The New Café Order: One Toilet Paper Roll and a Dozen Eggs - OZY | A Modern Media Company
White Bear Lake, Minnesota, A bakery offers a roll of toilet paper if you buy six donuts because of the empty shelves in the stores due to the coronavirus pandemic.
SourceMichael Siluk/Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Local cafés are selling basic groceries to stay afloat, and to serve you through this crisis.

By Nick Fouriezos

People were panicking, Richard Williams says. “They couldn’t get anything in the supermarkets,” says the owner of The Village Bakery & Cafe in Los Angeles. So he and his wife pivoted their business, selling sugar, rice, eggs, beans, yeast, butter and flour — all raw materials the bakery already bought in bulk, but now directly sold to consumers in desperate need.

Amid social distancing rules and stay-in-place orders, sales are drastically down for cafés and restaurants around the world. Many are responding by sharply shifting their business at least for now, positioning themselves as ad hoc grocery stores in urban areas hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

There are nearly a hundred in Los Angeles already, according to Kelsey Stefanson, a creative director and graphic designer who started compiling a list for her friend group and saw it explode with suggestions over social media. “I knew it would be useful, but I didn’t expect it to be that popular,” she says. One Mexican restaurant, Guerrilla Tacos, now sells a $150 “emergency taco kit,” including five pounds of chicken, five pounds of carne asada, pints of green and red salsa, tortillas, onion, cilantro, rice, beans, 30 eggs … and four rolls of toilet paper. They sold 74 kits in 24 hours.

The trend extends across the U.S., from California to Texas, Florida and New York. In San Antonio, nearly 30 restaurants are offering alternative groceries, and at least 13 are doing the same in Washington D.C., according to local news outlets. In Miami, chef Brad Kilgore has combined his four area restaurants into AlterQ, a takeout and delivery barbecue and supply store that sells rib sandwiches for $19 and a box of latex gloves for $20. The upscale cuisine restauranteur, who has had to cut active staff from about 100 people to 15, sells a loaf of sliced white bread for $7 next to a couple of ounces of foie gras or truffle butter for $12. “I kinda giggled when I started selling trash bags and rubber gloves,” Kilgore recently told the Miami New Times. “But you know what? The first batch of white bread has already sold out.”

We’re doing it more to help our neighborhood and people around us.

Richard Williams, The Village Bakery & Cafe, Los Angeles

For restaurants, it’s a stab at keeping their businesses running, albeit as shadows of their former selves. And for customers, it’s a chance to avoid buying from giants like Amazon and Instacart, amid pay disputes and other controversies there, while also skipping large grocery stores where they fear a higher risk of falling ill during the pandemic. “It feels more responsible going to your neighborhood restaurant that is now a store, where … you can maintain that 6-foot distance,” Stefanson says.

White Bear Lake, Minnesota, A bakery offers a roll of toilet paper if you buy six donuts because of the empty shelves in the stores due to the coronavirus pandemic.

White Bear Lake, Minnesota, A bakery offers a roll of toilet paper if you buy six donuts because of the empty shelves in the stores due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Source Michael Siluk/Getty

To be sure, it’s temporary — there’s little evidence to suggest these cafés-turned-groceries plan to stick to their new business model once the threat of the virus fades. In part, that’s because the math is tricky. There isn’t a great profit margin in bare essentials, Williams says. “We don’t make any money off of it,” he says. “But we’re doing it more to help our neighborhood and people around us.”

Still, there’s more demand for groceries at the moment than there is for food from restaurants. Sales at the bakery are down 60 percent, and it has already lost half of its 40-person staff of full and part-timers. The bakery has moved to curbside drop-off and is offering a new delivery service. Almost all of its current sales come from a family meal program that changes daily: A recent meal included a chicken bowl with bread, salad and cookies to feed two to four people, for around $28.

The National Federation of Independent Restaurants says that as many as 75 percent of America’s independent food providers could shut down in the wake of the pandemic. And it doesn’t help that, for many owners, the federal government’s $2 trillion stimulus package (the CARES Act) may not help.

U.S. death toll from COVID-19 — in red — compared with American losses in modern wars.

Take the $350 billion payment protection program, which is supposed to help business owners like Williams keep his staff. The bill provides up to $10 million to help with payroll. In order for the loan to be forgiven though, businesses will have to prove that they kept staff at full employment and at the same average salary they had before the pandemic struck. But Williams doesn’t have enough business to cover operating costs. And he is finding it difficult to find new staff willing to work — particularly when unemployment benefits mandated by the CARES Act are about twice as much as they would make while risking getting sick at the bakery.

“I can’t keep employees because they are scared. Even the young staff just immediately said, ‘Nope, I’m not coming in anymore,’” he says. “It’s impossible for me to take the stimulus or the loan because I’ll just end up taking more debt on.”

Daily Life In New York City Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

A sign in the window of The Beach Cafe on Second Avenue offering 1 free roll of toilet paper plus 2 pairs of sanitizer gloves with every outgoing order as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States.

Source Cindy Ord/Getty

Many of the restaurants and cafés temporarily providing grocery goods realize that the shift isn’t sustainable in the long term. The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates 22 “independent and idiosyncratic” eateries and bars across Washington D.C. and three states, realized quickly that it couldn’t keep operating each of its entities through the crisis. So it built “Neighborhood Provisions,” a website offering comfort meals, pantry items and alcohol delivered straight to local doors. The company also started a GoFundMe for its employees — 90 percent of whom it has had to lay off — which has raised $40,000 so far.

“We essentially merged most of our businesses together, consolidated the talented chefs, managers and beverage professionals and started working towards this common goal,” says Amber Pfau, chief strategy officer for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.

If restaurants and cafés can keep their local and loyal customer base intact through this crisis — serving them as grocers if not as eateries — that’s a win in itself. At a time where the future of the economy looks gloomy for most industries, Williams, Pfau and others like them might be showing an unlikely path to survival and hope — by changing their menu from tapas to toilet paper.

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