As the push continues to create an urban residential and entertainment district in EaDo (short for "east of Downtown") out of the ashes of old Chinatown, Anthony Wegmann -- owner of EaDo establishments Lucky's Pub and Cork Soakers -- noticed that there was a vital component missing in the gentrifying neighborhood: a grocery store.
"When I opened Lucky's three years ago and was checking out this side of town, there was so much residential over here that I never realized existed," Wegmann said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "The kind of lengths these people had to go to get necessities that they needed was ridiculous. There is just a huge gap in that area."
And so, a year ago, Wegmann started an ambitious plan to build a grocery store of his very own on St. Emanuel, right next door to both of his other ventures and across the street from lofts filled with people in desperate need of a local market of their very own. This August, Epicurean Express will open its doors to the EaDo area, making it one of the few totally independent grocery stores in town.
With a Randall's located in Midtown, a Fiesta even closer and the eagerly-awaited Phoenicia opening next to Discovery Green downtown, how Epicurean Express will be competitive is a fair question to ask, and one that Wegmann is well-prepared to answer.
"We don't want to have convenience store prices where everything costs twice as much. And we hope to have our price points equal with Randall's and Kroger," Wegmann says, enthusiastically. "I don't want to be the emergency spot. I'm hoping that this will be their neighborhood grocery store."
Wegmann plans to purchase his food for both Lucky's and Cork Soakers through the market, meaning a lower cost for the shoppers as well as a slightly wider variety of items than what you'd find in a specialty food store.
Coincidentally, Wegmann is friends with the Tcholakian family and plays volleyball with their daughter. "She's going to help me stock some of their items," he said brightly. Herbs, spices and nuts are just a few of the things planned for the Phoenicia-Epicurean crossover part of his store, and he doesn't anticipate that Epicurean Express will be drawing the same crowd as Phoenicia. "We're focused on everyone that lives in the lofts and townhomes on the east side of 59. I don't know if we'll get much crossover from downtown," he admits.
Part of the grocery store's allure will be the ready-made meals that will be available for local residents to pick up on their way home for dinner. Alternately, Wegmann says the store will be open early in the mornings with a coffee bar, fresh pastries and other breakfast items available for those hurrying to work. But there will be more to Epicurean Express than just ready-made food.
Nearly 90 percent of the store's space -- 3,500 square feet in all -- will be devoted only to groceries, Wegmann says. And at least half of that space will be made up of items like fresh produce, meats and seafood. "The market will end up being a supplier for [Lucky's and Cork Soakers], so we'll turn over product faster and carry a larger selection of those items. It'll reduce spoilage and let us answer questions like, 'Can we really sell a case of this?'"
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When asked about the impetus behind this unique market-vendor situation, Wegmann demurred, "It was just me trying to figure out the best way to offer as much as we can and trying to get that leverage so everybody's price point will go down, so I can be competitive."
The area in which Epicurean Express will be opening is not only host to high-density residences like the Lofts at the Ballpark, but also to high-volume venues like Warehouse Live and Minute Maid Park. Before long, the new Dynamo stadium will also bring plenty of traffic through the area, and it's a combination of this new development and continuing gentrification that Wegmann is counting on to make his grocery store a success.
"This side of town is my second home," he explained. "I'm just meeting the need, trying to jump start the area and fill in the gaps. I want to try and create that whole communuity to where [local residents] don't have to drive all over the place."
As to the mini EaDo empire that Wegmann seems to have in the works, he brushes that off with a laugh: "I'm just trying to turn it into a cool area to be and live."