When restaurants were forced to close dine-in operations at the start of the coronavirus crisis, a number converted their spaces into grocery stores. Since supermarkets were deemed essential businesses, a storefront selling food and other staples for housebound consumers fell under the same umbrella.
In the beginning, most operators offered a limited selection of produce, meat, eggs, milk and other necessities—including those scarce rolls of toilet paper. Foodservice distributor Sysco even helped its restaurant customers set up and stock retail outlets. But as the pandemic dragged on, restaurants began peddling more unique items that consumers couldn’t buy elsewhere. And chefs went back into the kitchen to create signature grab-and-go meals, sauces, baked goods and more to fill their shelves and refrigerated cases.
Fast-forward several months and restaurants that can open are refocusing on feeding customers through takeout, delivery, patio dining and even table service indoors. But others are still running their grocery businesses to bring in an additional source of revenue during these tough times. And a few have branched out into e-commerce and delivery.
Back in April, independent restaurant Olmsted in Brooklyn, NY, set up the Olmstead Trading Post in its separate private dining room space. With dine-in still very limited in New York City today, it’s still in operation and has become a destination for neighborhood residents, says chef-owner Greg Baxtrom.
When the grocery outlet first opened, Baxtrom sold housemade items such as hot sauces, relishes, jams, granola, charcuterie, kombucha and breads and sweets from Olmsted’s pastry chef. He’s since expanded into grab-and-go prepared dishes, such as the restaurant’s signature vegetable tagliatelle, as well as cocktail kits and seasonal produce that Baxtrom and his team pick up from the farmer’s market or harvest from the restaurant’s patio garden.
At first, customers had to line up outside and wait their turn to come in a few at a time to shop, but now they can order online for curbside pickup. And Olmsted’s new e-commerce site allows fans to order from an expansive selection of goods and get the items delivered.
Fast-casual Sajj Mediterranean is also betting on e-commerce to boost revenue. In addition to its brick-and-mortar locations and food truck, it launched the online Sajj Market earlier this month. The e-commerce site offers both readymade items, such as the concept’s signature dips, spreads and a la carte menu options, as well as pre-marinated proteins, falafel mix, taboulleh, housemade beverages and assorted hard-to-find spices, grains and legumes.
New for retail purchase online are Sajj meal kits, in choices such as chicken or steak shawarma, accompanied by prepared falafel, turmeric rice, pita mixed greens and assorted Middle Eastern spreads. Each is built to feed four diners.
“With our guests’ ever-changing buying habits and the evolution of the direct-to-consumer segment, we wanted to enhance the Sajj experience by offering on-demand, ready-to-enjoy meals and make it easier for guests to bring Sajj safely into their homes,” founder and CEO Zaid Ayoub said in a statement.
Consumers can purchase the menu items and ingredients on the website and have them delivered to their door the next day. Currently, the market is only servicing the San Francisco Bay Area but there are plans to expand across the state and eventually, into other areas of the country.