In 1995 I was living in SF and decided to take a solo trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and up into Napa Valley. Crossing the bridge and into the beauty of Marin County, the trip gave way to rolling hills and soon to long stretches of vineyards. The main drag through the Napa Valley is Highway 29. This is where Oakville Grocery resides.
Oakville Grocery is a small jewel box of a market offering sandwiches, cheeses, wines and local/regional versions of jams and sauces. OG’s claim to fame (besides being awesome) is that its the oldest continually operating grocery store in California, around since 1881.
(In the fall of 2003 I had the opportunity to “intern” at St. Francis Winery for a week. I would rouse myself a few minutes early to stop by the Grocery for fresh coffee and pain au chocolate before driving the Oakville Grade road over to St. Francis. Sold to winemaker Leslie Rudd in 2007, Oakville Grocery was renovated by its new owners while still retaining its very intimate charm.)
This small but much-loved place was a huge impetus for my career move to eatZi’s Market and Bakery, a larger and more complex version of Oakville Grocery located in Dallas. I had recently moved back to Texas (after a temporary gig in Charlotte NC) and was looking for the next great adventure. I found that adventure at eatZi’s. I found out a lot more about myself as well.
eatZi’s is the brainchild of Phil Romano, restaurant-idea-man extraordinaire. eatZi’s contains a central “Chef’s Case” with all sorts of prepared foods, from tabouleh and pasta salad to smoked tenderloin and cherry-glazed pork. There is a grill area where the choices stretch from breakfast quiches to whole roasted chickens to ribs. A deli section contains an amazing array of meats and over 100 different cheeses. Across from the deli a full bakery and pastry shop where the options run from beautiful cakes and truffles, to cranberry-orange bread and crunchy ciabatta…all of these created and baked in-house.
One wall contains fresh produce for the picking (the chefs would come out and “shop” the wall for ingredients to take back for prep – a great visual and quality statement for the customers). Another wall holds prepackaged meals that we would create in-house. Those same meals would be sold “2-for-1” after 9pm in order to make room for the next day’s fresh offerings AND provide a great deal for our customers, the notification of which we would give through red lights switched on at the roof for all walking/driving by to see. There is a coffee corner and fresh flowers for the taking. Finally, 200 labels of hand-picked wine and a cooler case of hard-to-find nonalcoholic beverages.
Sales at eatZi’s topped $17M annually ($3M of that was catering!), due in no small part to its location, its amazing variety, its uniqueness and the complete and total passion of its staff.
eatZi’s was hiring restaurant managers to run the market; supermarket guys had been their first go-to, but it was felt that those types didn’t have the customer-focused personality necessary to make eatZi’s successful. If you go to most regular chain-driven supermarkets in America then you understand (Trader Joe’s being a rare exception).
eatZi’s was a performance every day, in the ultimate pull-back-the-curtain, what-you-see-is-what-you-get way. Browse long enough and you might hear the “Chicken Song”, which the grill guys would belt out at the top of their lungs, ending the performance by banging on metal pots with slotted soup spoons. Opera played over the speakers. Samples were laid out throughout the market, especially at the deli case where Dorothy held court, ready to slice some sopressata salami or an amazing cheese for you to try. There was a microphone hanging on the wall which I would use to give announcements to everyone about a new wine offering or awesome addition to the Chef’s Case.
This place was were I truly learned the value of a regular guest to any business. Lunches at eatZi’s would find a line 30-deep of folks waiting for a fresh-to-order sandwich or crisp salad. Dinner-time would find many of those same folks back, ties loosened or high heels replaced with running shoes, for a pick at the ready-to-eat meals section or maybe some rosemary chicken breasts from the case paired with garlic new potatoes and some seasoned asparagus. Add a bottle of wine and the young professionals who made up a large part of our clientele left happy knowing they wouldn’t have to cook. Talented staffers in green deli aprons and white bakers caps served up recommendations with a smile.
eatZi’s was a market in another way: a “meet market”…and I don’t mean we served great cuts of steak (which we did by the way). Gather a bunch of young 20- or 30-something singles, surround them with a bounty of food, wine and flowers, and we became the best pickup place in town. Not to mention we were just blocks away from Cedar Springs Road, the local hub for gay and lesbian bars, clubs and shops. You would often see introductions happening by the pastry case, or while in line for a roasted chicken, the two strangers warmed by a sample of wine and the fire from the rotisserie. Food and wine are erotic, and the intimate atmosphere of eatZi’s lent itself to these feelings.
I would say that my experience at eatZi’s (and the Oakville Grocery) are second only to being in the kitchen with my Mother in terms of turning me into a food guy.
One thought on “Oakville Grocery, eatZi’s and the birth of a food guy”
I lived in SF in 1996 …. but I was just a young thing so I never went to Napa that year. My first time there was in 2001 and I loved it but didn’t truly fall in love with the area until …… refer to my blog. Next year, when I hopefully visit again, I will check this out!