How My Husband and I Turned Our Restaurant into a Grocery Store Overnight
March 13: It’s Friday the 13th. I’m not superstitious, but it’s been two days since the office at my day job closed... due to a global pandemic. My husband, Jason, and I sit down with our team at our favorite brewery. We are the only customers, and we’re pretty rattled—there are over 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and the president has declared a national emergency. We smash pizza and beer for comfort and brainstorm ways to keep our restaurant, Tucker, afloat if the shit really hits the fan. As a daytime café in Easton, Pennsylvania, that has an average spend of $15 per check on avocado toast and a flat white, our business wouldn’t survive. We collectively come up with a plan B and plan C, as well as contingency plans for staff who want to stay home with their families.
March 14: New York state has mandated that restaurants operate at 50% capacity, so we preemptively remove half our seats, reducing the number to 24. We post a team photo on our social media channels to let our community know what sanitation measures we’re taking to keep them safe. We’re all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Try Not to Worry,” but in truth, we’re terrified.
March 15: Rumor has it a shutdown of nonessential businesses is imminent. Jason starts to talk in earnest about how we’d fare if we were limited to takeout and delivery only. We drink too many martinis and come up with a radical plan D.
Read more: The Future of Restaurants
March 16: We pull the trigger on that plan first thing in the morning with a completely new business model. Instead of serving our customers avocado toast, we prepare to sell them the sourdough from our baker, Matty; avocados from our wholesale restaurant supplier, Baldor; plus other essentials and indulgences we think our customers might want. As a restaurant, we’re set up to do this surprisingly quickly—we have a supply chain, cold food storage, and food-safety protocols in place.
March 17: We open with a limited takeout menu to sell the fresh food left in our fridges. Jason builds a new online ordering site from scratch using our Toast point-of-sale platform, which we hack to sell groceries. We place orders with our regular suppliers to arrive the next morning and rearrange the restaurant into a grocery store.
March 18: It’s go time for Tucker Provisions, a digital community grocer. We lock the doors and slide paper bags out a window onto a six-foot table for contactless pickup. Being in a small community surrounded by supermarkets helps our cause because panic buying has already emptied shelves and folks are nervous to head out to public spaces. They’re also more willing to support a small local business in a time of adversity. Every time an order is placed, our Toast app lets off a loud “ding!” The two of us and our remaining staff member, Beata, cheer loudly in our empty restaurant.
March 20: Two days in, we start sourcing pastries from a second local baker. We double our usual order for eggs, and we are selling out of most essentials like chicken, milk, and bread daily. (But also fancy stuff, like Camembert, Olympia Provisions saucisson, Benton’s bacon, and every single one of our cakes; the people want comfort!)
April 2: We’re contacted by Freshpet, a local company that wants to buy $4,000 worth of gift cards to ease the challenges their employees are facing and support family-owned restaurants in the area; we are one of five they chose. When I read the email, my eyes well up with tears. I’m overwhelmed by their generosity.
April 16: One month in and we appear to have pulled off one hell of a Hail Mary. Our business has not only survived, it has done well enough for us to hire back some staff and pay our rent and fixed costs for the month. Our wholesale orders have quadrupled, and we’re a critical part of an ecosystem that helps sustain our community, other small businesses, and staff.
April 24: Through our egg supplier, we hear of a local farm that lost its biggest wholesale account. They have an enormous surplus of eggs, and we offer to help sell as many as we can. We share a rallying cry on our social media channels that goes viral, reaching almost half a million people. We do something we never thought we’d do—sell 36,000 eggs in one week. Even though we sell the eggs at cost, it brings hundreds of new customers to Tucker, and suddenly the amount of our Baldor order increases by 2,400% in a week compared to Before Times.
April 29: It’s been a rough few days between dealing with vicious backlash from vegans over the egg drive and an impatient customer threatening us with negative online reviews to get the outcome they want over a technical glitch. But then we receive some totally unexpected good news—we’re approved for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. This means we can plan to hire back all our staff at the $15 per hour they were getting paid before (twice the state minimum wage) and hopefully sustain our new business.
May 1: As we head into months of uncertainty, we’re planning to make retail a permanent part of our business model. I feel a strong affinity for the “too small to fail” mantra that has emerged during this time; small, nimble businesses like ours that adapted quickly might just make it. The future of restaurants is not so different from their past in that respect—it’s still about creativity and innovation.
Melanie Hansche is the deputy editor of Food & Wine and the co-owner of Tucker in Easton, Pennsylvania.