A Pound Of Flour To Go? Restaurants Are Selling Groceries Now

Apr 13, 2020
Originally published on April 16, 2020 7:40 pm

Thai food and toilet paper. Fish and chips and flour. A bistro box ... of local produce.

With their sit-down dining rooms shut down, a growing number of restaurants are expanding into groceries as a source of much-needed cash in this crisis.

For customers, it's an opportunity to grab a few necessities without needing to brave a crowded store (or fight for a coveted grocery delivery slot). And while your local supermarket may be all out of flour, local restaurants probably have plenty.

That's because in many cases, different supply chains provide food to restaurants than to grocery stores.

"There are some players that sell food only for restaurants — which means they have big bags of food, they don't have a brand," says JP Frossard, a consumer foods analyst at Rabobank. "The distribution is different. The type of product may be different."

Take flour, a hot commodity as people sheltering at home pick up baking projects. Grocery stores sell a lot of 5-pound bags of flour, and are having trouble keeping shelves filled right now. Meanwhile, restaurants and bakeries have easy access to flour — it's just in 50-pound bags.

In this pandemic, people are eating at restaurants less and ordering from grocery stores more. But it can be difficult to pivot the food supply accordingly — you can't just plop a 50-pound bag of flour onto a grocery store shelf. (A restaurant, on the other hand, can be flexible and fill up a Ziploc bag for customers.)

And it's not just packaged dry goods. Produce that was meant for restaurants now needs to find new buyers, which is challenging to do quickly and in large volumes. As a result, some food is being left to rot in fields.

Restaurants are trying out a new answer. Too many tomatoes? Add them to the online ordering system.

Sysco, one of the country's largest restaurant suppliers, is offering advice and support for restaurants that want to start selling groceries. "Sysco has plenty of inventory and products to help your customers meet the demands and needs that are lacking from their local grocery stores," the company writes, while emphasizing the importance of social distancing behind the scenes at these pop-up stores.

Pivoting to meet this new need is a genuine public service, Frossard says. It's also a boost for Sysco's bottom line and a source of income for restaurants.

But it's not a huge moneymaker, he notes; certainly, it's not enough to replace the business restaurants are losing right now.

"It's a way to help us kind of stay afloat," says Jennifer Dobbertin, the owner of Tenko Ramen in San Antonio, Texas. "It's an extremely struggling time for restaurants."

The ramen shop has started adding grocery items to the menu. Dobbertin doesn't have a ton of space for inventory, so it's a challenge to figure out what they can sell, but she says she's been having fun with it. "One of my dream jobs is to be a buyer for a grocery store," she said.

Scroll past the ramen on her online menu and you'll find milk with this description: "Social distancing is udderly necessary." Gala apples: "The only gala you'll be going to anytime soon." Cabbage: "Are you desperate enough to buy a head of cabbage yet?" (Dobbertin actually loves cabbage, but she says she's aware she's in a minority there.)

Other restaurants are preparing boxes of produce for pickup at specific times, or urging customers to call in and see what kinds of dry goods and produce might be available.

Here in Washington, D.C., a reporter recently picked up fish and chips from a British pub called Alibi, with a side of flour, baking soda and a bottle of bourbon. And a visual journalist placed a delivery order with Julii, in Bethesda, Md., for a chicken sandwich and some paper towels.

Ordering groceries from a local restaurant is one way to skip a trip to the grocery store.
Max Posner/NPR

And the trend has hopped from mom-and-pop shops to at least one big chain. Panera Bread is now offering vegetables and milk alongside its baked goods.

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Is your supermarket wiped out of toilet paper? Is it swept clean of flour? Well, never fear. A local restaurant might be able to deliver those essential items, along with a side of fries. NPR's Camila Domonoske explains.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The other day, I called up a local British pub called The Alibi to get lunch - takeout, of course.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And you get a choice of fries, sweet potato fries or salad or coleslaw with that. What would you prefer?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fries - anything else for you today?

DOMONOSKE: Do you have any whole wheat flour?

I have never ordered some flour on the side before, but these are unprecedented times. I had a couple more things on my shopping list.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So we've got one order of fish and chips. We've got one buffalo chicken sandwich with fries, two pounds of flour, baking soda and a bottle of Redemption bourbon.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You get a free roll of toilet paper. Do you want an additional one with that?

DOMONOSKE: It feels kind of wild to order groceries from a pub, but it makes a lot of sense. I don't have to go to a crowded store or fight for a scarce grocery delivery slot, and the restaurant gets a little extra cash at a really tough time. Plus, The Alibi actually has flour, which I haven't seen in the store for weeks. Why? It turns out it all comes down to supply chains.

JP Frossard is a consumer foods analyst.

JP FROSSARD: There are some players that usually sell food only for restaurants, which means they sell big bags of food. They don't have a brand.

DOMONOSKE: So maybe your grocery store is all out of 5-pound bags of flour. But local restaurants and bakeries have easy access to 50-pound bags. And it's not just about the volume.

FROSSARD: The distribution is different. The type of product may be different.

DOMONOSKE: Right now, we're eating at restaurants a lot less and buying from grocery stores a lot more, so farmers and food companies are trying to redirect their supply from restaurants to stores. But it's tough to pivot like that on a big scale. Small businesses like restaurants - they can be creative and flexible. That flour I got with my lunch order - it came in a big Ziploc bag - problem solved.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello. Are you here for pickup?


And I grabbed my bags without setting foot inside the restaurant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. Thanks very much.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Have a good one.

Selling flour and produce like this can be a real public service and a boost to business. Sysco, one of the country's largest restaurant suppliers, is even offering advice on how to sell groceries. But it's not a big moneymaker - not enough to replace the business restaurants are losing.

JENNIFER DOBBERTIN: It's a way to help us kind of stay afloat. It's, like, an extremely struggling time for restaurants.

DOMONOSKE: Jennifer Dobbertin owns Tenko Ramen in San Antonio, Texas. Selling groceries is brand-new for her, but Dobbertin's figuring it out.

DOBBERTIN: One of my dream jobs is to be a buyer for a grocery store. Like, I'm kind of having fun with it.

DOMONOSKE: Now if you scroll past the ramen on her online menu, you'll find descriptions she wrote for cabbage...

DOBBERTIN: Are you desperate enough to buy a head of cabbage yet?

DOMONOSKE: ...And gala apples.

DOBBERTIN: The only gala you'll be going to anytime soon.

DOMONOSKE: More restaurants across the country are selling groceries now, whether it's bleach a la carte or boxes of produce for preorder. And the trend has hopped from mom and pop shops to at least one big chain. Panera Bread has started to sell vegetables and milk.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

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