As local restaurants continue to feel the effects of the coronavirus, many are thinking of new ways to assist the community, such as by starting to sell groceries.
In order to do so, restaurants are ordering extra grocery staples from their wholesale suppliers and offering them to customers.
After several restaurants that had reinvented themselves as markets were shut down for operating without a grocery license, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors saw the need to issue new guidelines.
And while unorthodox, just last week, the county Department of Public Health released those new guidelines, allowing restaurants in the county to add grocery items to their menus for purchase as part of their delivery, takeout or curbside services.
“All these small restaurants have these wholesalers on the back end that have all this fresh produce … they have access to,” said Valencia resident Megan Cunico, whose family owns Brent’s Deli. “This has given these brick-and-mortars the opportunity to pay the rent, keep the electricity on, pay their kitchen staff and spread the tips to their hard-working staff.”
For Egg Plantation co-owners Shannon and Simon Mee, it began with selling the Newhall restaurant’s eggs to a nearby church that had called in search of some, as the shelves at local grocery stores began to empty during the heat of the crisis. Soon, they found themselves filling in for the needed surge of supplies.
“Then, Sprouts was sending over customers saying that we had eggs,” Shannon Mee said. “And then, people were like, ‘Do you also have flour? Do you have bread? Do you have bacon?’ And then we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we do have all these things.’”
At their restaurant, they’ve taken every precaution to keep their employees and customers safe, Mee said.
“We’re not letting anyone in the restaurant anymore apart from (staff),” Mee added.
Instead, customers can call ahead for curbside pick up or order at the window of the outdoor dining area they’ve converted into an order pickup area.
Similarly, Marston’s Restaurant in Valencia began selling groceries once restaurants were told to shut down their dine-in operations.
“The first day this happened, I was like, ‘Man, we’ve got like 10 cases of eggs (16 dozen in each case) and we’re not gonna use them,’” owner Jim McCardy said.
After posting to social media, it took the restaurant less than an hour to sell out. “I was at the restaurant by myself and … the phone started ringing and wouldn’t stop.”
Marston’s has kept their grocery menu simple, only selling eggs, bread and flour, among a few other staples, if needed.
“Our eggs come from the Sunset Egg Ranch down in the valley, and they’re great. I’ve been doing business with them forever, so … I could get more eggs, so I just kept doing it,” McCardy added. “The price kept going up, but I just kept doing it as long as people wanted them … I figured why not help people out.”
Because restaurants work with wholesale suppliers, prices tend to fluctuate on the market value.
“Yes, you might be paying a little bit more, but you’re supporting a local business who is struggling,” Cunico said.
For many restaurant owners, they’re also looking at it as a service to the community.
“I’m not really making money on the produce, but it’s bringing cash flow in so I can help cover payroll for the few people that I have left,” Mee said. “The takeout is what I’m hoping people will also get when they’re getting groceries, and then we can make a little money on that.”
Like Egg Plantation, Newhall Press Room began offering groceries simply to help people out, after co-owner Dan Zebrowski and his wife struggled to find groceries themselves.
“We went to a grocery store after the grocery store, and my wife was getting a little distraught,” Zebrowski said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, I have access to my restaurant vendors. We don’t need to worry, we got this.’ … And, if we can get a few sales (offering groceries to customers), it might help to keep us afloat.”
An email to just their Press Club loyalty members with the offer only reinforced the need, as the first replies they received were from customers who were at high risk of contracting the virus or were in the medical field and couldn’t get to the store early enough before it was cleaned out.
“We made the conscious decision early on that we were going to pass along our bulk discount as much as we can,” Zebrowski added. “We’re essentially just covering the cost of the food, and we’re barely covering the cost of having a couple of people here to help pack it.”
They then began waiving delivery fees for first responders or those at higher risk, and though they didn’t advertise it publicly, soon, people started coming to them for groceries through word of mouth.
“People are really looking out for each other,” he added. “There’s a few (customers) who just don’t want to hassle with the grocery store quite honestly, (some) who can’t get to the grocery store for whatever reason, and then there are those who truly are at risk and don’t want to go out … it’s for that latter group of people that we continue to offer groceries.”