At a Moment’s Notice, Restaurants Become Grocers
In response to stay-at-home orders, food service pivots to retailGabriella Gershenson
April 21, 2020
Our industry is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered restaurants, forced millions into unemployment, and left us with a future that is uncertain at best. Efforts are happening on the ground nationwide, from communities rallying around their local businesses, to national calls on Congress and our own relief fund. But behind the sobering statistics in those calls to action are individual industry professionals who are making hard decisions and watching their livelihoods skirt the edge of disaster. With that in mind, we're sharing stories from the front lines. Below, Gabriella Gershenson explores the growing trend of restaurants across the country transitioning from selling plates of food to bags of groceries, and how that evolution has impacted their bottom line and the welfare of their communities.
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, food service entrepreneurs of all stripes—restaurateurs, caterers, owners of coffee shops and bakeries—have been faced with the impossible decision of how to run their businesses in the midst of a stay-at-home order.
For an increasing number of owners, the answer has been to open a grocery store. The epiphany for many of these newly minted grocers was similar—they could provide essentials that supermarkets had run out of, and more, to their communities. “The grocery stores were packed and people weren't able to get toilet paper,” says Ray-Scott Miller, the owner of Sophomore Spanish Club and Fine & Dandy in Jackson, Mississippi, which he transformed into markets on March 23. “Through my resources at the restaurant, those are things I could still gain access to.”
Another factor that affected Miller’s decision was his family’s safety. “The experts said social distance, but when my wife would go to the grocery store, it was packed. I said let’s get groceries from my vendors—then the idea came to sell to the community.” A similar motivation spurred Katerina Georgallas, owner of Mastiha Bakery in Kensington, Maryland, to transform her Greek bakery into a no-contact market. She originally planned to order bulk provisions for her family, her staff, and anyone in the neighborhood who was interested. When 37 households wanted in, she decided to make it a business. “A lot of customers were already feeling [the] pressure of making so many trips throughout the day to get what they needed,” said Georgallas. “You could see the dread on their faces.”
These operators have had to be scrappy. In addition to implementing crucial social distancing and sanitary measures for contactless shopping, they’re learning the retail business on the fly—securing vans and trucks for home deliveries, uploading inventories for online shopping. But rethinking the business has come with some unexpected benefits. Julia Sullivan, chef-owner of the Party Line in Nashville, transformed her catering company into a meal subscription and grocery service. The city was already in a vulnerable spot—fresh off a tornado that had left neighborhoods ravaged and without power, including Party Line’s sister restaurant, Henrietta Red—when COVID-19 struck. “People were asking to have their deposits refunded so fast that we were going to run out of money in about a week,” says Sullivan. She quickly came up with weekly and monthly meal plans and based them on a CSA model so that customers would pay up front. It’s been working so well that Sullivan is considering keeping it going after the pandemic has gone.
According to chef Sarah Welch of Marrow in Detroit, a restaurant–butcher hybrid that has pivoted to selling grocery boxes and meal kits, this time has been an opportunity to connect their farmer suppliers to their customers, while being nimbler than bigger retailers. “Right now, you can't get groceries delivered unless you wait 5 days. If you do get it, 50% of your order is missing,” says Welch. “We created a niche to support local food systems and provide a quicker turnaround than most stores.”
In the midst of these small victories, difficult decisions have had to be made. Though employers are keeping the lights on, in many cases, staff sizes have been greatly reduced. Some businesses have not been able to implement the CDC’s recommendations for social distancing among their employees. Teams have entered into co-quarantining pacts, limiting their contact to the people they work and live with, and trusting their cohabitants to do the same. “We have a good core of people who are supportive of each other,” says Anne Hoberg, general manager of Saraghina Bakery in Brooklyn, which has been functioning as a neighborhood grocer with a skeleton staff of twelve. Because the space is too small for staff to maintain the recommended distance from one another, they stagger shifts, limit their interactions and take frequent breaks to try and mitigate the situation. It can be stressful. “We all have our good days and bad days,” says Hoberg. “The good thing is, some people have a good day when others don't, and I can send people home early if they don't feel they can handle it.”
It’s too soon to say how things will look on the other side of the pandemic, but business owners are taking it in stride as best they can. “This whole thing is a complete twilight zone,” says Anthony Strong, chef-owner of Prairie in San Francisco, now The Prairie (Temporary) General Store. “But honestly, it’s fantastic compared to the alternative—me being at home hoping for federal bailout assistance with the restaurant boarded up.”
Below is a list of restaurants that sell grocery items. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to have your name added to this list.
Ritual Coffee Roasters
Rosemary's Farm to Fork
Bay-area restaurants selling groceries
Denver Central Market
Moxie Bread Co.
Hampton + Hudson Community Bar & Restaurant
Smoke Stack Roasters
Sophomore Spanish Club
Fine & Dandy
Montclair Bread Co.
750 Myrtle Diner
Bourke St. Bakery
Golden Russet Cafe & Grocery
Mel's Burger Bar
Village Coffee and Goods
Gabriella Gershenson is a James Beard Award–nominated food journalist based in New York City. Follower her on Instagram and Twitter @gabiwrites.