published Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

Grocery Bar bets on prepared food to hydrate Chattanooga food desert

  • photo
    The Grocery Bar is now open on the Southside in the former Enzo's Market location.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

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    Sarah Swygard, left, and Kristin Owen shop while at the new Grocery Bar which opened on the Southside in the former Enzo's Market location.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

People loved the idea of Enzo's Market. Unfortunately, not enough consumers shopped there for the small grocery store to survive, officials said.

Little grocery stores don't work well. Small businesses like Enzo's Market can't buy in bulk nor get enough people in the door to break even on costs, said chef Daniel Lindley, who is turning the grocery concept on its head with a new Chattanooga venture called the Grocery Bar.

Lindley, a noted restaurateur, said fewer people cook at home than ever before, leading to an explosion of new restaurants on one hand, while putting the squeeze on the margins of traditional grocery stores.

That's why he's flipping Enzo's Market around, boosting its stock of locally sourced prepared foods and raising the quality of ingredients to better compete with Whole Foods and other destinations that offer food stations in addition to traditional grocery items.

"Over half of their revenue comes from food stations," Lindley said. "If you go to Whole Foods, those registers are ringing constantly, that's the kind of volume we need. The goal is to acknowledge that model and improve on it."

Inside the newly-christened Grocery Bar, dozens of employees are busy preparing for the grand opening next week, even as customers shop the aisles during the store's ongoing soft opening. The Grocery Bar is still ironing out the kinks, but if it is to survive, it needs to attract thousands of customers from outside the Southside, and perhaps even steal away a few from the crowded isles of Whole Foods.

"The pressure is on, and it's 16,000 square feet of pressure," Lindley said.

More than 1,000 pounds of local vegetables are cooling down next to slabs of fresh red tuna and thick filet mignon steaks. Nearby, mussels and clams flown in from the country's northeast coast lie on a bed of ice surrounded by seaweed.

The fish was flown in overnight, straight out of the water. Some of it will turn into what Lindley promises will be the "freshest sushi in town." The vegetables were picked Saturday morning.

IF YOU GO:

* What: Grocery Bar

* Where: 1501 Long St. in the Southside Neighborhood, in the former Enzo's market location.

* Website: www.grocerybar.com

* Phone: (423) 486-9312

* Hours: Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.

Sunday 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

These are just a few of nearly a dozen food stations, mini restaurants specializing in everything from fresh-baked pizza to specialized juice cocktails. There's a curated selection of cheese, there's a sushi station, two salad stations, a hot bar and a deli.

"It's like opening six restaurants at once," Lindley said. "We're cutting out the process of being seated and having somebody take your order, but for all intents and purposes we're doing restaurant food."

The increased space for ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook foods has come at the cost of less space for traditional groceries, but Lindley says his team has figured out a way to soften the blow. Instead of 24 different types of pasta sauce like Enzo's stocked, Grocery Bar will carry three, one of which is the same recipe Lindley uses at his Alleia restaurant. The ice cream is a flavor Lindley invented at his St. John's restaurant, where he formerly was head chef.

For traditional dry goods, the idea is to carry an inexpensive option for penny-pinchers, then carry an upscale "recommended" option curated by the chef and his team.

"It had to be less options, it can't be Walmart," he said. "There's not the square footage and there's not the buying power."

But what the Southside grocery does is the best around, he says. The tuna steaks are the same quality that could be fetched in a restaurant for $30. Here, they're $10 per steak.

"Half the grocery real estate went to prepared foods," he said. "That's where we can compete, and we can compete with anyone in that area. Day one, we're priced lower than Whole Foods and quality is better, that's even in the retail meats and fish."

Whole Foods, he said, gets many of its popular prepared foods from a central distribution point, but Grocery Bar will compete using food from local farms.

Enzo's was four days away from folding when Lindley entered the picture, after investors spent more than $4 million setting up the Southside grocery store in what was formerly one of Chattanooga's so-called food deserts. The investors agreed to put in more money to support his concept, but it will ultimately depend on regular shoppers how much they value local ingredients, and locally-made food, he said.

"This can't just be a neighborhood store if it's going to last. Even if you live in North Chattanooga, it's a simple shot to get over here," he said.

Lindley, who is also working to open a new restaurant in Nashville, said he's toiling away here on a volunteer basis until the store gets up and running.

"My conditions are, I just want to see it work and be alive," he said.

Though the store is open now, officials plan to install a new sign and cut the ribbon by the end of next week. In the meantime, Lindley has engaged a handful of chefs and cooks from across the area to start up what amounts to more than half-dozen new restaurants in one space.

Shane Stone, a chef from Meeting Place, is the new executive chef.

"We have to meet people halfway between eating at a fine restaurant and shopping at a grocery store," Lindley said. "This is the halfway point."

Mia Littlejohn, a food consultant, who helping to launch the store through its transition from Enzo's to the Grocery Bar, calls it "leaning into" the grocery business.

Leaning against a table holding fresh corn and fingerling potatoes from Southland Farms, she gestures to the new art installation on the walls of the spartan, unpretentious new design.

"We're trying to create more of a connection with our customers," she said. "We want to reclaim the original dream of Enzo's."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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