Photo courtesy of Royal Blue Grocery

The owners of Royal Blue Grocery invite neighbors to meet them Thursday night to hear their plans for a store on West Davis and its application for $700,000 in economic development funds from the City of Dallas.

City Council is expected to vote on whether to approve the funds in January.

Zac Porter, who co-owns the boutique grocery chain, answered a few of our questions in advance of the meeting, which is from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 19, at the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce.

The grocer has three stores in Dallas. One is where the old Tom Thumb used to be in Highland Park Village, and two are in Downtown, on Main Street and in the Arts District.

The economic development funds would help them open a fourth store, in the old Bolsa Mercado space at 634 W. Davis St. The company already has a longterm lease on the building, where it produces and packages takeout foods for its other Dallas locations, but economic development funds would help them open a storefront there.

The company applied for a $350,000 economic development grant, which would reimburse the company for expenses to open the Oak Cliff store. A separate $350,000 loan would be used for the two Royal Blue stores Downtown, “to help with the upgrades we make and operating costs,” Porter says.

With this help from taxpayers, Royal Blue will be able to add about 60 employees earning $13 an hour at its Oak Cliff and Downtown stores.

How did you come to apply for this economic development grant and loan?

We learned years ago about economic development programs available for retail businesses opening Downtown. We were then introduced to City staff who liked our track record of urban growth so had us apply for both our Downtown and Oak Cliff projects.

Why did you apply for them?

To help finance our build outs. Grocery stores are particularly expensive to build given all the refrigeration and kitchen equipment, so these city programs will be a huge help. It’s also a lot more expensive to build a grocery store at the base of a Downtown high rise than a suburban strip center. Oak Cliff, on the other hand, doesn’t yet have the high-rise density and mix of residential, office and hotel uses we typically look for. Locating our commissary kitchen there and getting the economic grant funds will allow us to open our small format grocery in the heart of North Oak Cliff, making the neighborhood more livable and walkable.

How did you arrive at $700,000?

We work with really tight construction budgets, but the $700,000 number was arrived at by the City based purely on the formula they use related to the number of jobs we’re creating, not our construction budgets. There’s still a lot of money required in addition to these funds that Emily, Cullen and I are spending personally on top of these funds to open these stores.

Why do you think Royal Blue will work at the Oak Cliff location?

We’re excited about Oak Cliff for a lot of reasons. It’s a tight knit, urban community in need of a neighborhood grocery store. Its history and creative culture really speaks to our DNA, and it’s a vibrant and growing part of our city. I was a regular customer at Bolsa Mercado back in the day. In a way, we’ll be bringing back to that West Davis Street space what they once offered — coffee, meals, snacks, beer and wine, a place to gather and hangout with neighbors — plus we’ll have a complete grocery set with everyday staples, produce, and dozens of local specialty items.

Royal Blue is pegged as a “luxury” grocer. What can you do to make it accessible to everyone in our neighborhood?

I think we’re wrongly pegged by some as a luxury grocery store based on our current locations and our attention to design and customer service. It’s unfortunate, really, that the lack of urban Dallas grocery stores ends up making the existence of one seem like a rare luxury. Despite all that, we’re a walkable neighborhood corner store stocking just what each location’s customers want, where they want it. All our stores have the same kitchen menus, but the grocery departments vary widely from one store to the next based on customer requests and what’s selling well in that neighborhood. And, our foundation is our inventory of everyday items and basics, from milk and eggs to Quaker Oats and Tide. Then we mix in some organics, local vendors and specialty items to meet that need and keep things interesting and fresh.

What can you do to make sure neighborhood residents are considered for jobs at the Oak Cliff location?

Our current team is over 80% Dallas-proper residents. We’ll be recruiting in Oak Cliff by circulating Now Hiring flyers in the neighborhood, putting Now Hiring posters in our Davis Street store windows, and working with the Oak Cliff Chamber’s jobs programs in our lead up to opening. We’re also working with the City to recruit from West Dallas and South Dallas.

What connections do you have to Oak Cliff?

Our ties to the neighborhood run deep. Our business partner Cullen Potts’ parents met at Sunset High School in 1954. My mom also grew up in Oak Cliff and went to Winnetka, Greiner, and Sunset High School. It’s also where my wife, Emily, and I went on our first date some 15 years ago at Veracruz Cafe. Professionally, I’ve been working in Oak Cliff and West Dallas since 2013 recruiting a number of popular restaurants and retailers to Sylvan Thirty and Bishop Arts. It’s going to be great fun becoming a real part of the community ourselves now.

How are your other Dallas stores doing?

Our other Dallas locations are doing great. Our flagship in [Highland Park] Village has been open four-plus years now. At first we had a few skeptics that may have doubted our Downtown Austin heritage would be able to fill Tom Thumb’s gap in a residential neighborhood, but as always, we kept asking “what can we bring in for you?” and dialed in that store to the community; it’s since been embraced by the neighborhood. Our Main Street store’s been open a year and a half and is already one of our top performers. The mix of office, apartment, and hotel customers keeps it busy 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. Our Arts District store has been open two months and has been really well received. The residents and office tenants are super excited. We’re also getting to know the folks at the museums, churches, and Klyde Warren Park and are finding ways to work with them to help make the Arts District a complete neighborhood.