Ending once and for all the rumors that a Whole Foods was negotiating with Finger Companies to open a grocery store in the lobby of the glamorous new One Park Place residential tower downtown is the news that a grocer of a different color is opening there instead: Phoenicia Specialty Foods.
Downtown Houston has long been without a "true" grocery store, unless you count the triple-level Randall's in Midtown and Byrd's Market on Main, which recently replaced its produce section with less perishable items like cat litter and cleaning supplies. Because of this, downtown -- for all its light rail, cultural attractions, sports venues, beautiful parks and easy commute to large corporations -- has always been viewed as a less desirable place to live. Houstonians have been trained over the years to expect quick and easy grocery shopping, an amenity which downtown has never been able to provide until now.
Phoenicia is known for its enormous, warehouse-size store in far west Houston, which started out two decades ago as a simple deli and eventually expanded to become one of the city's largest and most popular grocery stores. It was only a matter of time before the owners, Zhorab ("Bob") and Arpi Tcholakian, spun their success into a new location, but the downtown location was a surprise to many.
The Tcholakians, who are Lebanese immigrants of Armenian descent, stock Phoenicia Specialty Foods with the best Middle Eastern foods available, from freshly baked pita bread and baklava to kosher lamb and tubs of lebne. But what's made the store so popular is that they don't stop there.
Phoenicia's aisles are a veritable United Nations of foodstuffs. Polish, Russian, German, Turkish, Italian, Greek, French, British, Brazilian, Chilean, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese -- if there's a country that produces delicious food, Phoenicia likely has it in stock. The frozen section is filled with organic and gluten-free meals, while the refrigerated case on the other side holds beers from all over the world. Everyone leaves Phoenicia happy.
The downtown store, which will have an entirely different footprint from the 50,000-square-foot behemoth on Westheimer, will try to pack as much of this aesthetic into the 28,000 square feet available on the ground floor of One Park Place. The primary focus will be on serving the needs of downtown residents, offering staples like bread, milk and eggs alongside Phoenicia's typical offerings (we're looking at you, olive bar and falafel guy).
"Weʼre focusing on more prepared foods and catering, along with everyday household needs," says Haig Tcholakian, the family's youngest son. "The majority of our shelf products will be available in the downtown store, but weʼll add more consumer-type products to be more convenient for people who live downtown."
But the store will have much more than just groceries. True to its older sister, it will also offer a deli and cafe where downtown residents, workers and visitors can relax -- just steps away from Discovery Green -- and enjoy a good meal any time of day.
"Weʼre allotting additional space for dining," says Raffi Tcholakian, the family's eldest son. "It will be a place to hang out, eat, and drink wine and beer, but it will also be open and easy to navigate for those who need to get in and out. Weʼre expecting a lot of morning and lunch traffic, but weʼre going to make it very inviting for dinner, too."
The store expects to be open in December of this year, which is right about the same time we expect to see our gas bills decrease when we no longer have to drive 30 miles each way to get that Phoenicia experience.