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Go West, Young Toques

With a West Dallas redux in the works, Phil Romano just might make the naysayers eat their words. 

Phil Romano at Trinity Groves 

Come, and they will build it. That’s the twisted Field of Dreams logic behind restaurant creator Phil Romano’s urban renewal vision: Trinity Groves. Since 2005, Romano and his partners Larry “Butch” McGregor and Stuart Fitts have sunk $40 million on 80 acres of West Dallas dirt in the chalky glint of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. “We come up with the amenities and then we put the community there.”

What will propel the rise of this new urban hood? The Trinity Groves incubator: a protective cocoon offering operators the chance to strut their stuff without bearing the full brunt of market forces, in the hopes it will breed successful chain concepts. Current operations include 3015 at Trinity Groves, a culinary team-building event space by Food Network chef Sharon Van Meter; Four Corners Brewery; Babb Brothers BBQ and Blues; a gift shop called the Workroom; and a hot dog joint called Hofmann Hots (a project that includes Bob’s Steak & Chop House founder Bob Sambol).

But beginning in late summer and running through the end of the year, a steady stream of incubated lifestyle venues will come on line, including Kitchen LTO, a pop-up restaurant concept with a rotating roster of chefs by Greenz founder Casie Caldwell; Luck, featuring local foods and craft beers; and a Chinese-Latin inspired venue called Chino-Chinatown. In the works: a craft rum distillery, Texas winery, cheese shop, cigar roller, a cakery, European flower market and a tamale-tequila restaurant. Romano’s own incubations include St. Rocco’s, serving Italian peasant food; Potato Flats featuring baked potato creations; and a midscale steakhouse.

Romano believes his entertainment hub will become such a buzzing hothouse of emerging talent that developers will be tripping over themselves to turn his dirt for living and working spaces. His vision is to create a hip, urban ecosystem to lure edgy creatives and entrepreneurs.

“He’s turning it upside down,” says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender, a restaurant consulting firm. “From a textbook real estate development point of view, what they’re doing doesn’t work, which is why no one has ever done it. But it’s a very smart way of warehousing your land as your development builds out over years and decades.”

What’s Romano’s secret sauce? Millennials, that demo of 16- to 35-year-olds that every marketer lusts after. “We want new people to come in and create new things, for new people,” Romano says. “I think the millennials are going to be the biggest consuming market out there.” But will a demo that even Romano himself admits is suspicious of advertising and craves consumables that are distinct and authentic go for a restaurant chain breeding ground? Is this gambit even sustainable?

Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, suggests that urban revival plans anchored on the millennial “creative class” (think Cleveland, Hartford and Detroit) have failed miserably over the last decade. The demo simply doesn’t generate broad benefits outside its own narrow constituency.

But Romano is undeterred. “I bring my own value to this thing by what I know and my core competency, which is restaurants,” he says. “I’m basically doing for the government what the government can’t do for itself: create opportunity, jobs and businesses.”