Last week, I walked into a bar for the first time in nearly ten weeks.
It was still sunny outside and I was startled, briefly, as my eyes adjusted to the dark of Durham’s Accordion Club. But then familiar shapes came into focus: the bartender, the pool table, the knobby green bar stools. Walking inside, I passed by a bar lined with bags of potatoes, a box of limes, and a basket of onions. At the refrigerator, I reflexively reached for a beer, but then pulled out a package of Boxcarr cheese.
The pandemic has had initial devastating effect on the restaurant industry; this has been well-documented. It began with waves of furloughs and layoffs, as an industry already operating on a margin contended with unprecedented revenue losses. Already, several restaurants in the Triangle, including Ashley Christensen’s Chucks and Jon Seelbinder’s Linus & Pepper’s and Virgil’s Tacos, have already announced they will not reopen when restrictions are lifted.
You can still pull out a chilled six-pack from the Accordion Club fridge, of course. But, to supplement sales, the dive has taken to stocking groceries alongside alcohol; a gesture that began with the ingredients of the Breakfast Burrito—an item with a righteous cult following that was previously sold during church hours, and often seen tucked into a High-Life six-pack—and has transformed into a miniature grocery.
Numerous bars and restaurants across the Triangle have begun selling groceries during the pandemic. It’s a long list, and one that continues to grow: you can buy pantry items from Yin Dee, Blue Note Grill, Cocoa Cinnamon, and Breakaway Cafe, to name just a few.
You can order raw steaks to cook at home from Stoney River, or paper goods—including a box of 100 latex gloves, a bar of Dial soap, and a bouquet of flowers—from Mavericks. The pop-up shop Alimentari at Mothers and Sons, the brainchild of chef Josh DeCarolis, has a menu of specialty Italian groceries that changes by the day.
“There’s more of a chance of being in a crowd if you go to a grocery store. You have to remember the first couple of weeks, grocery stores were out of everything,” says Mandey Brown, the owner of the Cajun restaurant-bar Imbibe in Chapel Hill. “Restaurants have more of a small-business feel…It’s another source for income for us, and I think that’s clear to people.”
During a time when a trip to the grocery store can be an anxiety-riddled experience, pre-ordering items from a local restaurant makes sense for consumers. It also makes sense for restaurants looking to carve a small income out of inventory.
Not enough to save the restaurant industry, no. Not enough to compensate for growing community food shortages, no. But a drop in the bucket, and a small preview of a changed world.
For Imbibe, that market model predates the pandemic. Brown—who also owns the sports bar Zog’s, which has been closed since March—says that she began selling groceries during Hurricane Florence when she noticed that people were looking to stock up on stews and gumbos. After the hurricane passed, she kept her inventory orders high.
In early March, seeing the writing on the wall, she expanded Imbibe’s offerings and added paper goods like toilet paper, an item which has since become the mascot of pandemic scarcity. She’s also integrated specialty items from fellow restaurant owners who are without business. If you miss Goodfellow’s Spicy Pickleback Juice, for instance, all you need to do is drop it right into your online shopping cart.
When customers come to pick up their orders, Brown says, a bike leaned against the takeout window is a friendly reminder to social distance.
“All of our customers are regulars,” Brown says. “They want to see us. We’ve also gotten a ton of new customers from this. Since it’s been going on for two months, there is such a thing as a quarantine regular.”
As Hannah Goldfield points out in the New Yorker, the new restaurant market is not just a way for businesses to offload surplus inventory; it’s a chance for consumers to pull back the curtain and see where local kitchens are sourcing ingredients from.
Want to cook like a chef? Start by cooking with the same butter and olive oil and butter that they’re using.
In downtown Durham, the farm-to-table Cuban restaurant COPA has introduced a “COPA Bodega” menu alongside its takeout menu: you can bring home a bag of King Arthur flour with your order of a family-style pork dinner. The bodega items reflect the COPA menu: there’s Cuban bread and chorizo and Plugra European-Style butter. You may not be able to perfectly replicate the breezy, light-filled atmosphere of COPA at home but you can, with some high-quality ingredients, get a leg up on recreating a traditional Cuban meal with your family.
Across town at East Durham Bake Shop, yeast and flour were the gateway items.
Early-on in the pandemic, Rudel says, she realized that baking items were scarce at the grocery store. She began stocking them. From there, she and husband Ben Filippo rounded out the menu with bulk-order items from their distributor and local businesses like Big Spoon Roasters and Fiddlehead Farm. Customers have been responsive enough, Rudel says, that at one point, market items were comprising 30% of store sales.
East Durham Bake Shop has a famously loyal following: since its 2018 opening, it has been a place that customers have looked to for an over-the-counter visit, as much as for a slice of pie.
Rudel, who is almost six month pregnant, isn’t in the shop much these days. But she says that the neighborly spirit is alive in these strange new transactions—it just has a mask on now.
“We have one person in particular who’s immunocompromised and he has my husband’s cell phone and texts when he wants to order,” Rudel says. “We have neighbors and they’ll place an order and he [Ben] will drop it off when he’s walking home from work. Sometimes I’ll be in the shop and someone will come in with their mask on. They’ll start talking and I’ll realize, oh. It’s you.”
There are a few corner stores in East Durham, but it can be hard to find groceries and Rudel says that she’d always considered including basic pantry items in the repertoire. Now, she speculates, buying a few groceries from your local restaurant or bar may become the norm, even beyond the pandemic.
“As it starts to become part of people’s routine I wouldn’t be surprised if it sticks around,” she says. “So, yeah, I think we are planning to keep a good number of these things.”
Maybe restaurants will need to become strange experiments. Mandey Brown agrees.
“I don’t see full capacity dining rooms coming back this year, honestly,” she says. “And even if they do, I think people are not going to want to sit in a crowded restaurant.”
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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