Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Zymology: Lower Greenville's Latest Loss



“Welcome to the changing face of Lower Greenville.”

For most Dallasites these days, the phrase ‘Lower Greenville Avenue’ conjures mixed memories.  My own mind flashes to long afternoons on the patio at Grinder’s, longer nights at the Arcadia and a recent drive to take a last longing look at the space formerly known as my favorite Whole Foods.  It wasn’t a pleasant trip.  For some reason, I had misplaced my rose-colored glasses that day and could see just how those few blocks had changed for the worse in recent years.  Empty storefronts and cracked, littered sidewalks made for a bleak comparison with the West Village, for instance, which I’d visited earlier that day.   And still, something told me it wasn’t time to let go.  Not yet.  I still want to believe that the old spark might come back to what was once one of our favorite local playgrounds.

Zymology was supposed to be part of that comeback.  The stylish “gastro pub” opened early this year at 2010 Greenville (between Prospect and Oram) and earned immediate and positive attention from patrons and the press alike.  On April 23rd Dave Faries of the Dallas Observer gave it a near-glowing review.  “There’s no denying the kitchen’s talent here…” he observed, noting co-owner and chef Sam Dickey’s knowing touch with the menu.  There were a few misses on Dave’s visit, but he took away a clear impression of “brilliance” in several dishes, a sure sign that Zymology was on to something good.  Less than a month later, however, it was closed.  Where did the promising restaurant go wrong?

Zymology’s closing was announced via Facebook last week by Ben Verdooren, the other half of its ownership team.  Surprised and confused by the abrupt announcement, I contacted Verdooren himself in an effort to get to the bottom of the situation.  He was friendly and candid over the phone, and seemed saddened, more than anything, about the negative turn of events.  “How do I feel that I closed? I don’t like it,” he explained, just moments into our conversation.   “I only had three months…I was never really given a chance.”

Zymology was Verdooren’s first restaurant.  The 31-year-old South Texan moved to Dallas three years ago, after working in various capacities at a resort in Key West.  Co-owner, Sam Dickey, however, had opened four restaurants in Austin and is well-known in the hospitality business there.  The two partners planned to open a neighborhood spot focusing on great beer and wine along with a sophisticated menu - Zymology refers to “the science of fermentation”.  This idea piggybacked on a hot international trend (Google “gastro pub” and see what you get) that seemed tailor-made for Dallas’ hip Henderson Avenue.  Thus, when it came time to scout locations, Verdooren contacted a developer that played a big part in the recent revitalization of that particular area.  Smart move.

As it happened, though, that company had decided to refocus its attention on another down-and-out Dallas destination.  When Verdooren was ready to go shopping, its representatives guided the new restaurateur to a vacancy on lower Greenville Avenue instead.  That the effort rebuild the area was still in its infancy didn’t seem to affect the company’s confidence.  “They said, ‘Hey, we’ve got guys lined up for all these empty spots, except for the one you’re looking at now’,” Verdooren recalls.   “ ‘We want to re-do Greenville like we re-did Henderson.’ ”  After giving it some thought, Verdooren took a leap of faith and signed a lease in late summer of 2008.

And we all remember what came shortly thereafter.  When the economy took its much-publicized downturn last fall, all the company’s other tenants in the planned first wave of the Greenville rebirth backed out.  With a couple of notable exceptions, Zymology was on its own in a sea of bars with a decidedly different demographic.  Undeterred and still enthusiastic, Verdooren planned to drum up additional business through marketing.  He proceeded with renovations on the space and Zymology opened on February 2nd of this year.

Ben Verdooren (far right) and a smiling crew at Zymology.

Almost immediately, the restaurant caught the attention of the local media.  With pride, Verdooren boasts, “When you type in ‘Zymology Dallas’ online, you see nothing but positive reviews…the Observer, Quick, Dallas Morning News, GuideLive…go to Yelp.com, go to Chowhound, go to Beer Advocate.  We had a lot of exposure early, and we had the ball rolling.”  Zymology’s sophisticated yet comfortable atmosphere, wide array of beers and wine and above-average entrées seemed like a winning combination.    A camera crew even set up camp one night to film a segment for a local television station.

In addition to the free press, Verdooren also worked hard on his own to “try to convince [people] that it’s worth coming down to the lowest part of Greenville.”  He had a hard time, however, getting past the area’s stereotype as a magnet for binge-drinking party kids.  No matter how much care was put into each plate of Zymology’s grilled sirloin with pistachio Stilton butter, it was a struggle for Verdooren to get nice folks to venture down to what had become, in recent years, a distant fourth (or fifth or sixth) on the list of places Dallas goes when it wants to go out to eat.  No amount of media exposure or marketing seemed to be enough.

Ultimately, this struggle turned out to be a greater hurtle than the restaurant could clear.  Verdooren closed Zymology last week, after a short three and a half month run, citing “lack of money” and “lack of business due to the area” as the two primary causes of its demise.  His voice during our telephone conversation was heavy with hindsight and exhaustion.  Anger, however, didn’t come into play.  He doesn’t blame the development company for overselling him on Greenville Avenue.  He also doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the many potential customers who just wouldn’t drive outside their new comfort zones to visit his restaurant.  For the most part, Verdooren seems to wonder where he went wrong.  He eludes to many “what ifs”, including the possibility that things could have been different if he’d chosen a space that didn’t require such extensive renovation, or if the economy hadn’t petered out right when he decided to take the plunge.   “I don’t blame anybody,” he concluded.  “It’s really difficult right now.”

So there you have it: no explosive face-offs, no underhanded back stabbing, no shady deals gone bad.  Just a couple of guys that made an effort and are already planning their next move.  Verdooren says he’s flattered by the many folks who have inquired about his well-being and asked where they might find him next.  He’s looking into his options, and is optimistic about the future.  

My husband observed that this tale perfectly illustrates a philosophy from the world of professional boxing.  Simply stated, you never know what a fighter’s really made of until he takes his first big fall.  Something tells me Ben Verdooren isn’t down for the count.  As for lower Greenville Avenue, however, only time will tell if the glory days are gone for good.

10 comments:

Eddie G said...

Sad, sad. Makes me wonder if Zymology was the victim of a real estate experiment gone bad...

Food Czar said...

I enjoyed many wonderful nights on lower Greenville back in the day, along with Deep Ellum. Both areas have since been derailed. It would be nice to see them get back on track and see Zymology reopen on Henderson or in another area which would appreciate their approach to food and wine (and beer).

FoodiePrincess said...

I have to say, it's sad how infrequently Mike and I eat anywhere in Lower Greenville, considering you can pretty much throw something from our house and hit it. I'm not sure why this is - we just never think about going there. That really made me take this article personally, like it's our fault that this place failed. Especially since it sounds like a place we would have really liked. What a shame.

lalalauren said...

Such a shame. I live in the area adjacent to this part of Lower Greenville and even *I* rarely venture over there (unless it's to go to Nandina) because it no longer suits me or anyone I know. I'd rather drive a few minutes and hit Henderson than risk conflict or property damage, two things I now associate with LG. Like FoodiePrincess, I too feel bad and a little to blame but, I can only replace so many broken car windows and witness so many out-of-control drunken kids before I stop going to the places those things occur. I wish someone would clean up LG - the residential real estate around it is seeing a wonderful transition and with some good TLC, the shopping & retail areas would certainly benefit as well.

Keith McPhail said...

Great Article, Sad Story

HeatherBakes said...

The only reason we ventured down Lower Greenville was to visit Whole Foods or Ali Baba, and now that they're both in Lakewood...

I'd never heard of Zymology until it closed- but now I'm sad that we never visited. Sounds like a great place.

Margie said...

Very good article, Lisa. These are tough times...

Classy&Sassy said...

Thanks, Margie. And thanks to everyone for the great comments on this one. It's a tough story, and writing it created more questions for me than it answered. :(

luniz said...

too bad, it was a pretty nice place, good beer selection. Never had a lot of business...just not the right demographic

Smarry said...

Sad, sad. Makes me wonder if Zymology was the victim of a real estate experiment gone bad...

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