Restaurant or store?

So there's this new prepared-foods place in Chicago called eatZi's. It's doing something very difficult, and doing it fairly well. It's bridging the gap between restaurants and stores.

Prepared foods are the kind that require little or no work on your part. You don't sit and eat them in a restaurant - you take them home. Oh, but you don't buy single ingredients either - you get them almost-ready-to-eat. Prepared foods often need a few steps, such as heating, mixing or spicing. They are for people who want to cook a little, but don't have time to cook a lot.

Prepared foods have been growing steadily in recent years, but if you look at this newish market, your options still come from mostly traditional players. Either it's primarily a restaurant - "We're Chili's and we also have curbside pickup" - or it's primarily a store - "We're Whole Foods and we also have a great couscous salad." But eatZi's is neither a restaurant, nor a store. It's really, actually, both.

I walk in, and the cues are all across the board. The first thing I see is a big metal wine rack, an upscale version of your standard grocery shelf. One point, store. But then there is a sign encouraging the purchase of chilled half bottles, which I can open and drink right here and now. Huh. One point, restaurant. Then I see bags of dry pasta and jars of red sauce. Two points, store. Oh, but then there are chefs slicing meat and tossing salads! Two points, restaurant! Then I see a tasting station with a gorgeous basil cream spread and crackers - three points, store? But then there's this big seating area - three points, restaurant! Ahh! The lines were blurring as I struggled to put eatZi's into one of my mental buckets - the bucket for restaurants or the bucket for stores.

And to make things foggier, one sign presented this description: "You don't shop at eatZi's. You don't eat at eatZi's. You experience eatZi's." Thanks, how very Experience Economy of you, but really, which is it? Do I shop or eat? I don't know which mode to be in right now! It was borderline uncomfortable as I looked to other guests for how to behave, and tried hard to weigh my immediate level of hunger against the convenience issues of takeout.

Now while its elevator pitch may be rather hard to articulate, eatZi's is still an embodiment of every trend on today's radar. Busy urban dwellers with disposable income, spending a premium for fast, convenient, do-it-yourself meals, that require just enough preparation to also appeal to both epicurious foodies and moms who want to feel like they've "provided for" their families. It's like a giant trend report come to life, or a marketing student's wildest dream.

And I think eatZi's is doing a lot of things right. Its customer is defined, its messaging is catchy. It leverages multiple trends that other businesses aspire to tap into. And the food is pretty good too. So even though it doesn't fit neatly into one of my preexisting mental models, that's okay. My confusion turned to delight as I wandered through the cheese alley and gazed at the fresh, bright salads.

But as a talking point, it's still a little confusing. I have an easier time telling someone about a grocery store with a coffee shop, or a restaurant with a drive-thru, than talking about eatZi's. I guess I would say, "It's this great new, um, food market. You can get it for here, or you can get it to go. You can taste it in the store, or you can have it delivered. You can stock your home for Thanksgiving dinner, or you can grab a snack on your way to the gym." It may be great, but in today's world it requires some explanation.

Lately, I've noticed restaurants trying to be more like stores - special parking spots for curbside pickup, 30-minute lunches and drive-thru everything. I've also noticed stores trying to be more like restaurants - Starbucks kiosks, pizza on Friday's and food courts at Target. Perhaps everyone is trying to be what only eatZi's is. Perhaps it's the center where both sides converge, a sort of Food Source of the Future where customers can design their own experiences.

But because there is no protocol, some less jivey and more clear positioning might help put the words in peoples' mouths. Now, this is clearly not needed in traditional establishments; when you walk into Chili's, they don't need a sign saying "Welcome to a place where you sit at a table, a chef cooks your meal and you eat it here." And when you walk into Jewel, they don't need a greeter saying "Welcome to a place where you push a cart around, gather the items you want, and cook them yourself at home." People know these protocols because restaurants and stores have been around for years and years.

But eatZi's, and its format, have not. They are new. So a simple welcome would help me out. "Welcome to a place where you have the freedom to make your own meal. You choose how much you buy, who prepares it, where it's cooked and where it's eaten." If I could make a few key decisions right at the start, my journey through eatZi's would be more about culinary discovery, less about fumbling indecision.

I don't know if the trends will continue to grow, positioning eatZi's as the utopian nourishment resource of tomorrow, or if the prepared-foods sector will die down, leaving eatZi's with a bunch of real estate and some rotting potato salad. My hunch is that it will continue to open more locations and peddle its enticing and flexible offering. I just think that it's teetering on the edge of the chasm right now, and to cross it with confidence, it has a tiny bit more explaining to do.


C. B. Whittemore said...

I tried EatZi's in Atlanta a few weeks ago and thought it was pretty cool. I am a New Yorker so am somewhat blaze about food places, but everything you describe was true of the Atlanta location. Enjoyed it, but also got overwhelmed at the noise level, activity level and choices available; also started feeling claustrophobic b/c of low ceilings. Had the music been more subdued, and had there been some additional 'quiet' space, I would have been more relaxed. Food was excellent. All in all, a positive experience, altho like you, I'm not sure how to describe it. We shopped to eat later at a concert, and lots of fellow concert goers were doing the same. Interesting that it is expanding in so many geographic locations at once. Will it try NYC? Hmmm. And how might it adapt? worth watching and reporting on http://flooringtheconsumer.blogspot.com.

Anonymous said...

EatZi's has been an Uptown Dallas staple for years. On Saturday afternoons, you will find it overflowing with people shopping, or those who cant wait to get home and eating at the few small tables in side and out front. The service is great, if a bit rushed, and the food - wow! If I had lived closer it would have become quite a habit! I always wondered why they didnt expand to other big city areas and now am quite pleased to hear they are!

Anonymous said...

EatZi's isn't new - it's just new to Chicago. Good food, good concept. Started by Phil Romano of Brinker (Chili's, Mac Grill, etc), it's been in Dallas since 1996, and since then they have opened stores in Houston, Atlanta (2) and Rockville, MD. In the past they also had 2 NY locations -- Macy's Herald Square & Long Island (both bombed). Phil sold out, and the company was left with a great concept but plagued by management problems.
The Chicago store is owned/managed by a different group than the others. However, just this week, Phil Romano re-purchased the Dallas store and is revamping it. All the other locations (excluding Chicago) were closed. Only time will tell... maybe Chicago will be the last eatZi's standing.