REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — The Citrine New World Bistro restaurant here offers only a subtle clue to its owner's identity.
“We use only premium ingredients,” the menu for the new eatery reads, “including O Organics chicken, produce and seasonings, Rancher's Reserve tender beef, and Primo Taglio meats and cheeses.”
Those three brand names should ring a bell for Safeway shoppers: They're Safeway's proprietary private-label offerings, now cast as featured ingredients at a new restaurant owned by the retailer. Though local sources have told SN that Citrine primarily is a test kitchen for prepared foods to be offered at Safeway supermarkets, it appears also to be a vehicle that could enhance the profile of its store brands. And though there has been no official announcement yet, the synergistic eatery appears headed for additional openings: The restaurant's website last week was advertising for staff and management to serve “a growing number of locations throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.”
Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., declined to comment about the new venture, which opened a 5,000-square-foot, 125-seat restaurant here June 7. But restaurant industry observers last week said Safeway appears to have big plans in mind for Citrine, based on the roster of veteran chain-restaurant industry executives brought in to run the operation, and the firm engaged to design and market it.
Eric Quick, who is identified as the president of Citrine, has 18 years of experience in the restaurant industry, including positions with McDonald's, Disney theme parks, California Pizza Kitchen and The Retail Brand Group, developers of Jazzman Café, Pandini's, Sky Ranch Grill and other concepts. Jeff Anderson, identified as “vice president of culinary exploration” on the Citrine website, has been a chef at noted restaurants Campton Place Hotel, The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Wolfgang Puck's Postrio and the Cypress Club. He also owned the Black Crow Grill and Taproom. Loret Carbone, vice president of operations, previously served national chains including Tahoe Joe's steakhouse, Flat Top Grill and Lettuce Entertain You.
Carbone has a reputation as a top consultant in the chain-restaurant industry, sources said — another indication that Citrine may look to grow.
The restaurant was designed by WD Partners, a Columbus, Ohio-based restaurant and retail consultancy that recently worked with Supervalu in designing its “premium fresh and healthy” store concept. WD designed Citrine so as to accommodate a “multi-unit rollout,” Eric Daniel, creative director at WD, told SN. He added that it is common in the chain-restaurant industry to start with a single or small number of units as a test before aggressively expanding the concept.
Citrine was conceived as a “fast casual” concept, where customers place their orders at a counter and seat themselves, but have their orders delivered to their tables once prepared.
“The environment is more comfortable than a quick-service restaurant; there's more attention to things like lighting and other accommodations,” Daniel said. “A large feature is the open kitchen with a prominently displayed wood-burning oven.”
The restaurant's website describes Citrine as offering food with “local freshness and global flavor,” served in a casual, contemporary setting. Its menu offers entrees, sandwiches, soups, sides, desserts, drinks and a kids' menu, arranged into five regional flavor profiles: Pacific Rim, Mediterranean, Latin/Caribbean, American and New World. Entree prices range from $8.99 (margherita pizza) to $13.99 (grilled Asian pork loin, Jamaican grilled shrimp, grilled salmon) and lean toward the “better for you” trend.
Ron Paul, president of Chicago-based food industry consultancy Technomics, applauded Safeway for exploring new ways to sell food — a trend he said is evident in the success of prepared-food presentations at stores like Whole Foods and Wegmans. But even a successful restaurant would be unlikely to make a huge impact in a supermarket company's fortunes, he said, which is why — combined with the complexity of running a restaurant — few supermarket companies have succeeded in the restaurant business.
“Increasingly, there are supermarkets getting closer and closer to restaurants, such as Whole Foods,” Paul said. “But where a good supermarket can do $250,000 to $1 million a week [in sales], it's hard to find a restaurant — particularly limited-service, fast-food and quick-casual — that can do as much as $2 million or $3 million in a year. How could it possibly move the needle for Safeway?
“To the extent that they will use this as a learning laboratory, I think it's a very smart idea,” Paul added.