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Baltimore restaurants stock up on and sell grocery items after supermarket shortages due to coronavirus

A week ago, after a failed trip to his local supermarket where he was able to retrieve only 20% of what was on his list, Josh Brown had an idea.

He would work with his contacts through the Severna Park location of his business, Vida Taco Bar, and begin offering customers harder-to-get grocery items such as toilet paper, fresh produce and meat, while they picked up carryout tacos and margaritas.

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The concept was a hit.

“We saw about 500 people in the three days that we were open,” he said. “Our sales matched a normal weekend. We were absolutely floored by it. It was amazing because the community came out and supported us. We had a line of 60 people deep at some point on Saturday.”

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As the COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on national and local businesses, some in the restaurant industry have tweaked their business model and started selling grocery store items that are in high demand. The change in approach has helped them maintain relationships with their customers and their purveyors. It has also allowed them to remain open and employ some staff while economic uncertainty looms.

The trend is popping up throughout the region.

Atwaters has been advertising through social media that most of its locations will sell eggs, milk and bread for both curbside pickup and through Ubereats and Grubhub. Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian steakhouse known for its endless servings of meats, is now selling ready-to grill cuts of meat with free delivery for orders more than $50.

La Cuchara, the Clipper Mill restaurant usually known for its popular happy hours and Basque cuisine, has switched over to a marketplace approach where customers can order eggs, milk, produce, meats and fresh seafood as well as “scarce” household products delivered to cars by employees wearing gloves.

Customers like Rick Sowell, left, stand on markers to maintain safe social distance from others as they wait for Vida Taco Bar in Severna Park to open.
Customers like Rick Sowell, left, stand on markers to maintain safe social distance from others as they wait for Vida Taco Bar in Severna Park to open. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“We pretty much ran out of everything on Sunday night,” Brown explained. Restaurant owners are utilizing existing relationship they have with farms and wholesale suppliers to sell these goods directly to customers. “I have re-upped all of our orders.”

Phil Han, owner of Dooby’s, a coffee shop that also sells food with Asian flair, and Noona’s, an Italian-themed restaurant known for its pizza and pasta, has begun selling grocery items at both businesses.

At Noona’s, Han now sells milk, butter and assorted boxes of up to 20 pieces of produce and other perishable items from John Shaw Karma Farm in Monkton for $35; Kitchen Girl Farm eggs, flour and other grains, bread and pastas, and various fresh meats such as Roseda ground beef, NY strip steak and organic boneless skinless chicken breast. At Dooby’s, Han sells eggs.

In the first week, Han was able to sell 60 dozen eggs and 30 produce boxes to customers who were also coming to the restaurant to pick up carryout food items.

“We took a complete 180 approach to our business model,” he said.

This new approach has provided an additional resource to the customers of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon, Han said, but also to help local farmers, who will be able to continue selling their goods to restaurants.

“Restaurants and bars were some of the first things that were talked about. But it is good to add farms to the conversation,” he said. “This way, customers are getting [grocery items] faster than if they got delivery from Whole Foods.”

The new dimension to the business model is keeping restaurants afloat, owners say. It also keeps some employees working.

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At Vida Taco Bar, Brown has been working with a “skeleton crew” of all his managers (five) and two hourly employees.

“Our goal is, once we figure out operations, we will start bringing in hourly employees so they can get cash as well. We will rotate as many staff possible,” he explained.

Ryan Reesey, who works as a shift manager and server for the company, is grateful for the work.

“It feels wonderful to be a part of this team. And to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The responses have been great,” he said.

In the beginning, Reesey was nervous about the fate of his job with all the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

“We still didn’t know what we were going to do the next week," he said. "We were flying by the seat of our pants. Now we feel energized. We’re all excited to go in. To give back.”

At Chuck’s Trading Post, a Hampden restaurant that owner Tracey Sangria describes as part “bodega,” selling grocery items has allowed the small business to remain open.

“I get to restock and keep using my suppliers,” said Sangria, who is typically whipping up shrimp and grits, honey-sweet cornbread in individualized skillet and an array of burgers —especially on Wednesday when a burger, fries and a can of beer are $12. “I was able to retain a little more than half my staff, which was great.”

About a week ago, Sangria moved up the produce display, which was typically in the back of the restaurant near wall coolers filled with beer, wine, milk and eggs.

“We always had grocery items,” Sangria said. “I just expanded it”

Sangria said that the past weekend she did half the business she typically does with restaurant sales. But “curbside tips,” gift card sales, grocery sales and wine and beer helped to make it a successful weekend.

Laura Spicer, a Hampden resident who frequents Chuck’s Trading Post, has been back to the restaurant three times in the past week picking up items such as bones to make stock for her chicken tortellini soup, a pack of Zeke’s Coffee, a bottle of wine and breakfast sandwiches.

“What I like about Chuck’s is that she [Sangria] has been stocking grocery items and she’ll specialty order me things,” Spicer said about the chicken bones. ”

Besides the convenience — the restaurant is around the corner from Spicer’s house — it’s far less crowded, which is a plus for the policy analyst.

“It’s much nicer to call up to Chuck’s to run in and run out and get what you need,” she explained. “It definitely feels safer.”

Restaurant owners are already looking for ways to further adjust to the new realities of business in a world affected by the coronavirus.

Sangria said she is toying with some other ways to further expand the restaurant’s offerings to better serve the needs of customers. Currently, that includes eventually selling toilet paper.

Brown, of Vida Taco Bar, is exploring the possibility of opening a farmers’ market at the location once the business returns to regular service.

“That’s just an idea,” he quickly said. “We want to get through this first. ”

Han has already started offering family-style meals to go, which he said is in response to customers being more cost-conscious. He added that he has some things in the works —but he won’t discuss them just yet. He’s also paying attention to what customers will do after the COVID-19 crisis has been solved.

“We can’t be too hyper-focused that far in advance,” he said. “If we get to that point, we’ll find a way to adapt again. Hopefully we’ll be a part of that conversation with our guests. It’s all part of the education process.”

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