A Dallas location of Cafe Express celebrates its grand re-opening in January as a new-and-improved restaurant that not only replaces the torn-down original, but also gives local diners a first look at the fast-casual chain's new rebranding efforts.
The restaurant is on the ground floor of the M Line Tower, a new 20-story residential building in Dallas' Uptown District. The location was formerly a free-standing Cafe Express, with a parking lot and grotto-like patio that sprawled across a city block. But with all the infill happening in Dallas' core, the restaurant was razed in 2016, with a promise to regulars that it would return.
The new Cafe Express boasts a host of features including digital menu boards, an updated layout designed to improve navigation and traffic flow, and a refreshed decor with new colors and seating.
They're also relocating the famed Oasis Table, where diners can help themselves to embellishments such as imported olives and breadsticks. A signature element since the chain was founded in 1984, it always sat in the center of the restaurant like some shrine of freebie excess. Now it sits more discreetly, and more logically, to the side of the ordering counter.
According to president and CEO George Hailey, the Uptown location represents a new direction for the chain. "This will serve as the prototype for our other locations as we begin rebranding those restaurants," he says.
On the rebound
Cafe Express is on the rebound, with a new owner in M. Terry Enterprises, who rescued the chain from some dark days. Its headquarters have been moved from Houston to Dallas, from which it operates 15 locations in Dallas, Houston, and Austin.
The company was founded by Houston chef Robert del Grande and restaurateur (and CultureMap co-founder) Lonnie Schiller, and was an early fast-casual concept at a time when fast-casual was still new. Over the years, it changed hands twice: Wendy's bought the concept, and it was then acquired by Houston real estate company Redstone.
Hailey and COO Bobby Jaramillo both joined the company in 2017, with a mission to renew the chain's culinary focus. The two previously worked in various management roles for Chili's and Brinker International.
"The reason we're here is that the food is fantastic," Hailey says. "We've both been in the restaurant business our entire lives, and we've been blown away by what Cafe Express does. I think one thing that's not as well known is that the food is all from scratch, and that's amazing."
Tightening up the menu was one of their first steps.
"Robert's recipes still live on, there are certainly the favorites we've had all along, but the menu itself was a little klunky, and we've made it easier to navigate," Hailey says. "We've added some dishes such as the shrimp skewer, and we have a few vegan and vegetarian items that are clearly marked. We'd like to add a 'healthy' section to help people find items like our salmon."
Jaramillo has also spearheaded new programs in two key food groups: coffee and craft beer.
"We've sourced some great organic and fair trade coffee, and have baristas on staff who can make any of the espresso drinks you'd find at a coffeehouse," he says. "As for the beer, our level of dedication includes running three of our taps on nitrogen. We're pouring a red velvet stout from San Diego brewer Ballast Point that's exceptionally creamy."
Their wine list ranges from Napa Valley reds to Italian Pinot Grigio to rosé from Spain, and every one of their wines is available by the glass. It's a generous 8-ounce pour, which they're emphasizing via upgraded wine glasses with a nice big bowl.
Make your own mimosa
One area that's about to be expanded is brunch, an increasingly important meal, and not just in brunch-loving Uptown.
"We've already introduced a fun mimosa program where you make your own," Jaramillo says. "For $8.50, you get orange juice and a 20-ounce liter of champagne, and get to mix it yourself, which customers enjoy."
The digital menu board allows them to add new items and see what succeeds. One recent hit is another interactive dish: their "deconstructed" tortilla soup, in which a bowl of rich ruddy broth comes with a plate of customizable additions such as guacamole, chopped red onion, shredded cheese, fresh cilantro, and tortilla chips.
They've also done some behind-the-scenes tinkering on their ordering system to make sure to-go orders go out fast and right.
Uptown will serve as a kind of test for other locations, as well.
"We'd eventually like to remodel all of our restaurants, although some are going to require a little bit of love," Hailey says. "We're definitely going to make our restaurants more inviting, and give each a look that fits its neighborhood."