As Restaurants Pivot to Grocery Sales, Cities and States Rethink Restrictions

Laws vary by locale, but across the country, you might be able to grab things like bananas and toilet paper at a local restaurant.

farm-to-table fruits and vegetables in a paper bag ready to be delivered at home
Photo: TommasoT/Getty Images

Restaurants are fighting for survival right now as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of America. For many eateries, delivery and takeout are bringing in some revenue—but with the exception of places like pizza chains that have always specialized in this area—it’s likely not enough. So many restaurants are getting even more creative. For instance, in New York, a temporary tweak in alcohol rules turned some dining establishments into de facto wine shops. Now, locales across the country are letting restaurants sell all sorts of goods, allowing them to transform into small markets.

From Philadelphia to San Diego and places in between like Austin and Flint, reports are popping up of restaurants that are hoping to add grocery items to keep the lights on until the COVID-19 outbreak subsides. Yesterday, the site Washingtonian put together a list of ten Washington D.C. restaurants that have turned to selling everything from fresh fish to even coveted toilet paper. And San Antonio’s KSAT news provided a similar list for their city—also pointing readers to, a site dedicated to compiling “San Antonio area restaurants [that] are selling their produce directly to consumers.”

Other cities in Texas are seeing the same phenomenon after Governor Greg Abbott began allowing restaurants to sell bulk retail products from distributors directly to consumers last Tuesday. Over at Eater Austin, they’re keeping a running list of restaurants with pop-up markets: As of this writing, it’s 21 restaurants strong.

However, this guidance issued by Gov. Abbott speaks to a larger point: In many areas, restaurants technically aren’t allowed to operate as a grocer would. And even in Texas, restrictions existed. According to a press release, items have to be “in their original condition, packaging, or presented as received by the restaurant.”

And in Los Angeles, what is allowed and what isn’t—as well as what is being enforced and what isn’t—hasn’t been entirely clear. According to the L.A. Times, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health told the paper yesterday it is “allowing restaurants to offer grocery items as part of their menu”—but it was also still in the process for creating their guidelines for doing so. And even who’s in charge of these decisions can be confusing. “I think this is absolutely a time for people to be creative, to relax whatever rules as long as people are operating with safe distancing in critical businesses to help people get food and to help people survive,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti reportedly said on Friday. But then he added a huge qualifier: “That’s my philosophy, but that is a call for County Public Health.”

Back in Michigan, the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association (MRLA) pointed to another potential pitfall: restaurants not even realizing grocery sales are an option. “[Restaurants], technically, by law are able to offer retail groceries items to the general public, now,” MRLA President and CEO Justin Winslow told Flint’s WEYI News. “Most of them are unaware of that possibility, because it doesn’t really fit into their business model during a normal time period.”

But, good news, Michigan’s regulations appear to be a lot less strict than the ones in Texas. “They can take certain products and repackaged them and label them for retail sale,” Jennifer Holton, communications director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, was quoted as saying.

So overall, the underlying message here is twofold: First, restaurants need our help right now to survive. And if that means buying milk from a local brewery chain you like, why not? The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that at 16 Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant locations, customers can get bananas and paper towels alongside canned beer and other prepared menu items.

And second, what’s happening appears to vary significantly by location. So be sure to look into your individual situation: everything from asking around in local chat groups to simply searching Google News for “restaurants groceries [insert your city here].” That’s how I found this San Diego Reader article with tips on where to score a 25-pound bag of flour. Time to get baking, San Diegans!

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