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Restaurateurs continue to expand into retail sales post-pandemic

Operators are discovering that e-commerce can be a lucrative and permanent channel for selling food products and meal kits.
This Little Goat retail products
Photo courtesy of This Little Goat

Several months into the pandemic, when it didn’t look like Chicago restaurants would open for dine-in service anytime soon, Stephanie Izard started selling groceries out of her Little Goat Diner location. The Goats-to-go bags were packed with ingredients and a recipe to make a meal at home, plus a few extra essentials. Housebound customers lined up on the sidewalk to pick up the bags, eager for a chance to get any type of restaurant experience during lockdown.

In the early days of COVID, grocery stores were cleaned out of staples and shuttered restaurants started selling items like bread, milk, eggs and toilet paper for pickup and delivery, eking out a little cash and providing a service for customers. But as the pandemic dragged on, restaurateurs began expanding their selection, adding house-made items such as granola, baked goods, sauces, soups, pasta and full meal kits and cocktails to-go. Some expanded to online sales, developing a revenue stream that helped sustain them through many months of shutdown.

Izard was no stranger to retail sales, having started This Little Goat, a retail channel, in 2017. “I launched This Little Goat because so many of our guests had been asking for the recipes to dishes at Girl & the Goat, such as our sautéed green beans, that I felt there was a need to help home cooks make interesting, flavorful dishes in the simplest way possible. We then relaunched in 2019 with new packaging, new flavors and increased distribution,” she said. “Now in 2021 we are moving to wide national distribution and an expanding product line. This Little Goat is no longer a side project, but a strategically growing national brand.”

In addition to her own website, Izard partners with Goldbelly, an online marketplace that curates products from restaurants and artisan food producers and provides shipping to all 50 states.

“Goldbelly has been a really great partner to help us reach customers across the nation with their packaging and shipping teams,” said Izard. The e-commerce site offers a limited selection of This Little Goat’s products, including sauces, spices and the newest product—Everything Crunch. The product is a blend of toasted nuts and seeds, puffed wild rice and crispy quinoa designed to add a textural and global flavor component to food. The topping comes in Japanese, Mexican, Thai and other flavor variations. 

Fox & knife retail products

Photo credit: Alyssa Blumstein Photography

Karen Akunowicz, chef-owner of Fox and The Knife in Boston, began selling pasta kits on Goldbelly the day after Thanksgiving, but she actually created Fox Pasta as a separate wholesale company within her restaurant last March. “During lockdown from March to May, I was selling 75 pounds of fresh pasta a day,” she said. “Comments were coming in through email from customers who wished they could get the pasta in New York, L.A. and Washington, D.C.”

Food filled a void left by the lack of travel, Akunowicz said. “People were traveling through restaurant meals and chef-created products that could be delivered to their homes.”

Akunowicz got in touch with Goldbelly in late summer, choosing that channel because she had personally ordered from the site. “Goldbelly cares about the customer experience and their standards of quality are very high,” she said. Once the shipping details were ironed out, Akunowicz was ready to go.

Goldbelly is selling an assortment of Fox and The Knife fresh pastas, including bucatini and mafaldini, paired with homemade sauces such as tomato basil, spicy amatriciana and traditional wild boar Bolognese. Customers can round out the meal with harissa-marinated olives, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Taleggio-stuffed focaccia, and order gift baskets as well.

“We produce and pack everything at Fox and The Knife and Goldbelly deals with the ordering and shipping,” said Akunowicz. She profits by receiving the full retail price of the kits, the same as if she was selling them in the restaurant, and Goldbelly profits from the fee it tacks on for ordering and shipping.

“Fox Pasta was the bright spot for me during the last year. I always thought about starting a pasta company as my next project but the pandemic brought it to life sooner than expected,” she said. Akunowicz is now working on expanding the line.

Bringing a family recipe to market

Emshika's tea and coffee

Emshika Alberini opened Chang Thai Cafe in Littleton, N.H. in 2008, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that she branched out into a retail product.

“The commercial Thai iced teas on the market were overly sweetened and artificial tasting,” she said. “I wanted to make something better that reminded me of the beverage by grandmother, mother and aunt sold on their food carts in Thailand.”

Having grown up in Bangkok, Alberini’s palate was ingrained with the taste memory of this Thai iced tea and she was able to secure the family recipe from her mother. She spent several years working on the flavor and clean ingredients and started selling it in to-go containers last year. “I use an organic tea with Thai flavors and zero sugar, smoothing it out with oat milk,” she said.

To expand the business into retail markets, she had to make the product shelf stable and was able achieve that. Next step: find a packer. “During the pandemic, I started researching on the internet. I wanted to find a smaller company so I wouldn’t have to enter into a big co-packing contract,” Alberini said.

Her search ended with a medium-sized packer based in the East who also supplies to U.S. Foods. The company can produce 3,000 cans per hour and the first batch made it onto the shelves of Littleton’s co-op market at the beginning of March, 2021. “During the second quarter of this year, I’m focusing on expanding along the East Coast,” she said. “I’m trying to get it into some Target locations, too.”

Alberini is also working on getting the tea certified as organic so it can go into Erewon stores out West. Although the product is not sold out of Chang Thai Café, she sells it online at Emshika.com, along with Thai iced coffee.

“I’m delighted to share this family treasure with consumers.  I spent my entire childhood enjoying this beverage and am honored to put a modern twist on this very classic Thai libation,” Alberini said.

Instagram as marketplace

Camila Nevin and Michael Davis were about to sign a lease on a brick and mortar store last March when they found out the HVAC system wasn’t operating. It would have cost $250,000 to fix.

“We thought about it over the weekend of March 13, 2020 and decided to launch something online first,” said Nevin. Dodging the COVID bullet and the devastation that followed was the start of Boy Blue Coffee & Goods, a web-based business in New York City. The pair launched their online “corner store” last September, selling pasta, sauce, baked goods and other specialty items.

Boy Blue's Pretzels

Photo by Christina Buscarino

One of the most popular items is a soft baked pretzel that Davis worked on and perfected during lockdown. “It’s adapted from the salt pretzels sold in Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. Davis, a former restaurant chef, bakes the pretzels and makes the pasta sauces after hours in a ghost kitchen inside a restaurant.

Nevin began marketing the business on Instagram—a strategy other chefs and restaurateurs are using to market menu items and more. Word spread and now the pair is thinking of expanding into brick and mortar stores.

“Right now, we only deliver in Manhattan and Brooklyn and are not in a place to do shipping,” said Davis. “Plus some of the items, like the pretzels, don’t travel well, as they are made without preservatives.”

But Boy Blue’s online success is motivating the pair to realize their goal of opening a retail outlet—either inside an established store or as a standalone coffee cafe with savories, sweets and quick takeaway meals. “We are keeping our options open and hope to have a few locations along with our online business,” said Nevin.

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