Local Restaurants Newly Provide Basic Groceries

by Julian Phillips, Freelance Editor
graphic by Emily Zhang

Local restaurants are selling groceries and other supplies to supplement their prepared food sales, following drastic revenue decreases due to the coronavirus.

Decreased demand coupled with restrictions limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery only has forced restaurants to explore alternative options to traditional sales.

To buy food from restaurants, customers look at an online selection of items and either request delivery via the restaurant’s website or travel to the restaurant to pick up their order. In addition to the restaurant’s usual selection, consumers can buy items like flour or toilet paper. Prices tend to be higher than grocery stores due to numerous factors, like the cost of delivery. The least expensive brand of one dozen eggs at one grocery store was less than half the price of the same product at a restaurant selling groceries.

Steve Clark, the Director for Government Affairs at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the restaurant industry is among the hardest-hit sectors of the economy due to the pandemic.

“Restaurants are struggling, and they were the first ones taken offline by the government,” he said. “[Selling groceries] is another opportunity to sell products to consumers.”

While selling supplies benefits vendors, it also benefits consumers, Lauren Berman, a Newton Farmers’ Market manager, said.

Berman said that limited inventory often requires customers to search numerous stores to get all of the items on their list, increasing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“I have to just go back to the basics, finding out who vends [certain supplies], what their inventories are and having them being kept updated with safe ways to purchase them as well,” she said.

As restaurants make the shift to sell supplies in addition to their typical options, they are not impacting grocery stores in a negative manner, Will Eldredge, a student at North and a Star Market employee, said.

“[Restaurants] have to do what’s going to keep them in business. People need food, so there is always going to be income for supermarkets,” he said.

Eldredge said that although he has seen a reduction in customers, those who come buy more during each trip.

The model of restaurants offering grocery items is unprecedented and has raised legal concerns.

Derek Kwok, a senior environmental health specialist for Newton Health and Human Services, said that officials have worked to ensure vendors are safe and abide by guidelines. He said that restaurants must have the proper license, and obtain their supplies through licensed wholesalers.

Andrew Li, co-owner of Flora’s Wine Bar in West Newton, said the City of Newton was swift to support restaurants selling supplies.

“We ran through and gave a proposal to the health department, which they agreed upon, and they gave us permission to sell groceries from the restaurant,” he said.

In a community update, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said that when restaurants sell groceries they help Newton citizens.

“During COVID-19, we need to both improve access to food and essential items for Newtonians and support our wonderful restaurants,” she said. “I am pleased to announce that in Newton restaurants may now sell grocery items to cook at home and may include dry goods.”

Li said it is important that vendors are able to deliver groceries, as it ensures that consumers do not have to leave their houses. Additionally, he said that restaurant delivery is reliable because consumers will know what they are able to buy.

Kwok said that the health department is prioritizing additional sanitation procedures to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“The health department recently sent food establishments an email reminding them of specific food safety practices that will help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and other viruses,” he said. “Food establishments are routinely inspected by Newton’s Health Department and provided educational materials that help them comply with food safety requirements.”

While newfound business strategies may help restaurants, Clark said that their success is only relative to larger troubles. He said that restaurants are simply trying to stay on their feet.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the difference between a restaurant closing and staying viable. But it does allow them to create additional revenue opportunities and sell some of the products that they had,” he said. “It’s by no means a golden fix for the industry.”