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Chef's Corner: Upping the grocery game

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Jonathan Waxman, Joey Campanaro, Jimmy Bradley, Jason Giagrande

H-E-B Houston president Scott McClelland opted for a brand-new coffee concept from four well-known New York chefs: Jonathan Waxman, Joey Campanaro, Jimmy Bradley and Jason Giagrande. (Photo courtesy of The Roastery) 

Chef’s Corner deviates this month to explore a few grocery trends. Here’s a sampling of things to come.

Two years ago, we heard the term “grocerant” for the first time. It refers to grocery stores with sit-down dining areas and a lineup of ready-to-eat or take-out meals. In Texas at least, H-E-B has taken the lead with more than a handful of dining concepts under its belt. Now, the San Antonio chain is taking it one step further, going head-to-head, starting in Bellaire, with a juggernaut: Starbucks.

Meanwhile, across town in the Independence Heights neighborhood, local restaurant Peli Peli Kitchen has scored big, opening a fast-casual version in Houston’s first Whole Foods Market 365 (101 N. Loop West). The 365-branded store is intended to be a streamlined version of the natural-foods chain. Launched in 2015, there are 10 so far, but more on the way. It is tailored to appeal to younger and price-conscious shoppers. Each shop includes two or more Friends of 365, who operate their own venues inside the store.

The Houston location showcases Peli Peli, plus Austin-based juice and coffee bar Juice Society. We caught up with Peli Peli chef Paul Friedman and his business partner, Thomas Nguyen, to find out how, out of thousands of restaurants around town, their South African melting pot snatched the golden ticket. 

“Whole Foods actually reached out to us by email after doing their due diligence. We had no idea,” Paul said.

“They wanted something local, but something different,” Thomas said. “We always embraced being different.”

The partners agreed, too, that Whole Foods was looking for a concept to expand on. “They definitely wanted a chef-driven restaurant,” Thomas said. “But possibly, too, they wanted something that they could develop spices and marinades around for their stores. They saw what Paul can do with the South African segment.”

Paul Friedman, Thomas Nguyen

GROCERY WIN Executive chef Paul Friedman and business partner Thomas Nguyen have teamed up with Whole Foods 365 to open a fast-casual offshoot of their South African-inspired concept Peli Peli. (Photo: Luke Chang)

The partners admitted it was a challenge getting breakfast-lunch-and-dinner Peli Peli Kitchen in compliance with Whole Foods’ commitment to transparent ranching, farming and fishing practices, along with other quality standards such as no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, hydrogenated fats or high fructose sweeteners.

“I was shocked,” Paul said. “I couldn’t use 99.1 percent of my ingredients. I had to reconstruct the menu. It was like starting from scratch. Take our peri-peri rotisserie chicken. It had to come from one farm! One; not two; not three. But I think in the end, what we’ve developed is something healthier, more nutritious.”

With the growing presence of online shopping, grocers understand that their stores need to be destinations in their own right. Some grocers are doing just that. Wayne Gretzky said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

H-E-B Houston president Scott McClelland opted for a brand-new coffee concept from four well-known New York chefs: Jonathan Waxman, Joey Campanaro, Jimmy Bradley and Jason Giagrande. The toques, with a dozen restaurants between them, are known as the Four Js, and their carefully sourced coffee beans and specialty sauces, marinades and dressings are displayed at H-E-B’s cooking stations.

“I didn’t want a Starbucks because there is no guarantee that they won’t open a location next door,” Scott said. “We wanted something different, something more for our customers, who have requested a coffee shop.”

The 37-seat Roastery will open Weds., Oct. 17 in H-E-B Bellaire Market. It will be exclusive to the chain. “We’re projecting to have six more open in the next 18 to 20 months,” says Four J Foods CEO’s Jason Giagrande. “The San Felipe store, opening in November or December, will be a larger format. We’ll roast our coffee there.”

All locations will offer coffee, beer and wine, plus made-to-order doughnuts. “When you walk in, you’ll see us making fresh doughnuts. The fried doughnuts can be coated with whatever you like. We’ll have different types of sugars and glazes. Some will be seasonable. So, in the fall, you can expect to see apple sugar spice. In the summertime, we may have berry sugar or glaze. Of course, we’ll have the standard chocolate, powdered sugar and glaze.”

Along with a basketful of baked goods and pastries, the Roastery serves salads and sandwiches. “But we wanted to take fast-casual up a few notches, and so the sandwich meats are made onsite. For example, we do an espresso-rubbed roast beef. We take espresso, cayenne and salt to create this amazing rub and roast the meat onsite, then we serve it on our house-made pretzel roll slathered with horseradish aioli.”

E-commerce comprises about 2 percent of grocery sales today, but the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Nielsen said that by 2024, 70 percent of shoppers will be buying their groceries online. It is no wonder that brick-and-mortar food retailers are looking for ways to turn the shopping journey into a satisfying experience.

Editor’s note: Buzz dining columnist Dai Huynh is a James Beard food-journalism award winner and longtime Houston-based restaurant writer.

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