonhydrogenated soybean oil. They are then rolled onto pita bread with the house tahini sauce with lemon, lettuce, tomato and homemade Middle Eastern-style pickle slices.
The takeout counter opened in a corner of Euro-Indo-Mideast Market in 2011, about 10 months after Shihabeddin opened the multiethnic market, whose aisles of imported staples and delicacies reflect the palates of its clientele -- South Asian, Balkan and Middle Eastern. Like Lucio, the 52-year-old Shihabeddin reinvented himself after selling a commercial real estate business to open Euro-Indo.
His shop is not the only one catering to southwest Fort Worth's immigrant communities. But no rival has set up a takeaway business with solid restaurant-quality lunches at fast-food prices.
And its revenue stream could not be more opportune for Shihabeddin.
"Without the takeout, we couldn't make it now," he said. "It's grown to 40 percent of our business."
Lucio came up with the idea of the World Cafe while completing her studies at the Culinary School of Fort Worth, having decided to reinvent herself as an entrepreneur-chef.
"I was done with teaching," said Lucio, who before working at the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts had been publicity director at Suffolk University in Boston.
Her husband was on the board of Catholic Charities, so she knew there were no elaborate plans for the small kitchen and a "break room." This prompted her to propose opening an eatery providing a set lunch plate and sandwiches, made with healthy ingredients.
Heather Reynolds, director of the social service agency, asked her to put together a business plan.
"I already have one," Lucio told her, and handed it over.
Catholic Charities wanted her to start immediately, but she still had a month of classes.
Lucio enlisted a classmate, Catie Keck, to help out, and they began with three lunches a week in September 2010.
They went to four in January, taking Friday off to restock for the coming week.
She opened on a shoestring budget, $20,000, and her biggest outlay was $1,000 for used Ikea tabletops bought from a restaurant supply. Her sons painted the World Cafe sign in the dining areas as a Mother's Day present. The decor also includes her husband's travel photos, and quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the Bible that she transferred onto the wall.
World Cafe gets free rent in return for keeping prices low -- $6 plate lunches or a la carte sides for $2.
Four months after it opened in 2010, Lucio was asked to take over all catering in the building, which hosts many events from small gatherings to banquet fundraisers. In August, she was asked to provide three meals and two snacks a day for the children's shelter, also known as the assessment center, in a nearby building.
The cafe alone did $60,000 last year, roughly a third of her venture's total revenue.
A triathlete, Lucio is careful what she consumes and strives to instill healthy eating habits in her customers.
At first, some charity employees playfully complained they could get as much food for $3 or $4 at Wendy's next door.
"Yeah," Lucio would reply, "but how are you going to feel at the end of the day?"
One customer confessed to a relapse, telling Lucio she had returned to a nearby Tex-Mex chain.
"I am mad at you," the woman said. "It used to be my favorite place, but I threw my food away after three bites. It just didn't taste good."
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718