Citrine stands on Middlefield Road in downtown Redwood City.
Citrine stands on Middlefield Road in downtown Redwood City. (Ron Lewis - Staff)
REDWOOD CITY — Three weeks ago, Safeway Inc. quietly opened a stand-alone restaurant here called Citrine without a word of advertising or publicity.

The eatery is a "test" for the Pleasanton-based grocery chain that, like most food retailers, is looking for more ways to sell prepared foods.

Consumers spend about half of their food dollars at restaurants or some other form of take-out food according to the Food Marketing Institute.

"A major thing that's going on in all grocery is prepared foods, and having a restaurant allows you to get experience in that area," said Ted Taft, a food retail expert and managing director at Meridian Consulting in Connecticut. "If Safeway just looks at Albertsons and other grocers as their competition, they are missing the fact that a larger share of the food dollar is going to restaurants."Citrine restaurant falls under the "fast casual" category, where customers order from a counter and can eat in or take out quickly.

"We're going after the modern American mentality," said Lee Peterson, vice president of branding and creative services for WD Partners, the Ohio-based firm that designed Citrine. "Consumers are saying, 'I want a high quality product for a decent price and I want it quick.'"

The 5,000-square-foot restaurant is located in a section of downtown Redwood City that is undergoing a major overhaul and features a movie theater and other swanky restaurants.

So far, Safeway has kept its name tucked in the shadows of Citrine and has commented little on the restaurant.

"This is an experiment where we'll have the opportunity to test some culinary ideas," said Brian Dowling, a Safeway spokesman. "We never talk about experiments that are in this early stage."

Most grocers include prepared foods in their deli sections and many such as Whole Foods have expanded selections featuring pasta and salad bars and breakfast buffets. Safeway has spent the last few years remodeling its stores with softer lighting and hardwood floors and trying to brand itself with the "Ingredients for Life" campaign to appeal to a more lifestyle-oriented customer.

Part of those efforts include improving prepared food by offering sushi, sandwiches and gourmet soups in its deli section. The idea of a sit-down experience is not new — many grocery stores have seating areas — but operating a separate restaurant is unusual. The only other obvious example Tastings, a restaurant operated by Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, a 70-store chain in the Northeast.

"The restaurant gives them a learning laboratory with which they can stay on top of where consumer trends are going," Taft said. "A restaurant is one level closer to the consumer.

"(Consumers) may have no clue how to prepare something at home, but then you see it in a restaurant and want to try it at home."

Citrine offers features entrees such as Thai barbecue chicken for $12.49, margarita pizza for $8.99 and grilled fish for $13.99. Other offerings include sandwiches starting at $7.99, soup for $3.99 and salads starting at $8.49. It's decor features blonde wood accents along with a color palette of the soft greens, oranges and yellows.

Large posters display photos of foreign places and famous quotes from historical figures like Galileo Galilei's statement, "Wine is sunlight held together by water."

"We wanted it to be somewhat modern," Peterson said. "But we wanted it to be crisp and bright and comfortable at the same time."

Peterson said his firm usually does not work design projects for just one location. Employees at Citrine said they expect other sites to open and an ad on Craigslist tells jobseekers that "others are to follow" Redwood City.

Safeway, however, has not announced official plans. "Whether or not it goes beyond this single unit," Dowling said, "it's too early to tell."