Walter’s Sports Bar owner Jeremy Gifford was having a conversation with his father who lives three blocks from the Navy Yard restaurant. “He said to me last week, ‘I have a feeling Walter’s is cleaner than the grocery store,’” Gifford recalls. “There’s far less people coming through and you only have one person touching the food, compared to everyone touching everything at a grocery store.”
An idea was hatched. What if Walter’s launched a CSA of sorts where neighbors could purchase and pick up stables like produce, proteins, grains, eggs, and milk? It’s a win for those encountering empty shelves at nearby supermarkets, a bonus for the restaurant because they can keep a few more people on payroll, and a score for farmers and other purveyors who have also been crippled by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Most purveyors who service restaurants aren’t the same ones who sell to grocery stores.
Walter’s isn’t the only restaurant or restaurant group that’s opting to sell apples instead of apple pie, so to speak. Among the growing number of restaurants acting like grocers are All-Purpose Pizzeria, Coconut Club,SEOULSPICE, and Neighborhood Restaurant Group. All sales are through delivery or pick-up, so they’re within the city’s COVID-19 regulations that forbid on-site dining.
Walter’s kicked things off last Wednesday at 10 N St. SE. They started by selling a bundle of vegetables for $40. Then they asked customers to fill in a Google form noting which products they’d like to see the restaurant sell. Over the past week, “Walter’s CSA” has grown to include about 15 items in addition to the vegetables, such as Beyond burgers, rice, milk, and eggs.
“We did the math,” Gifford says. “Every 15 veggie bundles we sell allows me to bring in one person to work a full day.” He’s been delighted to see that customers are tipping 15 to 20 percent on grocery orders, which also helps pay employees.
Yesterday Walter’s announced that they’ll start transporting CSA bundles to DC Reynolds located at 3628 Georgia Ave. NW, expanding their reach. “We’re using that location as the northern outpost,” he says.
Those interested in participating can go to the CSA tab on Walter’s website and join an email list that will announce what products are available for pick-up the following day. You pay in advance using Toast so there’s no transaction on site. You can also buy alcohol to-go when you pick up your order. Orders are available for pick up the next day from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
The CSA program at the Shaw location of All-Purpose Pizzeria (1250 9th St. NW) evolved out of a conversation the restaurant had with a farm they source from regularly—Earth N Eats in Pennsylvania. Farmer Josiah Martinsaid he was throwing out food because he hasn’t been able to sell it.
“The last thing that should be happening right now is people throwing out food,” says All-Purpose co-owner Mike Friedman. He and Shaw Executive Chef Erik Rollingsput their heads together to decide what they could sell to neighbors and what the price point should be to keep it affordable. “A lot of people are learning to cook right now,” Friedman says. “Putting stuff in people don’t know how to cook yet isn’t the best idea.”
Recently the bundle has included potatoes, carrots, beets, microgreens, lettuces, braising greens, a dozen eggs, and half a gallon of fresh milk. Friedman priced it at $20.83 and added a 20 percent service charge so that it comes out to just over $27 when customers purchase it online through Toast.
“We lose money on it as a business, but employees gain money and the farm gets $25 per order,” Friedman says. “It’s something that’s a feel good thing for us … Everybody is doing a really good job voicing their concern for restaurants, but you go down the supply chain there are people that are going to hurt no matter what.”
Pick-up is available Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Shaw and Friedman says they hope to bring the CSA program to their location by Nationals Park next week.
Chef Adam Greenberg is serving the neighborhood surrounding Union Market. Coconut Club becomes a market Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. “I’m honestly not fit to be a food bank,” the chef and owner hedges. “This started out with people on Facebook messaging me.”
He opens the garage doors to his restaurant and sets up tables with whatever bounty he has secured from purveyors or from the restaurant’s pantry. There are gloves for customers to wear as they fill their bags with provisions. Like All-Purpose, Coconut Club isn’t turning a profit. “It’s just to give people the resources they need,” he says. “I heard some people could only find chicken livers at the grocery store.”
This week Greenberg has grains, vegetables, potatoes, onions, carrots, grapes, plums, bananas, eggs, and butter. He’s open to adding to the selection based on customer feedback. “If enough people message and say, ‘Can you get toothpaste?’ I’ll see if my purveyors have toothpaste.”
So far the highest turnout they had on a single day was 10 people. Those are the kinds of numbers they’re prepared for. “If 100 people show up, we won’t have enough product,” Greenberg says. That said, if anyone has food to donate he’ll accept it and won’t charge customers for it.
“All of this money is going toward the people who are working,” Greenberg explains.
Other restaurants are willing to deliver the food to Washingtonians’ doorsteps. SEOULSPICE owner Eric Shin launched a virtual bodega called Heart and Seoulon Monday. He’s starting by serving the community surrounding his store in Tenleytown (4600 Wisconsin Ave. NW). Next week, he hopes to expand bodega operations to NoMa and College Park, Maryland, where he also has restaurants.
Place an order online before 5 p.m. and a SEOULSPICE staff member will deliver the order between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. the next day. Curbside pick-up is also available between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (Call the restaurant and give them 30 minutes notice for pick-up.) There’s no delivery fee or minimum order. “We priced it so the ingredients cost less than Whole Foods.”
They’re selling everything from sriracha, corn tortillas, and fresh whole ginger to commercial grade sanitizer they made themselves and rolls of toilet paper. The toilet paper is selling the fastest. There’s a 12-roll maximum per order.
So far bodega operations, plus take-out and delivery business, has prevented Shin from having to lay off any staff. “Our strategy is we’re basically giving away our food,” Shin says. “We’re not making any money off of it.”
“Restaurants are such a hub for everyone for resources,” Shin continues. “It seems like we could be doing a lot more for the community. We decided to move our inventory and our awesome produce and ingredients to the community by offering free door-step deliveries.”
Neighborhood Restaurant Group has taken steps to completely retool their operations. On March 15, Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner Michael Babin made the once unimaginable decision to stop in-restaurant dining at all 22 of his eateries in the DMV, including Hazel, Iron Gate, Evening Star Café, three locations of Red Apron Butcher, and two Buzz Bakeshops.
The company laid off nearly 90 percent of its workforce, about 800 people in total. Babin sent everyone home with an extra week of pay as a gesture of solidarity. Currently, NRG and its properties are operated by a somewhat skeletal staff of roughly 114 employees, most of whom are working on reduced incomes.
Each restaurant continued to offer carryout and delivery on an ad hoc basis, but Babin knew that wasn’t a long-term solution. He wondered how he was going to ensure the survival of his restaurant group through this unprecedented public health crisis. He quickly decided to pivot hard to create a new delivery platform, Neighborhood Provisions. Think of it as a gourmet version of the prepared section of the grocery store. “Job one for us is to create enough of an economic engine to support the greatest number of people for the longest time,” he says.
Set to launch this week, the delivery service will offer take-out from properties across NRG’s portfolio—from Red Apron’s meatball sub and Bluejacket’s fried chicken sandwich to Hazel’s baked feta dip and cupcakes from Buzz Bakeshop. Wine and beer (including beer from Bluejacket) will be available in both Virginia and D.C. District residents will also have the opportunity to buy spirits and pre-made cocktails.
There will also be what Babin calls “pantry items,” such as meats from Red Apron, cold brew coffee, and large-scale family style meals that can be refrigerated and reheated. The latter requires 24-hour advanced notice.
Initially, delivery for a flat fee of $5 will be available throughout D.C. as well as Arlington and Alexandria counties. Parts of Fairfax should be eligible for delivery soon thereafter, and Babin is researching expanding into Maryland. Any restaurant industry employees receive a 10 percent discount on their order while NRG employees receive 20 percent off.
Babin hopes the new venture will allow him to both pay his remaining employees, while hiring back more to help with delivery and production. Any net revenue beyond that will be pooled with the money the restaurant group is raising for their laid off employees through GoFundMe, which has already raised over $37,000. “We want our people to know that we’re not walking away from them,” he says. “We are going to go through this with them.”
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