Worthy Conversations: Chris Reale and Bria Downey on Nostalgia, Pinky Promises & the Rebirth of Roy Pope Grocery
Roy Pope Grocery has served the Fort Worth community since FDR’s presidency and before microwave ovens were even a thing. Fast-forward 76 years, and the historic mom-and-pop shop is re-opening this spring under new ownership after it closed its doors in 2020. We caught up with Chris Reale, owner-operator, and Bria Downey, culinary director, to get a taste of what’s to come.
Resurrecting an institution of any kind is a bold undertaking. How have you balanced pleasing the old guard while also creating something totally new?
Chris Reale: From the beginning, our first concern was “how do we do this without changing Roy Pope?” We were careful to communicate with Bob [Larance, the longtime owner who sold the store to the new partnership] from the start to learn all we could to understand how it operated. And then we’ve been talking to people in the neighborhood to understand their expectations. And we still constantly think about how to maintain consistency. We want to pick up where Bob left off and move forward doing what we can to catch the younger crowd, too.
Bria Downey: For me, a lot of the weighty decisions were made with the idea of nostalgia. The community that has been shopping at Roy Pope for more than seven decades has changed slowly over time. This is another one of those times. I keep in my mind and close to my heart the idea of our community sitting around a dinner table and being able to retrieve those nostalgic memories through food. That is the kind of food I enjoy most, the kind of traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Every person has someone in their life who has made an impression on them. For me (and most cooks I know) that person was my grandma. It was never because she made the most elaborate or expensive meal, it was because she made food from the heart. I always joke that you can ‘taste the love’ that I personally put into a dish, but genuinely there is so much truth to that.
Bria, as culinary director, what staples were you sure to preserve and what Bria creations can we look forward to eating?
BD: The whole kitchen got revamped for a bigger production. There are all the classics like, potato salad, pasta salad, ambrosia salad, egg salad, tuna salad… etc. The biggest difference is the actual sourcing of products. Things will rotate by the genuine Texas harvest season. The moment tomatoes, watermelons, or peaches are available by local Texas farmers is when you will see them in the store. One of my biggest goals is to showcase and promote small family businesses. True farmers are few and far between now-a-days so getting our community to connect with the faces that grow and care for our produce, protein, or products is a main focus for me.
The reopening was originally scheduled for summer/fall 2020. Is the world’s least favorite virus to blame for the delay?
CR: Yes, COVID did a lot of damage to our original timeline, slowed down permitting for construction, to begin. So much of what needed doing early all was with people working remotely because a lot of the contractors’ work couldn’t be done in person, so our timeline was significantly altered.
BD: It’s a whole list of things. We are in a pandemic so that doesn’t help. We had a snow-pocalypse. We’re in a historic building and that has a bunch hoops we had to jump through to preserve the historic integrity. Above all, I think we have this high level of anticipation because, for a lot of Fort Worth, this place has a special place in our hearts.
And in what ways has a later-than-anticipated opening been a good thing?
CR: The building will be everything we’ve ever truly wanted, without making sacrifices to save time. With so much endless work on the operation side, the delays gave us extra time to really focus on operations and products we want to offer.
BD: The later date has helped me because I have more time to look for the kind of cooks that I want. This concept is so unique and requires cooks to have direct contact with our community. Most of my career cooks have always been in the back as heroes unseen, Roy Pope Grocery is pushing them to the front. Luckily for me, I have gotten together a brigade of cooks that I can be proud of.
Chris, you’re also the new owner-operator of Paris Coffee Shop, another FTW treasure. Did the revamp life choose you or did you choose it?
CR: It definitely chose me. It’s not a direction I thought I’d go, though I always knew I would operate something. I didn’t set out to embrace historic places, but now that I am, I’m so grateful to learn about the legacies and understand how to grasp it all. And that helps me figure out how to convey to people who appreciate these iconic places that we do have to make little changes to bring things up to speed. We want these places to be relevant to today’s customer, and that’s a hard game to play when you have so much history you’re dealing with.
Let’s talk about this coffee and wine bar. That’s not an empty promise, is it?
CR: No! It’s one of the first things we knew we wanted to implement. It’s there, right inside the front door, with seating inside and out. We’ve spent a lot of money on all the equipment, like a high-end espresso machine, and we’ll offer our own branded wines.
BD: Oh, the rumors are true. Early morning latte with two sugars after you drop the kids off at school…. having a glass of Chardonnay while you shop… even better, a big juicy red while sitting on the patio… evening dessert with a black coffee or port. Very real, very true. I pinky promise. P.S. We are gonna have cold beer too.
Both of you have had great success in the hospitality industry and could take your careers to other cities. Why do you choose to hang your hat in Fort Worth?
CR: Fort Worth is my home, my family is here, and it suits my style. It’s where I want to be. I could have taken opportunities to work in other cities, but my thoughts and beliefs align with our city — its food, its atmosphere, its culture. I like our pace. Everyone says it’s a big town with a small-town feel, and that’s true.
BD: I do love Fort Worth and have made this my hometown. I’m a military brat so growing up all over the U.S. and even graduating high school in England — somehow, I ended up here. This town has opened its arms and embraced me as I have it. To be honest, what has kept me here is the community, the massive amount of support from those people who just love good food. The chef community I surround myself with is amazing; we as a group uplift each other and care for each other. They are the biggest reason why I call FTW home.
Although she prefers burnt orange to purple, Hannah Bush is happy to call Fort Worth her new home. She began freelance writing a few years ago to break up the monotony of her 9 to 5 and to prove to her parents that she’s making good use of her journalism degree. When she’s not hanging out with her cat, Hannah can likely be found on a patio with her fiancé, talking about her cat.
I love this article. I am fairly new to fort Wirth and didn’t get shop at the store before it closed. My son had told me all about it. We both can’t wait for it to reopen.