By June Naylor
Photos by Meda Kessler
New job. New direction. New title. Chef Bria Downey leaves the restaurant life to become culinary director at a grocery store that’s making its own comeback.
Chef Bria Downey can tell you a thing or two about the roller-coaster ride that is 2020. In late February, the James Beard Foundation named her a semifinalist for its Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Inside of a month, the former executive chef at Clay Pigeon Food & Drink in Fort Worth was out of work as a result of pandemic-forced restaurant closures; then, in May, she didn’t make the cut for the Beard’s list of five finalists. To ease those sheltering-in-place blues, she did a couple of pop-ups, making and selling soup — to the delight of her friends and fans.
Downey’s quest for a new direction quickly intersected chef/restaurateur Lou Lambert’s search for a culinary director at the reinvented Roy Pope Grocery, a 1943 landmark in Fort Worth that shuttered in April when the owners decided it was time to retire. Lambert and his business partners took over the grocer in June, and Downey was tapped to be part of the Roy Pope reboot.
Downey — who just turned 30 — joins Lambert and operating partner Chris Reale in designing the store’s kitchen (doubling its former size) where she’ll serve as butcher, baker, recipe developer and all that straddles restaurant and grocer functions. Her job includes overseeing a staff making to-go meals with wine-pairing notes, coordinating ready-made meals with ingredients sold on store shelves, and crafting videos for cooks to use at home.
“It’s going to be constantly spinning plates, for sure,” Downey says. She knows, too, that she must walk a fine line to both please longtime Roy Pope customers — a multigenerational crowd accustomed to familiarity and personal service — and attract a new clientele.
“There’s pressure, of course, to fulfill expectations. For the lifelong customers, I want to build on how they felt when they shopped here before.” In addition to updating
old-fashioned recipes like King Ranch chicken and mac and cheese, Downey hopes to draw newcomers with signature salads and sandwiches, steak dinners prepared to order, blue-plate specials that could include handcrafted sausages and polenta, and a full schedule of live cooking events that involve grilling, smoking and wine tastings.
“Keeping a community feel is important to me. I want to know all the regular customers by name,” says Downey. The store aims for a September/October opening at 2300 Merrick St., Fort Worth, 817-732-2863; follow updates at facebook.com/roypopegrocery.