Your Kitchen Can Be as Well-Stocked as Restaurants Now
Without chefs to sell to, farmers, fishmongers, and wholesalers are making house calls. And the change may be here to stay.
If Jessica Kramer didn’t already know that she had started to shop in a new way, the personal letter she got from the meat and poultry supplier D’Artagnan would have been a tip-off.
After thanking her for her business, the company informed her that it would be happy to send a truck to make personal deliveries to the hotel in Newport, R.I., where she and a friend have been living since March. Now, instead of having blocks of frozen meat shipped overnight, she can get freshly slaughtered Rohan duck breasts, squab and baby poussins brought to her door, along with bunches of ramps and other specialties.
Ms. Kramer made a note of this in the spreadsheet where she keeps track of more than 50 high-quality food purveyors who are now selling directly to consumers, many for the first time.
Some have lowered or dropped their minimum order requirements, or their delivery fees. Restaurant-supply companies that once sold fresh vegetables to chefs by the case now offer them in packages of 16, eight or four ounces. Items the local Stop & Shop rarely stocks — wild morels, trays of sea urchin roe, pink hunks of sushi-grade tuna — have become stars of Ms. Kramer’s quarantine kitchen.
“It’s not as much that I’m getting stuff I could absolutely never get before, but that I’m cooking with it all the time,” she said. “It’s becoming the new normal because I now run a restaurant for two.”
While the pandemic has changed myriad aspects of American life in ways we are still starting to see (will anyone ever go back to a desk job?), none may be as pervasive as the new ways we shop and eat. As grocery shopping became a minor tactical operation, home cooks began to think like the chef of a small restaurant that is booked every night.
To stock refrigerators and cabinets with supplies for menus planned a week or more in advance, they have turned to many of the same businesses that restaurants used — from major regional wholesalers to family farms raising asparagus and a herd of goats. Many of these suppliers slapped together their retail operations overnight in March in a desperate attempt to survive the month. Now, as summer nears, these new trade routes may be here to stay.
In San Francisco and Washington, D.C., fishmongers who once supplied only restaurants now send their trucks into residential neighborhoods. Midwestern farms that used to take chefs’ orders by phone sell their vegetables and cheeses in consumer-friendly quantities through online stores.
Restaurants in every major city now offer not just delivery and takeout — minor lifelines for the industry — but also boxes of the ingredients used in their kitchens, sometimes with recipes or assembly instructions included. Chefs are boxing up their hummus and selling partly-assembled meals to be finished at home — all the supplies for beef barbacoa tacos; a clay pot of biryani sealed under a lid of dough that needs half an hour in the oven; cookies with decorating kits; meats that had been aged for expense account spenders, now for you.
“We have been talking for weeks now about how the entire business is going to change forever,” said Marc Hennessy, the executive chef of Rare, a small steakhouse chain in Washington and Wisconsin that is now selling premium dry-aged cuts of meat butchered to order for home cooks. Retail is now about 30 percent of his business, he said, and “we plan to keep that going.”
What this all means for home cooks is access to better ingredients, sometimes at better prices, and the demystifying of restaurant dishes in ways that have made replicating them at home all the more easy.
“One thing that customers have taken away from this pandemic is that they can actually fend for themselves at home,” said Anthony Strong, the owner of the year-old Prairie, a mesquite-grill restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco that is now a grocery store, which it likely will remain during the daytime. “I think that should be encouraged.”
Large food distributors are still cautiously sizing up home cooks. Others have embraced them. In normal times, restaurant suppliers are essentially nutritional credit unions, giving clients ingredients in exchange for a promise to pay in 30 days or 60 days, if they didn’t go out of business first.
Retail customers, though, have a peculiar habit of paying up front. This has proved to be a boon for some companies.
“The cash flow model is incredible,” said Adrian Hoffman, an owner of Four Star Seafood, in San Francisco, which over a single weekend in March rerouted its fleet of 13 fish trucks from high-end Bay Area restaurants to the home addresses of individual customers. Why not keep supplying them with special soy sauces from Japan, unusual oils and, on special request, eggs, Mr. Hoffman thought, for at least a portion of his trade?
“We certainly don’t want to let this go when this is all done,” he said. “Selling directly to consumers is almost a better business in that it spits out enough cash to pay off everything we owed.”
Baldor Specialty Foods, a Bronx wholesaler specializing in produce and meat, started with a $250 minimum for home deliveries in March, but quickly dropped it to $200. The company also expanded its delivery zones, which radiate out of Washington, New York and Boston to beach towns stretching from Maryland to coastal New Hampshire.
“To home customers our message is, ‘We’ll travel with you this summer wherever you go,’” said T.J. Murphy, the chief executive. “Restaurants were always slow in the summer as it was.”
Home shoppers can now place orders with Baldor for rare and unusual ingredients like finger limes, foraged mushrooms and green almonds. They’ve also learned to treat the company as a virtual big-box store for bulk items as well as everyday staples like bananas.
Retail customers are likely to stay in the mix as restaurants start to come back. “Just like demand led us here, we think demand is going to lead us to the next chapter,” Mr. Murphy said.
For consumers, the Great Pivot of 2020 has brought access to items like prized oysters that until recently were found only at raw bars. Now they are sold by wholesalers or by the oyster farmers themselves, at prices that can be less than half of the $3 or $4 that restaurants typically charge.
Many of these newly popular retailers draw on connections that supermarkets don’t have. For Anna Thomas Bates and Anna Landmark, who produce sheep milk cheese at Landmark Creamery in Paoli, Wis., driving their award-winning products to the customer’s front door has been “a huge adventure,” as Ms. Bates put it.
They have been able to help some of their neighbors stay afloat by delivering fresh eggs, organic Desiree potatoes, locally milled spelt and rye flour, grass-fed beef and other products from other farms. This week, they will start taking orders for an assortment of cheeses, including some from other female cheesemakers around the country. These Victory Boxes, which can be shipped nationally, are part of a larger effort to help small cheesemakers and dairy farmers.
Many farmers saw their customer base grow rapidly when they started making home deliveries.
Nat and Alison Bjerke-Harvey usually sell about half the microgreens and garden vegetables they grow in Manhattan, Kan., to restaurants, and the other half at a farmers’ market in town. Both were shut down in March, so the couple began loading their Piccalilli Farm sunflower and pea shoots into the back of their minivan, along with French breakfast radishes, beets and green onions. They quickly reached 200 deliveries a week.
On Tuesday mornings, when their online store starts taking new orders, they sometimes sit and watch as items sell out within minutes. “For a small specialty market in our part of the country, we don’t usually have the problem of not being able to meet the demand,” Ms. Bjerke-Harvey said.
Restaurants have often had access to ingredients that their customers didn’t know about or couldn’t get their hands on. Getting a farmer or cheesemaker or winery to grant an exclusive on some obscure, delicious item used to be a considered a victory for chefs.
The pandemic has put those relationships in a different perspective.
“There is this group of farms that relied on us, some of them 100 percent,” Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill, in Manhattan, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., said. “It feels like the ultimate expression of support. Then in a moment like this you realize you’ve created the weakest food chain imaginable.”
To keep cash circulating to the farmers, foragers and fishing crews that depend on Blue Hill, Mr. Barber began selling boxes of fish, meat or seasonal vegetables for curbside pickup. Customers get a grab bag of ingredients both well-known (greenhouse cucumbers) and less familiar (Purple Sword celtuce stalks). Tucked into the boxes are recipes and background on the crops, including the information that the telltale holes in “beetle-bitten brassicas” were left by flea beetles, who have a knack for finding the sweetest plants in the field.
As supply-chain disruptions have caused shortages in commodity beef and pork, meat from old livestock breeds raised on pastures has taken its place in some areas where a few small, regional slaughterhouses still remain.
Grass & Bone, a butcher shop and restaurant in Mystic, Conn., has been flooded with orders for everything from grass-fed ground beef to lamb hearts and trotters. To supplement these cuts, James Wayman, the chef and an owner, also makes items like garlic-rosemary pork liver mousse, pasta sauces, and kits for tacos and burger
For some restaurants, these kits straddle a line between raw ingredients and takeout, giving them something to sell that grocery stores can’t. Shouk, a fast-casual Israeli restaurant in Washington, is now selling its hummus, which customers have been clamoring for, as well as falafel kits to “help you get to the last mile at dinner,” said Ran Nussbacher, a founder. (At least until this week, when protesters broke a window in the shop.)
“Raw falafel mix is really, really hard to do at home,” he said. “We use an industrial strength meat grinder, and a food processor at home won’t get the same texture.”
These are all things he assumes customers will crave whenever Shouk’s regular business returns to full strength. “Anything we implement today is only something we think will work in the long term, not just to survive right now,” Mr. Nussbacher said.
Until the virus is brought under control, many restaurants will have to configure their dining rooms in new ways.
In March, Good Dog Houston converted its two locations to convenience stores modeled loosely on New York City’s bodegas, selling dried pasta and beans, canned tomatoes, paper towels and its own line of hot-dog kits. Last month, when the restaurants were allowed to reopen with strict limitations on indoor seating, they displayed grocery items on tables that they would otherwise have had to remove or leave empty.
With the spoils, though, come the troubles. Home cooks, just like chefs, are learning about botched deliveries and products that don’t live up to their billing. Ordering from wholesalers can also mean ending up with five liters of balsamic vinegar or carrots the size of a small child.
But for Mr. Strong and other restaurateurs, the ability to offer provisions, cooking advice and food delivery is likely going to remain good business.
“We have a dining public that is more fickle than ever,” he said. “They bounce around from place to place, post their Yelp review, take a picture of their food and move on. We need real ways to provide for our community and have ways to be more sustainable. And any way we can rethink that, I think, is important.”