DALLAS -- The supermarket food-service community is beginning to buzz about Eatzi's, a new home meal replacement concept here that is attracting industry attention as well as vigorous sales.
The creators of the 8,000-square-foot retail facility said Eatzi's is part restaurant and part grocery store. Centered around fresh takeout food, it combines home meal replacement elements that supermarkets and restaurants have both been experimenting with, and injects some excitement of its own.
Eatzi's is a joint venture between Brinker International, creator of restaurant chains, and Phil Romano, restaurateur, who has launched such restaurant chains as Fuddruckers.
"Sales are much higher than we expected," Harry Day, spokesman for Brinker International, based here, told SN.
"We expected customers to come in to buy a meal. They do that, but they also pick up six-packs of beer and other items. The amount customers buy on a visit and the extent of interaction between them and our chefs have both surprised us," Day said.
Day declined to be more specific about sales. A local observer, however, told SN that he would estimate customer count to be 1,500 to 1,900 a day.
A meal, without any add-ons, typically comes to between $5 and $6. "We opened Eatzi's because we think this is where home meal replacement is going," Day said. "People want high quality, affordable food they can buy quickly and comfortably and they want to take it home."
Theater and fun are major ingredients in the store, extending even to opera music piped out into the parking lot. A whole team of chefs, fully decked out in chef's garb, prepares entrees, side dishes and desserts in an open kitchen.
Huge banners on the outside of the building carry alternating messages; the latest one announced that hot breakfast is available as early as 7 a.m.
The chef-prepared food is offered hot and chilled, from service and self-service cases.
As one enters Eatzi's, the open kitchen is on the left. The bakery, offering a huge variety of breads, is on the right. Straight ahead is an oval-shaped service island where food is served.
"It appeals to all your senses. The aroma of fresh-baked bread hits you as soon as you're inside the door. And everything looks colorful and clean. I was so impressed, it clouded my critiquing ability," said John Lord, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia. He visited the store the second week it was open.
"Customer traffic was heavy when I was there between 5 and 6 in the evening, a steady flow of 50 to 60 people," he said.
Just in front of the service counter, a hip-high self-service case offers chilled items. Single-serving entrees, sides and desserts are available, as are complete meals such as meatloaf with potatoes and a vegetable.
The fact that there is no permanent menu underscores the freshness of the product, said Day. "The chefs may make 20 pounds of Cajun chicken and when that's gone they'll decide to make something else. It makes it interesting for customers," Day said.
He emphasized that no freshly made product is kept beyond the day it was prepared. Indeed, at 9 p.m., one hour before closing, the prices come down on all freshly made entrees.
According to Eatzi's officials, as many as 70 freshly made items are offered at a time. Eatzi's employs 38 chefs, and 10 to 12 are on duty at any one time. An agreement with the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., has tied Eatzi's into the Institute's externship program, Day said.
Against the back wall is a coffee bar with limited seating. A large selection of cheeses and beer and wine is offered toward the back of the store, as
are produce and flowers. The store's hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
A local supermarket man, Bob Minyard, chairman of the executive committee of Minyard Food Stores, said he welcomed the Eatzi's concept as a platform for ideas.
"It's great that such an innovative concept has come to Dallas. It has a boutique feel to it. The atmosphere is comfortable and the prices are competitive," Minyard said. "And they seem to have done a good job of training their people." He based the latter observation on associates' product knowledge and the level of service.
"There certainly are little pieces [of how-to lessons] that supermarkets could take from it. I've been over there five or six times and I've told my deli and meat people I want them to see it," Minyard said.
Minyard said he doesn't expect Eatzi's to have any effect on his operations, since the chain does not operate a store within several miles of the Eatzi's site.
A store operated by Tom Thumb, a division of Houston-based Randalls Food Markets, is little more than a mile from Eatzi's. Officials at Tom Thumb declined to comment on Eatzi's or any effect the new operation may have on their nearby store.
Other observers, however, said the concept presents supermarkets with important challenges and lessons.
"This concept, with all its excitement, would have to be a threat to supermarkets in the area. It's a threat to anybody who's competing for a share of the consumer's stomach," said Lord.
"Eatzi's is a great idea. We should be looking at stores this size that bring together the best of our perishables departments," commented Howard Solganik, a retail food consultant and president of Dayton, Ohio-based Solganik & Associates. "If we don't, food-service establishments will pre-empt us in doing it."
Solganik suggested supermarket chains adopt the concept for themselves. "We are going to have to take a look at taking smaller buildings, and putting them on the outer edge of their lots or giving them their own locations," he said.
Retail consultant Rich Donckers said the Eatzi's concept reminded him of Harry's in a Hurry, the small fresh foods format created by Harry's Farmers Market, Atlanta. Like Eatzi's, Harry's in a Hurry targets consumers looking to take wholesome, freshly cooked meals home to eat.
"But Eatzi's is much more exciting because of the open prep areas. And the service island is very impressive," said Donckers, who is president of Retail Strategies International, Bentonville, Ark.