20 years of keeping it fresh in Fort Worth
By Meda Kessler
Twenty years ago this month on Oct. 10, throngs lined up outside the doors of Central Market Fort Worth.
The crowd — young and old — was made up of the eager and the curious, adventurous eaters and home cooks. The new “boutique” grocery store promised us a wonderland of cheeses, freshly baked breads, exotic ingredients and more.
For months, residents had watched as the store took shape in the shadow of the iconic Marty Leonard Community Chapel. Many — us included — were a bit perturbed over losing the expansive green space to commercial development. But the opportunity to buy dry-cured Italian ham or single-origin coffee put our concerns aside. Plus, it was Lena Pope Home’s decision to lease out the green space, ultimately a wise moneymaking proposition for the nonprofit.
Central Market’s parent company is H-E-B, a grocery store chain beloved by Austinites and South Texas residents. The first Central Market opened in 1994 in Austin; in 2001, Fort Worth was tapped for the first North Texas store. It was a small victory for those who feel competitive with Cowtown’s neighbors to the east.
As the Fort Worth store took shape, its general manager was in training at the San Antonio Central Market, which opened in 1998. Before taking the helm, Austin Jourde spent 17 years in the restaurant business. Part of that time was spent at a popular cafeteria chain. “Luby’s taught me everything about the business,” says Jourde. We’re sitting in the cooking school at the Fort Worth Central Market, which has been deserted since the pandemic curtailed gatherings. Jourde isn’t quite the ubiquitous presence in the store that he has been, as he’s splitting time between Fort Worth and Dallas these days.
Fort Worth Forward
While not officially the flagship store, Fort Worth Central Market has been a leader in new ideas, with many expanding to other CM stores. These include:
- Growler bar with a wall of taps featuring mainly local or Texas beers
- Fresh pasta made in-house, with a section conveniently located in the cheese section
- Curbside pickup, which gained popularity during the pandemic
Jourde says his wife had much to do with his change in career. “I had put my resume on monster.com but immediately had second thoughts and took it down.” But apparently a headhunter who was looking for a general manager for the new Fort Worth store saw it, he says. “They called my house and talked to my wife, who immediately said I was very interested. I think she was tired of my long days at the restaurant.”
Jourde got the job — he started as food service director before taking the general manager job in late 2005 — and took three weeks off to get ready. “I was nervous,” he recalls. “I had never stepped inside a Central Market and was in awe of everything.” The cheese section, especially, made him nervous. “I bought all the cheese books and started studying up. They had to remind me that on-the-job learning was normal and that they didn’t hire me to watch me fail.”
Jourde since then has traveled to seven or eight countries as well as specialty grocers in the U.S. to learn more about their products and how to sell them. Stephen Butt, president of Central Market, happens to live in Fort Worth and not very far from the store. Jourde says his boss likes to “play big,” and that keeps him on his toes. “Stephen will see a chocolate display somewhere and want to re-create that here. I have to figure out how to make that work.”
While sampling has been on hold due to the pandemic, once upon a time, you could eat your way through the store. One of the requirements of production introduction is that the owner or creator be on hand to pass out their own goods and meet the customers. We met Mary Perez, the owner of Enchiladas Olé, who now operates restaurants in Fort Worth and North Richland Hills, when she was serving samples of her jarred sauce at the Fort Worth store; she also drove to other CM stores around the state to do the same. Dave Eagle, owner of Lipan’s Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese Co., also passed out samples of his award-winning products early in his career. Melissa Mehall of Fort Worth, co-founder of Meli’s Monster Cookies, got a boost thanks to CM and now has expanded to big-box stores and online orders.
He says Butt listens to others, too. “The original design for this store was to set up a Sonic-style drive-in near the wall under the chapel,” says Jourde. “I didn’t see how we could staff it and make deliveries in a timely manner. Instead, Stephen came up with the idea for the patio. It and the playground have made us part of the community, as it’s a place to gather whether you shop at the store or not.”
The idea of community comes up several times in our conversation. “It’s one of the reasons we wear the pins with our names and hometowns on them,” says Jourde. “They’re a great conversation starter.” And it’s why there are sometimes as many as 100 partners — CM’s term for employees — on the floor. “If you have a question, someone’s nearby to help.” Out of the roughly 500 Fort Worth employees, 23 of them have been there since the beginning.
Before the pandemic hit, the Fort Worth store had begun hosting a pre-Thanksgiving Feast of Sharing to help give those in need of a hot meal and companionship a place to go. “We’re having to help in different ways until we can gather again,” says Jourde. He’s also proud of the nearly $10 million donated to various causes and nonprofits over the past 20 years. Among Jourde’s favorite events is the Fort Worth ISD Teacher of the Year awards, where he helps select the winners. “Education and hunger will always be a focus of ours.”
While COVID continues to affect the store due to supply chain issues, Jourde says his training in the restaurant business has helped him adjust to change quickly. He relied on longtime relationships with the city to help deal with power outages and bad weather. “I’ve had to make some calls to get the street behind the store de-iced just so our delivery trucks could make it up the hill,” he says. “I have a scrappy team. They know to deal with change and get things done.”
When Central Market is your workplace, you’re bound to become a foodie. General manager Austin Jourde says both of his kids worked at Central Market (different stores, of course). Both learned to appreciate good food and be more aware of their local food scene. Here are some of Jourde’s favorites.
- The bakery: “It’s my favorite and my downfall.”
- The wine and beer section, of course
- The crème brulee, the borracho beans, any of the cheeses
He also has watched the industry change quite a bit. “People have more options, as opposed to 20 years ago,” he says. Jourde made special note of the opening of Trader Joe’s, the toll road (which gave customers easier access to Whole Foods Market) and even the remodeling of nearby Tom Thumb stores. “We have to stay competitive. That’s why we added the Foodie Freebies along with lowering prices these past seven years and including more basic brands. You can buy authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, but you can also buy the stuff in the green can.”
Jourde says when he takes a new job, he always plans to stay five years. “This is a dream job. I eat healthier for sure. I now appreciate good coffee and own a fancy machine at the house. And I understand the difference between a green can of cheese and the other stuff. Compared to the restaurant industry, I feel like I’ve been on vacation for 20 years.”