The Rise of the Restaurant Market
Café Fiorello is a Lincoln Center Institution in the heart of New York City’s Upper West Side. After more than forty years of serving classic Italian cuisine, Covid-19 closures have forced it to rebrand.
Now, customers know it as the Fiorello Gourmet Market, echoed in new window signage and an updated Instagram bio denoting it as a food and wine market.
Instead of plates of pasta and diners side by side, the tables and counters are piled high with “everything you want from Italy" like cheese, canned tomatoes, pasta, oils, fresh produce and more (yes, toilet paper too) – not only what was on hand, but new goods from ongoing shipments.
This is the new normal.
Like Café Fiorello, restaurants across the country have pivoted to stay afloat. Watching what has been happening at grocery stores and with food delivery – stock running low, lines out the door, timeslots full for weeks – local restaurants have gotten creative in order to simply remain open, keep on some staff and serve a subset of customers, innovating with convenient, safe and affordable options for pickup and delivery.
As almost all sit down dining is closed due to government orders, this is a win-win where you can both get quality groceries nearby or delivered directly to you and support a struggling small business at the same time. Legislation is being passed to help restaurants offset losses as makeshift markets, allowing greater flexibility in reselling wholesale, bulk and grocery goods and supplies, while bypassing normal permits, labeling requirements and licensing updates.
It’s great news for customers, who can now safely hit up many of their favorite spots for prepared hot meals, pantry staples, cleaning products and paper goods alike. For restaurants, it’s an economically sound plan; a chance to sell existing stock, cook in batches and leverage prices with vendors.
In San Francisco’s Bay Area, one of the first regions to shut down, the always bustling restaurant Nopa is known for its organic, rustic California cuisine that highlights rotating seasonal offerings from quality local farmers, ranchers and food purveyors. Their approach and integrity have remained unchanged, despite moving from a "gathering place” known for its late-night revelry to a quieter spot with prepared foods and pantry goods ready to go.
Nopa grocery boxes are one featured offering, with an array of fresh, local, organic fruits and veggies, eggs and whole bean coffee, highlighting a deep commitment to the surrounding community and economy. Other cooking kits include hearty organic kale-chicken-bread soup, house made pasta with organic basil-almond-parmesan pesto and protein like steak, trout and pork from local ranchers noted by name on the daily-changing takeout and grocery menu. Cocktails made from scratch are also available (and, of course, much appreciated during quarantine).
Brewpubs are hopping on the bandwagon, too. Bungalow by Middle Brow in Chicago is selling just about everything you can imagine. In addition to the expected beer in bottles, cans and growlers; wine of every varietal; kombucha and more; you can get organic flour, pecan butter, artisan meat spreads, DIY pizza sets and seeds to grow your own squash. For the nesting and gardening enthusiasts, there are also books to read and compost to take home (made with scraps from their kitchen).
One of the largest markets comes from Founding Farmers, normally known for its farm fresh fare in the nation’s capital. But now Farmers Restaurant Group, which owns the DC staple and a handful of other restaurants, is operating an online marketplace with over 500 items and counting, including DIY produce kits for roasted herb parmesan asparagus, pecan and molasses sweet potatoes and fully loaded baked potatoes. You can get your hands on everything from chef-prepared foods, fresh-baked cakes and breads, to comprehensive butcher selections, house-churned ice cream, everyday groceries and home goods, all delivered within hours.
Coffee too, is in high demand, and Go Get Em Tiger (better known as GGET) in Southern California is on it, selling fresh-roasted beans in different styles from various origins, subscriptions where you rotate types by the week, and home equipment to brew your own (almost) as well as your favorite barista. Grab snacks that pair perfectly with a cup of joe, bountiful local produce boxes, and pantry essentials including dry yeast (get it fast!), oat milk, bone broth and pet treats (when in LA….). Everything is available to order via the GGET app, which is constantly being updated.
In addition to local restaurants, chains are also pivoting to meet the needs and realities of a changing, unknown economic and business landscape. Panera Bread cafés nationwide are now selling bagels, Greek yogurt, cream cheese, berries, avocado, and most everything else that goes into making the dishes on their menu with the launch of Panera Grocery. Hundreds of Subway locations will sell you the bread, sliced deli meat, “garden” items and other staples to recreate your favorite foot-long at home. Shake Shake launched Shackburger kits for home delivery. And over 100 Frisch’s Big Boy are now open as Big Boy’s Markets across Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana with drive-thrus selling burgers alongside tuna salad, milk, single-serve cereal, sugar, ketchup, mustard and other grocery goods you may expect from a quick-service chain.
We’re all trying to get what we need and do what we can — and for the moment, restaurants are answering the call. Hopefully, they’ll soon be back with overflowing bowls of Italian dishes to delight hungry diners in the hearts of cities and towns we love. But for now, we’ll take the boxed pasta, canned tomatoes and yes, toilet paper. Written for and originally published on Chef Tyler Florence's WolfItDown.com. Full piece here.